When it comes to teaching children how to read, fluency is the ultimate goal, and that’s what teachers, tutors, and parents are working towards achieving. But exactly is reading fluency, and why does it matter?
Reading fluency, in a nutshell, is the ability to read a text easily and effortlessly. The goal is to be able to immediately and instinctively recognize words on a page and group words together automatically to process the meaning behind them. Fluency means spending virtually no time trying to process words or groups of words, and instead focusing on the meaning of the text. When fluent readers read aloud, they sound natural, as if they’re speaking, pausing in the right places and enhancing the words on the page as they read.
While many children achieve fluency naturally, simply by reading books at home or during school lessons, that’s not the case for everyone. Some children have a hard time picking up reading and achieving fluency naturally, so they require a little bit of help, from parents and teachers alike.
Why is reading fluency important?
Fluency is crucial for a child’s academic progress and also for their personal development, because it bridges the gap between word recognition and comprehension. Fluency eliminates the time spent recognizing letters and words and allows readers to focus on what the text is actually saying. Non-fluent readers are not able to recognize words and word groups automatically, and therefore spend more time decoding the text instead of processing it. They might also have to reread passages several times to achieve comprehension, which means reading and understanding a text takes them longer than their fluent peers. This can have an impact on their performance in school or in college, and can also hinder their personal development and cause frustration in their daily lives down the line.
The key pillars of reading fluency
Hudson, Lane, and Pullen define reading fluency as follows: “Reading fluency is made up of at least three key elements: accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression.” In short, one should be able to read as they speak. But for many children and adults, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Northern Illinois University identifies four key pillars of reading fluency that must be covered: accuracy, speed, expression (or prosody), and comprehension.
The first step towards reading fluency is the ability to read words correctly. A fluent reader should be able to read words and sentences easily and quickly, without needing to stop and decode, reread, or break words or syllables down. Fluency means that readers can simply ‘scan’ a text and recognize words automatically, focusing their time and effort on processing the meaning behind those words. Some experts suggest that fluent readers should be able to read at least 98 of 100 words accurately and easily, without rereading them.
The more fluent in reading you are, the quicker you will be able to read a text. You might notice how someone is able to read a novel in just one sitting, while someone else might take a few days to go through it. The pace is also dictated by fluency, and with practice and constant reading, reading speed can also improve over time. This does not mean that a child should read as fast as they possibly can, favoring speed over comprehension or expression. It’s simply a way of determining whether a child is struggling with fluency. To this end, some schools might provide a target reading rate for students in different grade levels, represented by the number of correct words read per minute. But this is just an additional evaluation tool and should not be the only tool used to determine the level of fluency.
By expression, we mean someone’s ability to read in a way that it sounds like spoken words, with emotion, pauses in the right places, intonation, and more. A fluent reader will know when to pause and when to speed up, depending on the punctuation in the text, like periods, commas, question marks or exclamation points. They will also be able to use the appropriate emotion conveyed in the text, and this requires understanding of the words being read and their meaning in the given context. Basically, there can be no expression without accuracy or comprehension.
Reading fluency means bridging the gap between decoding words and comprehending the meaning behind them. If a child struggles with accuracy or decoding words, they will waste time and energy focusing on identifying the words in the text, instead of trying to understand what is read, and this could cause them to fall behind their peers and leave them feeling frustrated. Accuracy and word decoding should be prioritized, and only then the focus can turn towards comprehension, expression, and reading speed.
Encouraging reading fluency at home: tips for parents
While word decoding and accuracy can be handled by specialized teachers in the classroom following the principles of the Science of Reading, parents can also help their children reach fluency at home. It’s important, if your child is struggling with reading, to set time aside each day to practice together. You can do this by:
- Reading bedtime stories together – encourage your child to participate by taking turns reading one paragraph each, or by assigning roles based on the characters in the book
- Reading aloud every day – encourage your child to read aloud as much as possible, whether it’s their favorite comic book, a story, or even subtitles in a movie they’re watching
- Echo reading – echo reading can help children learn how certain words are pronounced or how sentences are read with prosody; you can read a sentence, then your child can read the same sentence and try to mirror the way you read
- Shared reading – encourage your child to read together with a sibling or a friend in a non-competitive manner, for fun
- Role play reading – make reading fun by encouraging your child to role play and pretend like they’re a teacher in the classroom and have them read aloud to their favorite toys or dolls
Strategies towards reading fluency in the classroom
There are various tools and techniques that teachers employ nowadays to help children in their classroom who are struggling with reading fluency. These tools can help teachers encourage their students to keep reading and do not allow frustration to hold them back, which is often the case.
- Teacher modeling – this strategy is proven to improve reading fluency in young children, through teacher-assisted reading, peer-assisted reading, or audio-assisted reading. A specialized teacher will be able to determine which student would benefit from individual, one-on-one reading exercises, which students enjoy practicing reading with their peers, and which students prefer to practice reading with the help of audiobooks or audioguides.
- Repeated reading – you know what they say, repetition is the mother of learning, but it can also be crucial in achieving reading fluency for young students. Constant reading and rereading of texts is one of the most powerful strategies to build fluency in struggling children, and its premise is quite simple: encourage students to keep reading the same material over and over again, until they can read and comprehend it effortlessly and read it aloud with prosody and expression.
- Monitoring progress & gamification – children are very responsive to gamification, that’s why it’s easy for them to sometimes lose track of time when playing video games or with their friends. Teachers and tutors can replicate that strategy when it comes to fluency exercises, by setting a specific goal for the children to accomplish, and give them immediate feedback or a reward of some kind. This reward can simply be the chance to choose the next book the class will read next, it doesn’t have to be anything material. Gamification can provide motivation for children who don’t really enjoy reading, and make it more fun and interactive for them.
If you want to learn more strategies to help children in your classroom struggling with fluency, don’t hesitate to reach out to Da Vinci Collaborative. Our team of specialized experts and counselors are ready to help.