Science of Reading 101: Build Reading Fluency With Evidence-Based Instruction
Building reading fluency is an important goal for children as they learn to read.
When students struggle with fluency, reading becomes a laborious task— making it much less enjoyable. As students become fluent readers, they focus less on the mechanics of reading and more on making meaning from what they’ve read.
It’s important to remember that our ultimate goal is not for students to read faster and faster— it’s for them to comprehend what they’re reading. Strong fluency skills support better comprehension.
What is Reading Fluency?
Many people associate fluency with speed, or words-correct-per-minute (WCPM)– which is one element of reading fluency. However, reading fluency is not defined by speed alone.
Fluency involves the combination of two important factors: automaticity and prosody.
- Automaticity refers to a student’s ability to decode words quickly and correctly. We evaluate a student’s automaticity when we assess their WCPM. When a student can decode words both automatically and correctly, they have more cognitive resources to devote to comprehension.
- Prosody refers to reading with expression. When a student reads with prosody, they can use appropriate rhythm, intonation, phrasing, and timing to convey the meaning of the text.
Timothy Rasinski writes, “Fluency, the combination of automaticity and prosody, can be viewed as the bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension.
The automaticity component of fluency is the link to word recognition; students must learn to read and understand words not just accurately, but also effortlessly or automatically. Prosody is the link to comprehension; appropriate expression demonstrates that students are comprehending the meaning of the text.”
What Does the Science of Reading Say About Fluency?
The Science of Reading refers to an interdisciplinary body of research on literacy development and the impact of those results on instruction. This scientific evidence helps us understand and implement best practices for literacy education.
The National Reading Panel’s 2001 report identified the following essential components of effective literacy instruction:
- Phonemic Awareness
While there are many different approaches to teaching these five pillars of literacy, converging evidence shows that the most effective literacy instruction is both systematic and explicit.
Let’s take a closer look at how to build reading fluency for your students. We’ll also explore how to improve reading fluency with research-backed strategies and activities to incorporate into your literacy instruction.
How to Build Reading Fluency for Struggling Readers
The National Center on Improving Literacy states that fluent readers do the following:
- Rely primarily on the letters in the word, rather than context or pictures, to identify familiar and unfamiliar words
- Process every letter
- Use letter-sound correspondences to identify words
- Have a reliable strategy for decoding words
- Read words a sufficient number of times for them to become automatic
If a student is having trouble meeting their grade-level benchmark for words-per-minute, you will need to provide diagnostic assessments to determine how to build reading fluency instruction according to their needs.
Start by evaluating their foundational reading skills, such as letter-knowledge, phonemic awareness, and phonics. If the results of those assessments demonstrate that the student is having trouble with these skills, then you’ll need to provide systematic phonics instruction to develop their ability to decode more fluently.
If the student can decode words but is still struggling with reading fluency, then you’ll need to provide targeted fluency instruction.
Instructional Strategies for Reading Fluency
Effective fluency instruction builds automaticity as well as prosody. The following reading fluency strategies will support your students’ fluency development.
According to research from the Science of Reading, effective literacy instruction is explicit.
Students will benefit from visuals, such as anchor charts, that display the components of fluency. As you’re modeling fluent reading during your read-alouds, make sure you pause to explain which elements of fluency you’re using. Help them understand the importance of tone, accuracy, phrasing, and expression by modeling for them what they should (and shouldn’t) sound like.
Both reading a correct word aloud and receiving multiple exposures to it will help learners move that word to their long-term memory.
We can improve our students’ automaticity by providing them with meaningful, repeated exposures to new words. As they increase their “sight word bank,” they will become more fluent readers.
Repeated reading is a research-based instructional strategy to help students develop fluency and comprehension.
Consider using assisted readings in your lessons, where students orally read along with you as you fluently read a text. You can also provide students with multiple opportunities to read the same text, perhaps focusing on a different element each time.
7 Activities to Improve Reading Fluency
Fluency is developed through practice. Incorporate opportunities for fluency development into your instructional routines to maximize learning.
Below is a list of some of our favorite reading fluency activities.
1. Nursery Rhymes
Nursery rhymes aren’t just for babies! They are excellent tools for helping young children develop their oral language skills.
The rhythm, pitch, and inflection in nursery rhymes build foundational skills for reading fluency. These also help students hear the sounds and syllables in words, which is important as they learn to read.
Audiobooks are an excellent resource for modeling fluent reading. To maximize the benefits of audiobooks, consider providing students with the text to follow along.
Studies also suggest that fluency development is positively impacted when students have control over the listening experience— consider devices that allow readers to control the speed of narration and stop or restart playback.
Here are a few of our favorite places to find free audiobooks for students of all ages:
3. Sentence Ladders
Sentence ladders, sometimes called sentence pyramids, are a beneficial activity for readers who are struggling with fluency. Students begin by reading a single word. Then, they work their way down through each line as a new word is added.
These can also be adapted for higher grade levels. You can begin with a simple sentence and gradually add more complex elements.
This activity is designed to be scaffolded so that students can gradually build their fluency skills and their confidence.
4. Fluency Phones
Fluency phones, sometimes called whisper phones, are helpful tools for developing fluency.
As students read into their fluency phones, the sound is amplified and they can listen to themselves read. Whisper phones can help students develop their phonological awareness, as they can hear sounds and words more clearly.
Some students who struggle with fluency may be reluctant to read aloud in class. Fluency phones offer a more private place to practice reading so that students can build their confidence.
Create your own fluency phones with this simple, affordable DIY from A Dab of Glue Will Do.
5. Readers’ Theater
Readers’ theater is a collaborative activity where students work together to perform a script. Students don’t need to memorize the script, but they do need to reread it to familiarize themselves with the text.
This is a great technique for helping students practice reading aloud with prosody.
Judy Freeman, a children’s literature specialist, offered the following tips for teachers who are new to readers’ theater:
- Choose only scripts that are fun to do with lots of good dialogue. Boring scripts are no better than boring stories.
- Start slowly and spend the time necessary so students feel comfortable in the performance mode.
- A stage is unnecessary.
- Model each character’s part and match roles to readers.
- Combine parts if there are too many, and cut out scenes and characters that aren’t important.
- Work with small groups, not with the whole class, whenever possible.
- Provide instructional support for new vocabulary and for understanding the different characters.
6. Poetry Cafe
Poetry is a wonderful tool for building fluency for students of all ages. Students develop and strengthen their prosody through the melody, rhythm, and pacing inherent in poetry.
This activity can be adapted to your grade level or your students’ needs. You may choose to have a “poetry cafe day” once a month or it could be a one-time event.
Students can volunteer to read poems that you’ve been practicing as a class or they can create their own to share.
7. Perform a Speech
One way to develop prosody for your older students is to assign them a piece of text that lends itself to performance, such as a historical speech.
This activity offers cross-curricular connections to other content areas. Students can analyze their chosen speeches in the context of the time they were given— What rhetorical elements can be identified? What were the challenges during that time in history? How do these relate to current events? What historical topics were mentioned in the speech?
American Rhetoric offers a free database of the top 100 influential American speeches in the 20th Century. Video and audio recordings are available along with printable PDF transcripts.
By integrating evidence-based practices into our fluency instruction, we can empower our students to become better readers.
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