Reading Fluency – It Matters

What is fluency? Is it simply reading quickly and accurately, or does a fluent reader also need to read with expression as well as comprehend what is read? Interestingly enough, a more recent definition (Good and Kaminski, 2002) has left out both expression AND comprehension! You know a book is a good book when it makes you think about how you teach and why you do what you do. In Richard L. Alliongton’s book What Really Matters in Fluency: Research-Based Practices Across the Curriculum, he addresses those same questions I posed, and yes, fluency should include expression and comprehension.

One of the conclusions is that reading volume (the amount read) has a huge impact on reading success. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes. A fluent reader also knows where to place stresses or inflections on words. An example he uses that I like is if you ask someone a question like, “Who threw the ball over the fence?” A normal response would be:

JOHN threw the ball over the fence.

The stress placed on the first word. But if we asked the question, “How did the ball get over the fence?” a typical response would be:

John THREW the ball over the fence.

The stress now is placed on the second word.

A fluent reader would know this and place the stress on the correct word whether speaking or reading. What the author worries about is that many teachers are in fact not teaching fluency skills. The kind of expression needed in order to convey meaning. Like the way we talk.

  • One of the most important strategies for reading fluency is reading aloud to children so that you model good fluency. Just imagine those who enter Kindergarden and have been read to every night vs. those who have not had that same opportunity. The gap between the amount of words, phrases, sentences heard (even if the child cannot really read by then) is in the millions.
  • Another strategy is making sure kids read appropriate texts. They need texts where they feel successful in order to foster fluency development.
  • Accuracy is also very important. Children need to develop “at-a-glance” recognition, also called automaticity with many of the words they read. Kids who have trouble reading often do so with the little words both in meaning and their orthographic similarities (of, off, if; where, were, there). When was the last time you asked a child to define the word “of”?
  • As mentioned, reading volume. The more they read or are read to, the better. One suggestion in getting struggling readers to read more, is by pairing them with reading to younger developing readers.
  • Repeated readings is also a strategy that works, but there are caveats, one being that it limits the opportunities of the child from experiencing unique texts.
  • Do not interrupt a reader when he/she is stuck on a word. One should pause, then provide a prompt if needed, and then praise the effort. Too often teachers interrupt the struggling reader too soon. In second grade, we teach our students to do this as well when partner reading.
  • Have students engage in Free Voluntary Reading or other sustained silent reading times.
  • Be careful of basal readers or anthologies – often the range in reading difficulties is so great. The author found a third grade anthology with texts ranging from 2nd grade reading levels to those of a 6th grade text. A teacher should not assume that the publishers have done their job in vetting the stories for reading levels.

Finally, what I found most interesting in this book is the author’s disdain for the assessment tool called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). Each subtests calls itself a fluency test, but all it is measuring is the rate and accuracy of reading with no regard to comprehension or prosody. Often children read for speed, score well, but don’t comprehend a thing they have read and are given texts that are inappropriately too hard for them. Others may fall in the “at risk” factor based on this assessment because they are reading slowly and carefully, but they read with more expression and understand what they have read. Unfortunately many of these students across the country are also given the wrong texts. Why do I find this interesting? This author devoted a whole chapter to assessing fluency, half of that chapter, he spent dismissing the reliability of DIBELS as an assessment of fluency. Our school uses it as one measure. It’s validating, though, that we take a lot of other things into account, many of which are mentioned in this book and use multiple assessment strategies as well, but if DIBELS is really all that unreliable, should we be using it at all?

In the end, I couldn’t agree with the author more, that both reading aloud to students and reading volume is important. It goes with the persistent practice theories mentioned in The Talent Code and other similar books. Kids need opportunities to read, at school, at home, wherever. My only complaint of this book is the $37 price tag for a 138 page paperback. Thank goodness it was left in the teachers lounge on Friday to be passed on, where it will return tomorrow for someone else to read. Thought provoking and written in a style that is easy for teachers to read, the book also offers many strategies for fostering fluent readers.