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Young teen girl working on reading fluency in class

Reading Instruction: Fluency

If students haven't developed fluency — or "automaticity" — then reading can become slow, halting, and frustrating. When students are working so hard to get the words right, they can't focus on the meaning of the text. And if students haven't learned to read with appropriate expression, they might get through sentences quickly — yet not completely understand the meaning.

Ideally, by the time students reach the upper grades, they will already have seen hundreds of common words in print many times over, and those words will have become so familiar that they can recognize them instantly, in one glance. For instance, instead of decoding "Mon…" and then "…day," they will register the whole word — "Monday"  — all at once and quickly move ahead with the rest of the sentence.

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 that they cannot pay full attention to the meaning of the text.

Similarly, if they haven't learned to read with expression, giving the text appropriate intonation (whether out loud or in their own heads), then they might get through sentences quickly yet not really understand them.

Experts don't know precisely how many American adolescents struggle to read with fluency, but the number is probably quite large. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education did a study of 4th graders' oral reading using a passage from a simple storybook. The study concluded that “students in the below NAEP Basic Low subgroup not only have difficulty reading the words in the text quickly and accurately but also show a lack of appropriate expression in reading out loud, which is an indicator of poor comprehension.”

Nonetheless, few secondary schools make a concerted effort either to assess students' fluency or to help them practice and improve it.

If assessments show that particular students are having trouble reading fluently (and if problems such as poor eyesight and concentration have been ruled out), then what can teachers do to help them? Visit the Reading Fluency section for more information.

Fluency instruction: the basics

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 (using a fairly flat, steady tone when reading a math textbook, using different character-voices when reading a story, and so on). 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. Further, students may need to learn that small shifts in rhythm, tone, and emphasis can change the meaning of what they read. For instance, "Do you like it?" means something very different from "Do you like it?"

Have students practice reading aloud.

Have them read either to the teacher or to one another, in pairs. Choose short texts that students have read before, and which they understand fully, so they can focus on fluency rather than decoding and comprehension. Coach them as they go, helping them get through difficult passages, and have them repeat the activity 1-3 times. And if students make gains in their speed and expression, make sure to give them some positive reinforcement, pointing out exactly how they've improved.

Have students keep track of their own progress.

Have students read a wide variety of texts out loud.

It can be very useful for students to read the same text repeatedly (known as "repeated reading"), so that they can see their own improvement. The chosen texts should be at a student’s instructional level or above.  But 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.

Further, researchers recommend that students practice reading texts out loud, while teachers listen and provide feedback.

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