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A Teacher’s Guide to Fluency

For a long time, fluency was the forgotten component of reading instruction.  I know it never came up in my college courses!  But in the last 10 years or so, the view has shifted.  Fluency has come to be recognized as a vital skill in developing proficient readers.

For the purposes of this post, when I talk (write? type?) about fluency, I mean oral reading fluency.  We practice with reading aloud because we want students to read silently:

  • with sustained attention and concentration 
  • with an automatic recognition of most words and sophisticated word-solving skills for unknown words 
  • at an adequate rate with a level of comfort and confidence

All of this is in the goal of developing deep comprehension.  The easiest way for students to develop silent reading fluency is to strengthen their oral reading fluency, so that is the focus of this post. 

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

Fluency refers to how well a student reads.  We take that apart by looking at accuracy, phrasing, expression, and rate.  Fluency is a complex skill and one that takes time to develop.

Factors that Determine Fluency

Factor 1: Accuracy

In order to read fluently, a reader has to be accurate.  Because a fluent reader has internalized a large number of sight words, he or she has little difficulty decoding the text.  The reader recognizes most words automatically and employs effective word-solving skills to read the rest.  If the reader makes a mistake, he or she recognizes that the text doesn’t make sense and has the skills to self-correct.

Factor 2: Phrasing

Fluent reading sounds smooth.  A fluent reader’s eyes are able to focus on multiple words at a time. This allows the reader to group words into phrases.  This helps the brain make sense of the whole message instead of the meaning of individual words.

Fluent readers separate phrases with appropriate pauses.  Facility with this skill requires an understanding of syntax and attention to punctuation.  Readers must know how the different marks affect meaning.

Factor 3: Expression

Reading should sound like talking.  Fluent readers emphasize certain words for effect.  They change their tones depending on the genre and the type of sentence within the passage.  A fluent reader adds color and meaning to the text by using his or her voice.

Factor 4: Rate

Fluent readers read at an appropriate rate.  Their reading sounds much like talking.  They don’t rush through a passage or labor over each word.  They adjust their rates according to the demands of the text.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

You can understand why teachers largely ignored fluency for so many years.  When students first enter school there’s all the pressure to teach them letters and sounds.  And then to connect those sounds words.  They have to understand that words form sentences and sentences are ideas.  It’s a lot of work.  Once students can decode, there’s the push to help them comprehend.  We teach strategies and skills.  We use graphic organizers, sticky notes, highlighters…anything to get them to think while they’re reading!!!

What we didn’t realize is that fluency connects those two processes.

Comprehension depends on the connections readers make between the text and what they already know.  Readers bring their background knowledge to the text and pair it with the words on the page.  As they group the words in meaningful phrases, they’re connecting thoughts.  Fluent reading is the bridge between figuring out the words and using the words to assemble an idea.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

There are myriad ways to assess fluency.  Running records, student self-rating scales, timed readings, repeated readings, partnered practice, rubrics, DIBELS, checklists…You can even buy computerized goggles that track eye movements while children read!

But what’s the best way to assess fluency?

The people at DIBELS have pushed very hard to make 1-minute timed readings the standard for fluency measures.  And I think in some ways they’re right.  If you’re looking for data to compare students to each other or to a standard, then you need a very standardized way to assess that.  Counting words read per minute and then the number of words in a retelling give you that standard information.  Where this is a problem for me is that it doesn’t help me as a teacher.

If I have a 2nd grader reading 24 words per minute, I need to know where the problem is so I can fix it.  Counting words per minute is not helpful in this case; I need to know the cause of the problem not just its effect.  Was the text too hard?  Does the student’s struggle with syntax or phrasing?  Are there holes in the student’s understanding of phonics or word-solving strategies?  You don’t get this information from a number.  That’s why I stick with my running records.  They’re quick.  They give me a lot of details without a lot of fuss.

Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that fluency doesn’t develop with difficult texts.  If students have to figure out many unknown words, they can’t read fluently.  Fluency should be practiced and assessed on independent reading levels.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

Mandates require that students read a specified number of words per minute, but there’s often no real support for teaching fluency.  But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless or that fluency lessons need to be laborious or complicated.  A few basic practices can help all students improve their fluency.

