Reading fluency enables readers to gain a large amount of meaning from a large amount of text in a short amount of time. How can we help developing readers build their fluency? To answer this question, let’s begin with a definition.
What is Fluency?
Fluency is made up of rate, accuracy, and prosody. When students exhibit appropriate amounts of all three, we can say they are fluently reading. Here’s another way to say it: Fluency is reading the words of any text accurately, at a reasonable pace, and with expression and phrasing that sounds like talking.
Accuracy is easy to define and quantify - a student reads each word correctly or not. Likewise for rate - it is words read correctly per minute. But in any given text, how many words per minute should a student read? And is there a degree of accuracy all students must achieve? As we’ll see, these questions are trickier to answer.
Last but not least is prosody, sometimes defined as “reading with feeling.” When I listen to students read, I’m listening for appropriate intonation, stress, and phrasing. Prosody is intimately tied to rate and accuracy; it begins when students reach a decent rate of word reading and a high degree of accuracy. But prosody has an even greater chance of blossoming when students also have background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, and a familiarity with genre and text structure. Thus, knowledge built from reading volume and breadth can in turn build prosody.
How Can We Think About Rate Scores?
There’s no doubt reading rate is important. Like airplanes rolling down runways, readers must hit some minimum speed to take flight. And once airborne, they must achieve a decent average speed to cross the landscape. In other words, readers must read a certain amount of text in a suitable amount of time. But are there exact numbers that all students must definitely achieve? Not really.
First, benchmark scores vary by assessment. For example, Acadience Learning (formally DIBELS) wants springtime 2ndgraders to read 87 correct words per minute. Meanwhile, AIMSweb wants them to read 92 and Scholastic 94. As for fluency norms, when Hasbrouk and Tindal updated their oral reading fluency norms in 2017, they found that springtime 2nd graders falling in the center percentiles (25th to 75th) read between 72 and 124 words per minute. That’s a pretty wide range.
Of course, we don’t want students to read too slowly. But we also know some children are “slow and steady” readers with good to great comprehension. Finally, and I think interestingly, Hasbrouk and Tindal found that with one small exception all of the 2017 oral reading fluency norms were higher than the 2006 ones. What does this say about our reading instruction? And what does it say about the nature of fluency itself?
How Can We Think About Accuracy Scores?
Regarding accuracy, it’s important that we give it great attention in our teaching, especially when working with struggling readers. We want to teach developing readers to read through every word, master phonic patterns, and apply decoding strategies and rules as a first line of attack. I’ve learned from researchers like Sally Shaywitz, Louisa Moats, and Timothy Shanahan, and from organizations like the Iowa Reading Research Center, that it is important to build accuracy first, as well as not lose sight of expression and phrasing. As the IRCC puts it, “Reading quality rather than reading speed.”
Even as we pay great attention to accuracy, we don’t want to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I recently talked to a reading interventionist who was teaching a 4th grader with dyslexia. After direct and explicit strategy instruction and lots of decoding practice, the student had greatly increased his reading accuracy and self-correction of larger words, in turn deepening his text comprehension and coming to enjoy the act of reading more. But with small words (was, use, then), he was still inaccurate. This didn’t greatly interfere with his ability to make meaning (his teacher deemed it satisfactory to excellent) but it did chronically keep his accuracy score at 97%, just below the 98% needed to move to the upper reading levels.
Because the very act of “moving up” is motivating, the teacher said she wanted to bump her student to the next level, even though he consistently failed to make the cut score. I agreed with the teachers thought. And when I did some research, I found the creator of the leveled reading program was right there with us. Here’s a quote from Gay Su Pinnell: “Rather than setting a rigid criterion for moving a student ‘up’ a level, use informed teacher decision making.” When I touched base with the teacher two months later, she reported her student was doing “just great” in the upper level.
In summary, pay close attention to accuracy and rate numbers but temper their power with your intimate knowledge of the reader who sits before you. Yes, teaching reading is a science but it is also an art!
How Can We Help Students Strengthen All Components of Fluency?
If you’re looking for effective and practical practices to increase all components of fluency, a great starting point is repeated reading. It comes in many forms, all initially guided by the teacher. All of the following activities are described in my previous blog posts and some are described in my recent Corwin Connect posting.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.