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How to Improve Text Fluency in the Middle Schools and High Schools


Schools should provide students with up to 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction. But remember, this is across all classes and content areas. Get quick tips on paired reading, repeated reading, and other ways to improve reading fluency.

Teacher question

I teach high school students with reading disabilities, and I use your blog regularly as a source and inspiration. How can I help high school students develop oral fluency? Can you give me specific ways in my classroom to do this with reluctant readers? 

Shanahan’s response

This is an important question. Too few teachers ask it.

Many teachers think fluency teaching is just for the primary or the elementary grades. Of course, most state standards talk about fluency in those grades, but that’s a mistake that even the authors of many of those state standards would acknowledge. (If you have doubts about this, I would recommend that you read Tim Rasinski’s studies of high school and community college fluency levels; we definitely have a problem at those levels, a problem that instruction can successfully address).

Likewise, there are experts who claim that fluency is just a product of decoding skills, so teachers can safely ignore such teaching. That ignores the fact that studies show that students can often read words lists markedly better than they can texts; there shouldn’t be any difference in those scores if fluency is just the end result of proficient word reading.

I’ve used the “Frequently Asked Questions” below for a long time with secondary teachers, and I think it should give you some helpful guidance about how to improve fluency.

Do all high school students need work with fluency?

No, not all high school students will need work with fluency. Some students are particularly good at fluency, so good that they apparently can read almost any book so well that it sounds like they can understand it. When students are this fluent, there is very little that fluency instruction can do for them. As a population of students goes through school, an increasingly large proportion of them will be fluent at the highest levels. This means that fewer students will need fluency work as time goes on.

Our students are getting low test scores in reading comprehension. Why aren’t we focusing on that instead of fluency?

Low comprehension scores can mean many things. They might mean that your students have poor knowledge of word meanings, or that their fluency is limited, or that they lack strategies for making sense of a text. We need to address all areas of reading progress; fluency is just one of them.    

How much fluency teaching are we expected to provide?

Schools should provide students with up to 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction. But remember, this is across all classes. If every class did 10 minutes of fluency work once or twice each week, that would be sufficient.

What do you mean “up to 30 minutes a day?”

If a student is fluent with the course materials and the teacher checks on this regularly, then there is nothing more to do with fluency. However, if a student is not fluent, then the school should find ways to provide 30 minutes per day of this kind of instruction. That could mean that students in an honors track do a minimal amount of fluency work, or only do so with particularly difficult texts, while most lower track students might need the full 30 minutes a day.

How do I keep from embarrassing my low readers if I have the students them doing oral reading?

Fluency work is a kind of practice activity, not much different from a basketball player shooting free throws to get ready for the big game. Practice usually isn’t embarrassing, as long as everyone sees it as practice. Most students actually enjoy the fluency work as it is involving and they can see their own improvement.  Don’t encourage round robin reading, where one student reads and everyone else follows along; paired situations are much better as they don’t single out anyone. Talk to the class at the very beginning to make sure that they understand the purpose of this practice, and what to expect.  

How do I pair the kids?

 Don’t make a big deal out of pairing up, as that can be a real time waster. One rule is to make sure that the students who are working together on a given day are using the same book. That’s easy to do in most classrooms.  A second rule is don’t pair up the same kids all the time; kids differ in their ability to give feedback, so share the wealth.

Does fluency work actually make sense in a content class like science or math?

Yes, it does. It is important that students learn how to read those kinds of materials as they often pose unique challenges (such as the inclusion of formulas in an Algebra book). If students are to become independent learners in algebra or chemistry, they need to be able to read those texts fluently. Technical subjects require that students read texts intensively, rereading some parts again and again. Unfortunately, many high school students read such material once for gist only. Fluency work can become a powerful way for teaching students how to understand these materials.

Doesn’t silent reading improve fluency?

Of course, silent reading can help with fluency. Kids who read a lot will usually be pretty fluent. Unfortunately, teachers can only be sure if their students are fluent if they listen to them read.  Paired reading becomes a great opportunity for this. It is also important to remember that many high school students simply do not read when they are directed to read silently. That is why having teenagers read a text aloud rather than silently can actually improve their reading comprehension. (Of course, beyond fluency, I also encourage a substantial amount of silent reading each day, too.)

Paired reading, repeated reading, and the other recommended activities don’t look very hard, but how do I know that they will work?

Research on these various techniques shows that for many students they do lead to improved fluency and higher reading comprehension scores. Whatever it is that students learn while becoming fluent with particular texts transfers to their performance with other materials. With younger kids and especially low readers, research suggests that students are improving their ability to decode the words, but as students progress the benefits are likely more linked to their pausing patterns (how they parse the sentences to make sense of the text).

I tried repeated reading, but some kids need to reread the text too many times. What should I do?

The number of readings that it takes before fluency is evident is a good indicator of how well the student can read that particular text. Professional readers, like news anchors, usually can read anything fluently after a single reading.  Some students might need to reread a particular text several times before they can read it fluently. As their reading abilities improve you should find that the number of these repetitions declines. Until then, have the student focus on shorter sections (50 words), and stay positive. (If things don’t get better, seek some help with this student from the school reading specialist; you are not alone in this endeavor.) Studies with younger kids suggest that most or all of the learning takes place in the first three readings of a text and that there is little benefit from more than that; you might use that as a benchmark.