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My Middle School Requires Fluency Instruction: Help!

It is sensible to teach text reading fluency to middle schoolers (and high schoolers) class wide, and I’ve worked with more than 100 secondary schools that did this so successfully that it helped raise their reading achievement.

Teacher question

I am searching for what to do with repeated reading as a whole class, in every content area, in grades 6-8. Next year, we have 60% of our students at “at-risk” or “some risk” according to aReading (FastBridge). It recommends Repeated Reading for many of our students, so that will be our school-wide intervention: science, social studies, math, and ELA with grade-level text for every repeated reading we do in our classes.

I’m torn on the grade-level text because we have kids who will not be able to read the text fluently at all. They will be reading with their peers. No one would blithely advise that teachers assign frustration level text if they had experience taking data as a behavior consultant and saw in a classroom that students either “act out” or “tune out” as soon as they cannot do work with 80–85% accuracy … or if someone gave them a text with every fourth word in black and then expected them to extract meaning from the text … or if they tested adults who had struggled in reading and listened to them cry about the humiliation encountered in school when teachers gave them frustration level text. Giving students frustration level text only reinforces that guessing.

Would giving the kids a text that is more challenging than their current instructional level instead of blanket grade-level texts in all of their classes be effective? I understand the research on it, but it’s always a little different in how the same research can be applied in a real-life classroom.

Shanahan’s response

I feel your pain, but as you point out, the research supports it (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; NICHD, 2000) — there were real kids in those studies; and my personal experiences in many of the situations that you described support it as well.

It’s evident you are very concerned about your students.

However, I think you’re so focused on bad instructional practices that have often been inflicted in the name of reading instruction (or fluency instruction) without considering how to do these things effectively.

If we did the same thing with phonics, vocabulary, or reading comprehension instruction, we would never teach anything.

Indeed, it is sensible to teach text reading fluency to middle schoolers (and high schoolers) class wide (Rasinski, Padak, & McKeon, 2005), and I’ve worked with more than 100 secondary schools that did this so successfully that it helped raise their reading achievement. And, no there was no increase in discipline problems or absenteeism — just the opposite … when kids know they are making progress they tend to be more engaged in school.

First, let’s talk about why it makes sense to teach fluency at these age levels and how widespread this instruction should be. The ability to read text accurately (attending to the author’s words), with automaticity (doing so without much conscious attention), and with prosody (making the result sound like language — putting the pauses in the right place, responding to the punctuation and so on) continues to improve through about 8th grade for the average reader (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 2017) — and that means in a typical school almost half the students will be significantly below average. That is important because fluency has been shown to have a causal impact on comprehension (Breznitz, 2005), though the impact of fluency certainly declines over the grades (by 8th grade fluency differences still explain roughly 25% of the variation in reading comprehension — not as much as in Grad 2, but not nothing either).

That’s the reason research has usually found that teaching students to read more fluently has a clear and consistent influence on their reading comprehension (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; NICHD, 2000). Studies show that having students read texts aloud with feedback and repetition can improve reading, as long as they are not already proficient with the texts that they practice on (hence, the point of “frustration level” text). There is some research suggesting just getting kids to read a lot silently on their own can have a similar payoff – but getting kids to do such additional reading is usually not under the teachers’ control.

You point out that when you test students, they are uncomfortable reading challenging texts, and that singling students out in class for such reading can have long term negative effects on their desire to read. I don’t disagree with either of those points, so let’s not embarrass them — let’s just teach them how to read more fluently — and, yes, that will involve having them read aloud some grade level texts that will be hard for them. (You might think that is cruel, but it is no crueler than giving a child an injection to cure or prevent a harmful disease. And, frankly, if it’s done reasonably well, it really isn’t that uncomfortable).

The analogy I usually use to discuss this is drawn from basketball. If you have ever been to a basketball game or watched one on television, you will notice that near the end of the game, there is often an effort to foul the worst player on the other team. The idea is to get him to take free throws (that he is expected to miss) so that the team that fouled him can get the ball back.

Think of what that situation is like from the point of view of the player. Everybody’s eyes are on him. Lots of people are rooting for him to fail. They might even be laughing at him. All the spectators behind the hoop are waving their arms and screaming to try to distract him so he’ll screw up.

If you think about it, that is what oral reading is for lots of boys and girls. They know they aren’t good at it, and now everyone is going to get to watch them screw up. And, yes, the other kids do laugh and tease, and sometimes they even try to upset the performance. What a miserable feeling. No wonder some carry that angst into adulthood with them.

Given all of that, I would say that it is critical that you take round robin reading out of the equation. I don’t want that student reading aloud to the group under those kinds of conditions. It can’t help much, and it is likely to do harm.

Let’s think of another example from basketball. At the beginning of the game, or more accurately, just before the beginning and just before the second half begins, all players on both teams are on the court. They are all warming up. There are more than 20 players out there and there are probably 12 balls or more flying around at any given time. Everyone is shooting. Some players go to a particular part of the floor and practice from there. Some shoot layups to loosen up. Balls are flying everywhere, the often hit off of each other. When a player misses, no one gets upset. No one gets embarrassed. Even the benchwarmers who may miss several shots don’t seem to care. Their feelings aren’t hurt, they don’t quit the team, there are no tears — but everyone is practicing.

