Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Reading Fluency Viewed as Neglected Skill

By Liana Loewus — May 11, 2015 6 min read
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For typically developing readers, fluency—or the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and expression—is often simply a product of practice. Having mastered the letter sounds, decoding rules, and a good base of sight words, many pupils begin to feel the flow of good reading, and eventually, the process becomes second nature.

But for some young readers, fluency becomes a blockade. The letter sounds, words, or phrases never seem to fit together correctly. The sentences said aloud come out choppy or robotic. Far from fluid, the process is a series of hiccups.

Fifteen years ago, the National Reading Panel, a group of reading experts convened by Congress, flagged fluency as a pillar of reading instruction, along with phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. But the researchers also noted that fluency, a precursor of comprehension, “is often neglected in classroom instruction.”

According to some experts, not too much has changed since then. While studies have identified some best practices, fluency remains neglected, and also somewhat misunderstood.

“There’s this idea it’s about making kids read fast,” said Timothy V. Rasinski, a literacy education professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. “How can you read as fast as you can and yet with good expression? They seem to be opposing concepts.”

In fact, fluency instruction is much more than an attempt to hit fast forward on a student’s reading rate. “What we’re seeing is those of us who are skilled readers, we slow down, we vary our rate, we think about our reading as we’re going,” said Melanie R. Kuhn, an associate professor of language and literacy education at Boston University. By focusing on rate, “we’re teaching kids to be quick readers but not to comprehend.”

A Complicated Problem

Fluency problems can stem from a number of factors. Some students lack fluency because they’re still struggling with decoding words. Proficient readers “hardly ever have to stop to sound out a word,” said Mr. Rasinski. But readers who are still in the sounding-out phase “use up cognitive energy doing that, and they don’t have much left for reading automaticity.”

Other students don’t have enough sight words—words that they recognize as quickly as their own name—to read fluently. Still other students lack fluency because they’re not connecting meaning to the words they’re reading. “You can tell they’re not understanding what they’re reading by the way they’re reading it,” said Kristina Phelan, a teacher who works with struggling readers in grades 1-3 at Mahala F. Atchison Elementary School in Tinton Falls, N.J.

What Is Reading Fluency?

According to the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report, “Fluent readers are able to read orally with speed, accuracy, and proper expression.” Some experts, however, argue that speed as a goal can lead to bad practice. Instead, students should be encouraged to read at a “conversational” rate or one that allows them to comprehend a particular text.

Fluent Reading
A 2nd grade student in Washington reads fluently, with proper expression and rate.

Good Expression, Low Decoding
This 2nd grader in Washington has excellent prosody, or expression, and clearly understands what he reads, but is still struggling to decode words.

Struggling With Speed
Another student, also a 2nd grader in Washington, decodes individual words fairly well but reads too slowly to be considered fluent.

A 2002 special study on oral reading by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 40 percent of students in a nationally representative sample of 4th graders lacked proper expression and adherence to syntax in their reading. About 25 percent of students read with less than 95 percent accuracy, and 35 percent read fewer than 104 words per minute, which most experts would consider too slow for 4th grade.

“You have to figure out for each child what the missing piece is,” said Ms. Phelan.

What Works?

Literacy experts are adamant that fluency can and should be explicitly taught. But according to a 2008 study of Reading First, a now-defunct federal program that aimed to improve reading instruction, 1st and 2nd grade teachers at 125 schools using the program were devoting less than five minutes a day to fluency instruction. Four years later, Mr. Rasinski wrote in The Reading Teacher, the International Literacy Association’s journal, that fluency had become “a pariah in the reading field.”

But there’s at least one strategy that researchers and literacy experts agree works: repeated reading. The National Reading Panel found that repeated oral reading with feedback and guidance had a positive effect on fluency.

“I don’t think even today there’s much evidence we have a replacement for that,” said David J. Chard, the dean of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. All the proven strategies “at their root involve a model and some kind of repeated reading.”

Teachers often follow that practice by sitting with students one-on-one and timing them as they read the same short passage several times, or until they reach an acceptable fluency level.

Many teachers have students graph their results and set goals for improvement. “It’s a way of tricking kids into practicing,” said Roxanne F. Hudson, an associate professor of special education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The caveat for timed repeated reading, some say, is that it can lead to a focus on rate at the expense of expression and comprehension.

More students in the Kent State reading clinic have begun to ask, “ ‘Should I read this as fast as I can?’ That’s something we didn’t hear before but now we hear it a lot,” said Mr. Rasinski. “A lot of the publishers have created materials that emphasized the speed of reading. I think that’s not helping things at all.”

Reading rate is easy to measure, and therefore a focus of many of the early-reading tests used in schools, said Ms. Kuhn of Boston University.

To move away from the mindset that only words-per-minute matter, Mr. Rasinski recommends doing repeated reading with poetry. “The key would be to make repeated reading an authentic experience,” he said. “Now, kids do it with the purpose of trying to read faster, but we like the idea of performance with a poem or play or song, where your natural inclination would be to rehearse it.”

Reading With Expression

Poetry, however, has not been a priority in classrooms recently, Mr. Rasinski said. The Common Core State Standards, which 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted, put renewed emphasis on reading nonfiction and informational text—though Mr. Rasinski says the use of poetry dwindled before the standards were in place.

For students who lack expression and intonation in their oral reading, researchers and educators agree that modeling and talking about the purpose of reading can help. Some students “who don’t read with good prosody [expression and intonation] don’t necessarily know it’s supposed to make sense,” said the University of Washington’s Ms. Hudson. These students read “because the teacher wants me to, as opposed to it’s something I do because I want to get more information.”

Mr. Rasinski recommends that as teachers read aloud, “they should talk about how they read. ‘Did you notice my voice? Did you hear I sped up here and slowed down here?’ ”

Echo reading, in which a student follows along as a teacher reads and then echoes the passage, is one of several “assistive” strategies that Ms. Kuhn, Mr. Rasinski, and other experts recommend. They’ve also found that choral reading, listening to a recorded version of a book while reading, and partnering with a proficient reader can boost fluency.

There are also some strategies that researchers, for the most part, say don’t work to improve fluency—in particular “round robin” and “popcorn” reading. In both methods, which nearly all classes use at some point, students are called on to read orally in front of the class. Experts say the methods offer too little practice per student and can humiliate struggling readers.

“Sustained silent reading” is another conventional method that most experts now say is outmoded. The National Reading Panel determined there was insufficient evidence to indicate that silent, independent reading had a positive effect on fluency. A decade and a half after later, some experts say, that strategy is still ripe for more research.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Fluency Still Seen as Neglected Skill

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