Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fluency Instruction: Building Bridges from Decoding to Comprehension

The reward we get for reading is meaning. When we read we might be entertained or informed or both, but only if we can get to the meaning.  Children must become automatic enough in their decoding to free up brain space to think about what they are reading and make sense of it. Achieving this automaticity is difficult for some children and so, struggling to decode the words in front of them, they have little cognitive space left for understanding what they read. These children get no reward for their reading efforts - no entertainment, no information. Without the reward, they are not likely to continue reading.

When this happens our tendency is to double down on decoding instruction, giving kids extra doses of phonics work and engaging them in all sorts of multi-sensory activities in the hopes of strengthening decoding abilities (tapping, scooping, spelling in sand).  Often these efforts are frustratingly slow and ineffective. Kids may improve in decoding, but still fail to achieve the kind of automaticity they need to get their reading reward.

How to get the kids across the divide between decoding and comprehension? Research would indicate that fluency instruction can  provide the bridge (Pikulski & Chard, 2005).

According to Tim Rasinski, the leading scholar on fluency instruction in the country, fluency instruction has the advantage of focusing instruction on automaticity within the larger context of comprehension. In other words, kids develop the ability to decode at a sufficient level of automaticity at the same time they are being rewarded by greater understanding of what they read.

To understand fluency instruction, we need to first understand that fluency is only partly about reading rate. Rasinski says fluency is automaticity + prosody. Prosody includes the melodic features of our oral language. It is reading that reflects not only the words of the text, but also the meaning of the text. In other words, fluency instruction connects to comprehension when children can read text "so it sounds like talking." Fluency is a skill that can be taught and Rasinski's research indicates that instruction in fluency not only helps children read what they are currently working on, but transfers to future readings (Rasinski & Samuels, 2011).

How can fluency be taught? In many ways and in ways that fit neatly into the regular instruction in a classroom everyday. First of all, kids need a model of what fluent reading sounds like, so we teach fluency when we read aloud to kids. Occasionally, while reading aloud we should stop and talk about how we used our voice to express the meaning of what we are reading. Another highly effective strategy for fluency instruction is repeated reading. We know from Samuels (1979) research that repeated readings improve decoding, automaticity and comprehension of passages. Poems, nursery rhymes, and reader's theater activities provide ample opportunity for repeated readings. You can read more about repeated reading here.

Small group instruction also provides plenty of opportunities to support a student's developing fluency. When children are reading laboriously, we should prompt them to , "Read that again and make it sound like talking" or model what it should sound like and ask them to imitate us until they can read it fluently on their own.

Rasinski, Padak, Linek & Sturdevent (1994) recommend a lesson structure for fluency instruction called, The Fluency Development Lesson (FDL). The FDL is meant to be a 10-15 minute daily lesson where students work on one short text, usually an age appropriate poem. The authors suggest the following steps in the procedure.

  1. The teacher introduces the text and reads it from a chart or overhead display two or three times while students follow along silently.
  2. The teacher leads the students in a brief discussion of the meaning of the passage and how the teacher used her voice in reading it.
  3. Teacher and students together read the text chorally two or three more times.
  4. The children form pairs. One student reads the text aloud to the other two or three times, while the partner follows along and gives feedback on fluency. Students switch roles.
  5. The students then perform their oral readings to an audience - a small groups of students, a visiting parent, another adult, the teacher, etc.
  6. Next teachers engage students in five minutes of word study focusing on word patterns from the text (rhyming words, spelling patterns).
  7. Students save a copy of the text in their personal poetry folder for further reading.
  8. Students take a second copy of the poem home to read to family members.
  9. Before introducing a text for a new lesson, read a few texts from previous lessons.
Kulich's 2009 study of this instructional strategy found it to be effective for all readers, but particularly for struggling readers. In my personal adaptation of the FDL for my own classroom, I also included an "echo reading" of the text, where I would read and point to the text line by line while the students echoed my reading and phrasing after each line. 

While any short poem, nursery rhyme or other text can be used for fluency instruction, Rasinski & partners have two books available that are helpful.


I have also published a book of poems aimed at fluency development and using a similar instructional design.


While you are waiting for these resources, here is a short poem to get you started. Did I mention that fluency instruction can also be a lot of fun?



Laughing Giraffes


On a field trip to the zoo, you must see the giraffe,

But I’ll give you a warning on his behalf.
Have a nice chat; get his autograph,
But whatever you do, please don’t make him laugh.

Though he truly enjoys comical patter,
A laughing giraffe’s knees wobble and chatter,
‘Til he falls to the ground with a clang and a clatter.
For a giraffe a laugh is no laughing matter.


Works Cited

Kulich, L.S. (2009). The English reading development of Karen children using the fluency development lesson in an intensive English language program. Three descriptive studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Akron, OH

Pikulski, J.J. and Chard, J.D. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher., 58(6), 510-519.

Rasinski, T.,  Padak, N., Linek, W., & Sturtevent, E. (1994). Effects of fluency development on urban second graders. The Journal of Educational Research, 87(3), 158-165.

Rasinski, T. & Samuels, S.J. (2011) Reading Fluency: What it is and what it is not. in Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.

Samuels, S. J. (1979). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher. 32(4), 403-408.