That’s the nature of appropriate fluency instruction.

That’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of paired reading. There might be 12 balls in the air (I mean, books being read) at one time. Half the kids are listening, and half are reading; and very quickly those places get switched around which simply means everyone in the class is trying to figure out how to read this text appropriately, so that it makes sense.

Here are 10 pieces of advice on teaching fluency to older students:

1. Set a goal for the number of minutes to be devoted to such practice weekly schoolwide. Then get each department to commit to taking on a set portion of these minutes. Fluency practice doesn’t work as well in math as the other subjects, so keep the numbers low there (higher than zero, but much lower than what kids are to experience in classes that have more continuous text to read). If students are reading above the 8th grade level, I wouldn’t bother with this — they can be exempted. Each teacher is then committed to providing some number of minutes each week in their classes; let the teacher figure out the best way to organize this… some might want to spend a part of each class on fluency work, while other teachers might want to segregate this to particular days of the week. Don’t undermine your effort by making it difficult for teachers to meet the instructional goals of their content area.

2. Explain to the students what is going on. Tell them fluency is important, tell them the books are getting harder and harder each year as they advance through school and that fluency practice is one way to increase their ability to handle such materials independently Tell them that they are going to be asked to read aloud at times, not to embarrass them but to give them the practice that will make them better readers. Stress that they will not be asked to read anything aloud to the group with everyone listening and that almost everyone will be practicing and helping each other to figure out the best way to read these texts. It is practice, not performance. They are to try to improve and the better they get at it, the less practice that will be needed.

3. Assign partners for paired reading work. It takes too long to have kids make these placements and that kind of thing is just another source of embarrassment. Change the partnerships daily, rotating pairings through the class. That way, everyone gets to benefit from the really helpful partners, and everyone shares the burden of the partners who aren’t very helpful. It also allows the teacher to avoid partnerships that he/she suspects will be problematic — like pairing up two boys who just had a fight in the lunchroom, etc.

4. Have students take turns reading short portions of the text — like a paragraph at a time but have them read and reread the text until it sounds acceptable — acceptable means that they aren’t making a lot of word reading mistakes and that it sounds like language.

5. The teacher needs to be involved, too, coaching the coaches and intervening when someone is having trouble. I’ve seen teachers bail when this activity is taking place, but that’s when the teacher really needs to be involved. Often, when I’m in that role, by the time I get to the third kid I find some repeated vocabulary problem that allows me to stop everybody to explain that word, etc. so everyone can progress more quickly.

6. Remember this is teaching time. Offer kids supports that will help them to succeed. Some teachers like to read the introduction aloud to the students and provide some explanation to contextualize the content they’ll be reading about. Others pre-introduce some vocabulary they anticipate will be a barrier — not just telling definitions but getting students to say the words. Another particularly helpful support is to parse the text, so kids know where the pauses go.

Some teachers will have students practicing a paragraph once or twice silently before reading it to a partner or having the kids take the first swing at figuring out where the pauses go. The point is to improve these students reading, not just to do repeated reading (that’s an activity rather than the point).

7. Add a comprehension step. For example, provide a question the students are supposed to answer about each paragraph.

8. Use any special resources — a push-in teacher, a parent volunteer, pre-student teachers from your local university, or some students from the Young Teachers Club. Then you can pair your lowest readers with them. This isn’t a punishment; this simply increases the amount of time these students get to read — they don’t have to split the time with a partner – which can translate faster progress.

9. Make sure the student know they are working with grade level materials — and that if they can read that well, you will try to provide them with even more challenging texts. Struggling readers are often embarrassed that teachers try to protect them from embarrassment by putting them in books so easy that they are embarrassing. Often with secondary students, if you want them engaged, go harder not easier — kids are willing to work hard if they feel respected and they balk when embarrassed.

10. It helps if students can see progress. Letting them know how many words correct they were able to read initially in their history book or how their prosody rated in their science book. Another way to do this is to have the students record their initial performance s(no one has to hear but the student and, perhaps, the teacher). Later in the year, doing another recording and comparing these should help kids to see success.

Those considerations can make this a much more successful effort. Finally, I would caution you not to overdo it. Fluency is important, but so is vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. Each of those should get similar amounts of emphasis in a program aimed at improving reading achievement with older students.


Breznitz, Z. (2005). Fluency in reading: Synchronization of processes. London: Routledge.

Hasbrouck, J. & Tindal, G. (2017). An update to compiled ORF norms (Technical Report No. 1702). Eugene, OR, Behavioral Research and Teaching, University of Oregon. 

Kuhn M.R., Stahl, S.A. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3–22. 

National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., & McKeon, C.A. (2005). Is reading fluency a key for successful high school reading? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(1), 22-27.