  1. Model fluent reading
  2. Teach the building blocks of fluency
  3. Provide opportunities to read

Model Fluent Reading

Before coming to school, some students have never heard anyone read aloud.  They don’t understand that reading should sound like talking.  When you read to students, you’re providing the model for how fluent reading sounds.  You read effortlessly.  You give expression.  You pause at the right places and don’t race through the text.  So keep reading to your kids and provide audio books if that fits the flow of your classroom.

Take advantage of teachable moments.  If you’re reading the text in your normal voice: “‘Where did they go,’ she whispered,” pause for a moment.  Then say, “Oh! The book said she whispered.  I’m going to go back and read this in a whisper voice.”  You don’t have to feel like you’re putting on a show, but add expression and liveliness to your reading.  If it’s appropriate, use a particular voice for a character.  Don’t belabor it, but if the moment is right, point out what you’re doing as a reader and why.

Teach the Building Blocks of Fluency

Students can’t be fluent with a text if they don’t know the words their reading.  It’s important that readers have a large bank of sight words to draw from.  Teach high-frequency words.  Teach word-solving strategies (chunking, picture cues, rereading, etc.).  Teach prefixes and suffixes.

Teach students to recognize fluent reading.  Teach them to read the punctuation.  Teach them how to read phrases.

Fluency instruction doesn’t have to take long, but it should be frequent.  It can be as quick as having students read 3 sentences.  Write on the board, “I can go.  I can go?  I can go!”  Have students practice reading each sentence with the appropriate expression.  Pick one or two kids to model their expressions for the class.  Remind the kids to look at punctuation while reading…And done for the day!

This is a great time sponge when you’ve got 5 minutes till the bell or the guest speaker is late.  As students improve, lengthen the sentences or add students’ names.  “Chris slipped and fell.  Chris slipped and fell?  Chris slipped and fell!”  Try having everyone put stress on the word slipped.  Then switch and have them stress the word and.  Talk about how it changes the meaning of the sentence…And done for another day!

There are lots of books with suggested fluency activities and loads of ideas on Pinterest.  Fluency ideas are easy to find.  But don’t get overwhelmed.  Tell yourself: simple works!  You don’t need a whole center or games or weekly readers’ theater scripts.  If you like those things, that’s great, but you can effectively teach fluency without them.

Just talk to students about fluency.  Help them understand why it’s important and what it sounds like.  Read jokes and poems.  Commit to a 2-3 minute mini-lesson once a day.  Frequent, brief lessons go a long way toward developing fluent readers.  Students can’t hit an invisible target.  Teaching them the components of fluency (besides rate) helps them develop all aspects of fluent reading.

Give opportunities to read

Students should be reading multiple times a day.

  • They read with you in their small reading groups
  • Choral read chants and poems.  If the class has a favorite text that isn’t too long, have them read it chorally by finding a big book or displaying the text on a document camera.
  • Have groups practice and perform readers theater.  This is a favorite center activity.
  • Partner students to take turns reading to each other.  Joke books are great for this activity.  If you subscribe to Scholastic News or Weekly Reader, let partners read it to each other after you’ve worked on it as a class.

A word of caution about partner reading: it is tempting to assign your highest reader to your lowest reader.  This may benefit your low reader, but it will be incredibly frustrating for your high reader.  It’s better to partner your highest medium reader with your highest reader and your other medium readers to lower readers.  This way they can support each other without either partner becoming frustrated or embarrassed.  

Reading fluency develops over time as students have many successful interactions with texts.  So it is vital that we as teachers ensure our students get those successful interactions.  The determining factor of what makes an experience successful is whether or not it’s aimed at the right level of difficulty.

When we talk levels of text difficulty, we’re looking at three broad stages:

  • Frustration Level: this text is too hard for the reader to benefit from.  At this level, they require too much support to be successful with the text. They accurately read fewer than 90% of the words and have weak comprehension.
  • Instructional Level: This is the teaching level.  The reader can successfully decode 95%-90% of the words and has an adequate comprehension.  They need support (from the teacher, parents, etc.) to be successful.
  • Independent Level:  Texts at this level are easy for the reader.  No teacher support is necessary.  There are few mistakes or problems (at least 95% accuracy and strong comprehension).

Which level we choose for an activity will depend on our goals.  If we’re teaching guided reading, our goal is for students to develop the skills they need to become independent readers.  Therefore, it’s important to choose a text at an instructional level.  Here students have to do a little work to make sense of the text, but aren’t floundering.  We can support them to take the next steps in their learning.

