Monday, January 29, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Fluency

In previous posts on this blog and as a guest author on Valinda Kimmel's wonderful blog, That Thing You Do, I have discussed fluency as the "bridge" between decoding and comprehension. When students struggle with decoding, or when they seem to have hit a plateau in their reading development, it seems logical to double down on decoding instruction to help them move forward. There is another choice we could try, however, and that is to provide fluency instruction: practice in reading a passage "so it sounds like talking."

What is fluency?

Fluency is the smooth, accurate, expressive processing of connected text. Fluency includes automaticity (rapid and accurate decoding) along with prosody (the melodic features of oral language). As I tell my students, fluency is "reading so it sounds like talking." To read with fluency we must be able to decode quickly and accurately and understand what we are reading so we know where to pause and when to raise and lower our voices.

Why does fluency matter?

Fluent reading allows the reader to gather meaning on the run. Gathering meaning not only facilitates comprehension, but it also aids decoding. As I have said in the posts on word solving,  decoding is best seen as a meaning driven process that involves visual information (What would look right?), syntactical information (What would sound right?), and meaning (What would make sense?). Fluent reading allows the reader to push through the text to quickly identify words and gather meaning.

Fluency and Struggling Readers

Many struggling readers fail to achieve fluency in reading because so much of their attention is focused on decoding the words, often through laborious efforts to "sound-it-out." Research indicates that fluency instruction, including lots of repeated reading, can help students process text more rapidly, improve decoding abilities, and strengthen comprehension. Most importantly, fluency instruction seems to transfer to other reading activities, improving overall decoding and comprehension abilities (Rasinski and Samuels, 2011).

Teaching for Fluency

Repeated Reading Activity

Like all good instruction, good fluency instruction includes teacher modeling, guided practice, independent practice, follow-up and feedback. It is best to choose short passages or poems or song lyrics for fluency practice. Poems and songs support fluency through rhythm and rhyme. In my book, Snack Attack and other poems for developing fluency in beginning readers, I suggest the following instructional procedure. In preparing for the lesson, I put the poem on chart paper or display on a Smart Board. I also make a copy of the poem for each student.

1.      Pre-reading Activities: Before reading the poem, activate background knowledge and interest through discussion. Using the title, illustration or an appropriate question as a stimulus, have the children make predictions about what they will read in the poem.

2.      Teacher Modeling: Read the poem aloud to the class at least once. Emphasize meaning. Read expressively. As you read, point to the words on the chart or screen in a smooth, left to right motion. Children need to hear the poem read fluently and expressively so that they can learn what fluent reading sounds like.

3.      Comprehension Instruction: After listening to your oral reading of the poem, have the children check their original predictions about the poem’s content. In a guided discussion help students to retell what happened in the poem. Discuss difficult vocabulary and figurative language. An understanding of the meaning of the poem will support students in developing their reading fluency.

4.      Echo Reading: Read aloud one line of the poem and have the children echo back what has been read. Read the next line, have the children echo again and so on throughout the poem. Be sure to point to each line and keep students focusing on the text. Some students may not look at the text during echo reading, relying instead on listening memory. Guide them to keep their eyes on the words as they echo.

5.      Choral Reading: Lead a re-reading of the poem. Invite all students to join in the re-reading. Weaker readers can rely on classmates to help them over the difficult passages or may choose to be silent or listen. Again, remember to point to the words as you and the children read them together.

6.      Paired Reading: Children are each given a copy of the poem and are asked to choose a partner. Alternatively, the teacher may assign partners. Have children find a comfortable place to read and then take turns reading the poem to each other. The listening partner is asked to play the role of helper, listening and following along closely to provide help if the reader needs it. Partners are encouraged to keep reading to each other until each can read the poem fluently.

7.      Teacher Conference: When children feel they have mastered the poem, they request a teacher conference. During the conference, the child reads the passage aloud, while the teacher keeps a record of general fluency, miscues and decoding strategies employed. The teacher provides specific feedback to the student on their fluency and use of strategies.




Choral and echo reading may be repeated several times until the teacher feels that most students will be able to combine memory, sight vocabulary, and decoding strategies to read the poem independently. After a few choral readings, the teacher can stop reading and have the children read chorally without the teacher’s guiding voice.

Vary choral reading as the poem warrants. Have different small groups of students alternate verses or lines or have students take the parts of speaking characters in the poem. Have pairs of students read parts of the poem or have the boys read one time and the girls another. Variety in choral reading will help keep interest and attention high.

Rasinski (1994) has recommended that follow-up work include a brief period of word work (adding words to the word wall, explaining word families, word sorting, word games) as a part of the lesson. These lessons can last over a period of several days, revisiting the poem each day with choral, echo and independent readings and word work activity.

Prompting During Reading

Fluency instruction can also happen when you are "listening in" while a student reads, either in a small group session or during independent reading. When students read in a word-for-word or choppy fashion, try the following prompts.
  • Read that again and make it sound like talking.
  • Read that again like you were telling me the story.
  • Read that again and be sure to pay attention too the punctuation.
  • Listen to me read that and see if you can read it like I did.
If you would like to try a fluency lesson such as the one outlined above, here is a poem from my book Snack Attack to get you started. This is aimed at second and third grade struggling readers.

The Rattling, Rumbling Train

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Travels through the sun and rain
From south of France to north of Spain;
Then turns and speeds right back again.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Climbs the mountains, crosses the plains.
What might its boxcars each contain?
Perhaps some fruit or corn or grain.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
With cars linked in a giant chain.
I watch it pass, but can’t explain
The power it has to entertain.

The rattling, rumbling, roaring train
Makes noise that clatters through my brain.
But please don’t think that I complain,
I love that rattling, rumbling train.


Copyright 2010 by Russ Walsh


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.