Reading development is complex and is not a natural process. Humans are not born to read. Instead, every brain must be taught to read as there is no genetic code passed down from one generation to the next. This has significant implications on the interactions teachers have with students and the ways in which systematic and intensive instruction is provided to students.
Of late, there has been increased attention on foundational skills, especially phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. These to aspects of literacy development have been recognized as critical in the process of reading for decades (e.g., NICHD, 2000) despite the fact that there are reports that they may not receive sufficient amounts of time and attention in classrooms (e.g., Hanford, 2020). The evidence suggests that phonics instruction must be systematic and comprehensive. Shanahan’s (2022) review suggests that students need about 30 minutes per day (with an understanding that some students need less and some need more). For more on phonics, we suggest Wiley Blevin’s (2016) book A Fresh Look at Phonics.
Importantly, phonics only is not going to ensure that students learn to read at sophisticated levels.
Phonics must be accompanied by instruction in oral language, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies. In this post, we’d like to explore reading fluency a bit more. Unfortunately, according to the 2022 “What’s Hot in Literacy,” fluency is not hot (Grote-Garcia & Ortlieb, 2023) and it is certainly not receiving attention in the debates about teaching reading. However, fluency is critical for reading to work.
It’s nearly impossible to comprehend what you are reading when it is slow, labored, and faltering because fluency is necessary for comprehension.
But let’s not forget, fluency also reflects comprehension. Reading with expression, pauses, and intonation is nearly impossible when you don’t understand what you are reading.
Comparing fluency with music, Worthy and Broaddus (2001/2002) note that fluency “consists not only of rate, accuracy, and automaticity, but also of phrasing, smoothness, and expressiveness. Fluency gives language its musical quality, its rhythm and flow, and makes reading sound effortless” (p. 334). More simply stated, “we know it when we hear it!” (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2003, p. 96) and we certainly know it when fluency is compromised.
Let’s define some of those terms that were just mentioned. Rate is the speed at which the learner reads. If the reader’s rate is too slow it will interfere with comprehension because the reading becomes choppy and disconnected from other ideas in the sentences and paragraphs. If it is too fast, especially in oral reading, it may also interfere with comprehension as the reader rushes too quickly past the details that make the passage meaningful. Reading too fast may also indicate that the learner lacks prosody, the ability to adjust tone, pitch, and rate to read with expression appropriate to the meaning of the words. After all, a reader can only use expression when the meaning of the message is understood. Finally, accuracy refers to the ability to read the words correctly. Automaticity is the ability to recognize words with a minimum of attention, allowing readers to direct most of their attention to matters of comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974).
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has a scoring rubric for fluency that includes these factors that allows teachers to consider instructional interventions for students (see figure). There are also fluency norms that note the words correct per minute for students at various grade levels (e.g., https://www.readingrockets.org/sites/default/files/2017%20ORF%20NORMS.pdf).
In terms of instructional interventions, having students read the same passage a few times seems to help. Focusing on sight words can help improve fluency, as can teaching vocabulary. When teachers model fluent reading, it helps. There are many ways to improve students’ reading fluency, but they require instructional attention and progress monitoring. The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities (https://www.texasldcenter.org/teachers-corner/improve-reading-fluency) suggests the following evidence-based ways to improve reading fluency:
- Develop students’ ability to decode words.
- Ensure that each student reads connected text every day to support reading rate, accuracy, and expression.
- Model reading fluency for your students.
- Take advantage of repeated reading routines.
- Set fluency goals and use progress-monitoring data to inform instruction.
Remember, it’s not just about rate but also expression. And fluency is a two-way street in that fluency is necessary for comprehension and reflects comprehension. Let’s make fluency hot again and make sure it’s including in conversations about foundational skills.