If our goal is reading fluency, it’s important to practice it using texts at an independent level.

At an independent level, students already know the words, so they can focus their energy on connecting phrases.  Their reading can sound fluent.  We can’t expect fluent reading on a challenging text.  So if we want fluent readers, we have to give them the right kind of text.

In recent years, silent reading time has gotten a bit of (what I think is an unfounded) a bad rap.  If students are expected to do 30 minutes of silent reading, providing the right text is important.  There has to be an expectation that students will choose “just right” books.  If students are spending 30 minutes with books at their frustration level, it’s just a wasted half hour.  If students are spending 30 minutes with books at their instructional and independent levels, that time becomes priceless.  This is where they apply all those skills you’ve been working on in guided reading!  This is where they develop the habits of fluent readers!

So expect your students to spend time reading, but also expect them to choose the right reading books.  (You can facilitate this by leveling your books and assigning students certain shelves or tubs.)

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

The biggest pitfall is evaluating teachers based on students’ oral reading fluency.  It creates a culture where teachers–and students!–view fluency as the be-all and end-all of reading.  Instead of teaching reading, teachers are drilling fluency.  Students race through passages thinking that rate is the only important aspect of reading and don’t pause long enough to breathe–let alone to think about the text they’re speeding through.

Also, terrible round-robin reading (students take turns reading a sentence or paragraph to the class while everyone else follows along in their books) has resurfaced.  Don’t do round robin reading!  While these practices might create faster readers, they don’t create better ones.

Remember this: fluency is the result of effective instruction.  Modeling fluent reading and teaching students word-solving skills, phonics, sight words, comprehension strategies, and how to self-monitor will naturally boost fluency and give students the tools they need to be life-long readers.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

For our earliest readers who are still figuring out concepts of print and basic sight words, timed readings aren’t recommended.  Once students have developed some reading skills and are working with longer texts (usually around the middle of first grade), using repeated readings is one of the best–and easiest ways–to boost fluency.

A multi-year study published in 2004 found that students had the greatest fluency gains when they read to an adult, received corrective feedback, and then had opportunities to reread the text. (You can find a summary of the study here.)

The researchers concluded:

Repeated reading improves the reading fluency and comprehension of students with and without learning disabilities, not only on the passages with which students previously used the strategy, but also with new passages. Several instructional components are found to be essential to the success of repeated reading. First, adult-led repeated reading leads to significantly greater gains than do interventions led by peers. This finding indicates that adults, rather than peers, should implement repeated reading. Corrective feedback and opportunities for the student to reread the passage until a set criterion is reached also have a significant positive impact on students’ progress during repeated reading. When students are cued to focus on either speed or comprehension, before they begin reading, their rates in both areas increase. The greatest improvements are seen when students are cued to focus on comprehension alone or on both fluency and comprehension together.            

(Therrien, W.J.  Fluency and Comprehension Gains as a Result of Repeated Reading, 2004)

If you’re progress monitoring for DIBELS (don’t do it with an assessment) or you’ve just done a running record on students, take a few seconds and give them feedback about their fluency.  Let them practice reading a few sentences or paragraphs.  Remind them to apply that skill to their other reading and send them on their way.

You can also outsource this!  If you need something for parent volunteers to do, give them some training in what fluent reading sounds like and let them listen to students and give feedback.

Also consider assigning fluency homework.  We designed our homework assignments around this format.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

We know students come to us on a variety of levels and with a variety of needs. It can be tricky to know where to start. We have written some additional posts to break down the process of building fluent readers.  Use the charts below to find where your readers need to practice.  Then choose the post(s) that are most relevant to the needs of your students. We have resources available to help you with each of these levels, but we also share information and tips that are relevant whether or not you use our resources.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency


My students need help mastering letter names.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

My students need help mastering letter sounds.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

My students need help mastering segmenting & blending (or nonsense word fluency).

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

My students need help with reading fluency.

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

How do I make the most out of fluency homework?

A Teacher's Guide to Fluency

How to Avoid These 6 Common Fluency Instruction Mistakes

How to Avoid These 6 Fluency Instruction Mistakes

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After a combined 14 years in 2nd grade, sisters Heidi & Emily are passionate about helping simplify life for other teachers!

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