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How To Avoid These 6 Common Fluency Instruction Mistakes

There are some common mistakes that teachers make when they embark on teaching oral reading fluency. I’ve made some of these mistakes myself. But we hope to save you from making the same mistakes and have some idea for you of what to do instead.

Mistake #1: Using ONLY 1 minute timed readings to assess fluency 

If I  need data to compare students to each other or to a standard, then I need a standardized way to assess that.  A 1 minute timed reading gives me that information.

But the problem is it doesn’t help me as a teacher.

Let’s say I use a 1 minute timed reading to assess fluency and I have a 2nd grader reading 24 WPM. 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 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.

I recommend using running records as a quick way to gather a lot of details without a lot of fuss. I’ll be better able to help my student increase her reading fluency rate when I know why her rate is low and we address the hurdles she’s experiencing.

Mistake #2: Practicing fluent reading on a text above their independent reading level.

Fluency doesn’t develop with difficult texts.

If students have to figure out many unknown words, they simply can’t read fluently. That means a text at frustration level or even instructional level isn’t the right text for building fluency.

Fluency should be practiced and assessed on independent reading levels. (Read that again. It’s important.)

Mid-year, some schools send home fluency passages written at the end of year grade level so students can “practice” for the end of year fluency assessment. Simply put, this is not how fluency skills increase.

Asking a child to practice fluency on passages above their independent levels will only frustrate a growing reader, hamper the ability to read fluently, and damage students’ love of reading.

If possible, differentiate the reading material you give to students for practicing fluency so they always practice on their own independent reading level.

Independent reading level compromises every level below instructional, so it’s not a single level but several. For a child whose instructional level is a G, levels A-F are all independent levels and provide benefits for fluency practice.

Mistake #3: Not frequently and explicitly modeling fluent reading

The best way to teach a child to read fluently is modeling it for them.

It’s an unfortunate truth that some students will never hear a book read aloud before they attend school. They may have no concept of what fluent reading sounds like.

When you read to students, you provide the model for how fluent reading sounds. You read effortlessly, use appropriate expression, pause at the right places, and don’t race through the text. Model fluent reading to your students frequently and offer audio books if appropriate.

Don’t miss out on teachable moments, either. When you’re reading out loud in your normal voice, “‘Where did they go?’ she whispered” you can pause for a moment before saying, “Oh! It says she whispered. Let me go back and read it again in a whisper.”

There’s no need to be dramatic, but modeling fluent reading and your thinking process as a reader will help your growing readers.

Mistake #4: Focusing too much on reading rate

The fastest way to assess and track reading fluency is with reading fluency rate (words correct per minute or WCPM). But unfortunately, making reading rate the be-all and end-all of reading leads to teachers drilling fluency.

The last thing you want is a student obsessed with increasing their reading fluency rate at all costs. Before you know it, you’ve got a student who races through passages, not pausing long enough to breathe, let alone think about the text they’re speeding through. Have you ever had a student like this? I know I have!

There’s also no research supporting reading rate tracking of beginning readers. A good guideline is to wait until around the middle of first grade before tracking rate and encouraging students to increase their reading speed. If a student is reading on a level A, they don’t need to be focused on reading faster.

But it’s always a good idea to practice and encourage reading that sounds like talking.

Mistake #5: Using Round Robin Reading or silent reading to increase fluency

Round Robin Reading and silent reading are two practices for improving fluency the research does not support. Neither of these strategies allow for the guided practice needed to develop fluency. There’s a great article on Reading Rockets about these two strategies and why you shouldn’t use them for increasing fluency.

The National Reading Panel says no research to support the idea that independent, silent reading helps students improve fluency. Which is not to say there’s no value in silent reading, only it isn’t a reliable strategy to increase fluency.

How to Avoid These 6 Fluency Instruction Mistakes

Instead, the NRP concluded teachers need to provide opportunities for students to read aloud and receive feedback. But Round Robin Reading (having individual students take turns reading parts of the text to the group) doesn’t provide that opportunity.

Round Robin Reading can lead to struggling students feeling humiliated by their inferior reading skills and advanced readers feeling impatient listening to other students’ labored reading. Each student only practices oral reading for a short time which is not effective for increasing fluency. And let’s be honest, how many of the other kids are actually reading along while the other students read aloud?

I vividly remember sitting in my 5th grade class during a Round Robin Reading of a chapter in our health textbook. I anxiously counted the number of students in front of me and then counted the paragraphs to find the one I would be responsible for reading. Then I read it several times to myself to be sure I knew all the words and could read it well. I didn’t hear a word the other kids read.

Just say no to Round Robin Reading!

Mistake #6: Not giving students feedback or providing opportunities to apply fluency skills

Guided reading is the perfect time to give students feedback on their reading fluency. Compliment them on what they’re doing well. Point out when you notice them reading smoothly, pausing at punctuation, or rereading something to add more appropriate expression.

Sometimes a student uses great phrasing in their oral reading but might not realize what they’re doing until someone points it out to them. Making them aware of the skill they’re demonstrating will help them continue to use that skill in the future.

After giving your students an example of a fluent reading skill, be sure to give them opportunities to use that skill! Model pausing at punctuation and then let the students take a turn doing the same thing. Praise their efforts and point out specific positive examples. Encourage them to keep using the skill when they read to themselves.

If you have made any of these fluency instruction mistakes, don’t beat yourself up! The most important thing is now you know what to instead to better help your students become more fluent readers.

We compiled a fluency teaching “cheat sheet” and quick reference guide. Print it out and keep it at your guided reading table or anywhere you might be practicing fluent reading with your students. The guide provides a quick reference of the parts of fluency, end of year WCPM goals by grade level, and fluency prompt ideas for use in guided practice.

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Whether or not you use our fluency resources, we hope that this post has provided you with some insight on which instructional practices are helpful for building fluency and how to avoid the common 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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