According to Samuels (2006), “To be considered a fluent reader means to be able to decode and comprehend at the same time.” Ideally, by the time students reach the upper grades, instead of decoding “Mon…” and then “…day,” they will register the whole word “Monday” and quickly move ahead with the rest of the sentence.
Fluent readers are so automatic that they hardly seem to be aware of the decoding process and can therefore handle the dual tasks of decoding and comprehending, while less proficient readers can do only one at a time (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). If students haven’t developed this kind of “automaticity” when reading, then they may be able to sound out individual words with little trouble, but they will read them in such halting fashion when put together in sentences that they cannot pay full attention to the meaning of the text.
On the other hand, if students haven’t spent enough time in text with opportunities to apply their decoding skills, and sight word and vocabulary knowledge, they may read accurately but too slowly to retain understanding. Similarly, if students don’t read with expression, giving the text-appropriate intonation (whether out loud or in their own heads), then they might move through sentences quickly yet not really understand them. Unfortunately, when students expend too much attention on “translating between oral and written language” (Perfetti, 1985), reading becomes a laborious act.
Key Instructional Ideas
- Read aloud to students. On occasion, teachers should model their own fluent reading and explain to students how they adapt their voices to the specific kind of text. It can be particularly helpful to do this when students are getting started on a new reading assignment. By reading the beginning of the text aloud in class, teachers can send students home with the sound of the language in their heads.
Show students how to read expressively. Many students need to be shown explicitly how to use commas, periods, question marks, and other punctuation to guide them as they read, cueing them to pause, stop, use a rising tone, and so on. Students also may need to learn that small shifts in rhythm, tone, and emphasis can change the meaning of what they read.
Paired Readings. Have students read either in pairs or read and record their own reading then listen back to it. Choose short texts that students have read before, and which they understand fully, so they can focus on fluency rather than decoding and comprehension. Have students repeat the activity one-three times and track their progress on their own.
Repeated Readings. It can be very useful for students to read the same text repeatedly so that they can experience their own improvement. It’s also important to practice reading various kinds of texts (science articles, news articles, blogs, and so on) in order to become more familiar with different types of writing.
Do All of Your Students Need Fluency Instruction?
That’s a great question and typically the answer is no. Many secondary students may not require fluency instruction but if NAEP (2022) scores are any indication, the number of secondary students requiring fluency support in schools may climb as more students fail to show proficient literacy skills in fourth and eighth grade. Research has also shown that fluency instruction is particularly important for English language learners (ELLs) because activities designed to enhance fluency in reading also contribute to oral comprehension and oral language development in English.