Understanding and Teaching Reading Fluency in Your Classroom

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Check out Waterford’s Science of Reading series. Discover how the brain learns to read and get tips for effective, researched-based classroom instruction from Director of Curriculum Julie Christensen.

Let’s explore reading fluency, an important foundation for reading comprehension. In this article you’ll discover strategies for fostering reading fluency in the classroom, along with five free activities you can use with your students!

What Is Reading Fluency?

Reading fluency, in a nutshell, is the ability to read at an appropriate pace, with good accuracy, and with natural expression According to Julie Christensen in a recent video, fluency refers to “reasonably accurate reading, which is typically 95% or more accuracy, at an appropriate rate.”[1]

The building blocks for reading fluency are put in place early in a student’s literacy development, beginning with the ability to quickly and accurately name letters and recall letter-sound correspondences.[2] As students develop phonological awareness and phonics skills, they build a strong sight word bank through a process called orthographic mapping. This process builds reading fluency because it enables students to recognize an increasing number of words automatically.[1]

As students develop reading fluency, the cognitive load needed for decoding is decreased and students can devote more focus to understanding the meaning of texts. Thus, fluent reading supports reading comprehension which, in turn, supports reading motivation.[3]

Because reading fluency includes reading at an appropriate pace, it is often misunderstood as teaching students to read as fast as they can. But a student’s reading comprehension can be harmed by a focus on reading quickly. It’s important to realize that reading fluency is NOT:[1]

  • Text memorization
  • Reading as quickly as possible
  • Repeated reading of passages that are too difficult for a student to read fluently after several tries

Strategies for Teaching Students Reading Fluency

To support fluency development in the classroom, focus on building students’ sight word banks. Guide students to use the orthographic mapping process, identifying the phonemes in a word and connecting each sound with the letter or letters that represent it. Use this approach with high-frequency words as well as groups of words that follow the same spelling pattern.[4]

As readers have repeated exposure to a specific word, the letters and sounds of the word are permanently linked in their memory, and the student is able to process the word automatically (or with automaticity) when they see it in print. They no longer have to rely on methodical decoding for that word—and each word then adds to their ability to read fluently.[5]

According to Julie Christensen, flashcards can be a useful tool for building a student’s sight word bank, but they should not be used as a memorization tool or on their own in the absence of explicit instruction.[1] Instead, flashcards are best used only to reinforce word recognition after students have worked through the orthographic mapping process with the individual words or with words that share the same spelling pattern.

Additionally, you can help students become more fluent readers by focusing on accuracy and meaning.[1] Focusing on reading quickly can overwhelm students and lead to more errors and less accuracy. If a student is having trouble reading a sentence or text, encourage them to slow down or practice reading fluently with a less challenging passage.

5 Reading Fluency Activities for Elementary Students

You can use these free resources from Waterford.org to foster reading fluency and reading comprehension. These activities make your literacy lessons not only research-based but also engaging!

1. Speed isn’t everything when it come to reading fluency, but one-minute readings can be helpful when combined with a strong focus on reading comprehension.[1]

2. Reading comprehension can be improved by guiding students to read with expression.[1] As your students read aloud, ask them to reflect on the story’s events and imagine themselves in the characters’ shoes.

For a free picture book to read aloud to your students, use Mine by Elizabeth Lane—an engaging story about a young girl and her family (available here in Spanish).

3. Families play a crucial role in supporting their child’s learning, and working together with families is key to a student’s success. As a suggestion for practicing reading fluency at home, share this activity sheet with the families in your classroom (available in Spanish here).

4. Provide your students with models of fluent reading. Read aloud to your students regularly, then let them practice by reading along with this fluency modeling video.

5. Building a large sight word bank is essential for developing reading fluency. These high-frequency word cards can be used to practice the orthographic mapping process, identifying the sounds within words and matching those sounds with the letter or letters that represent them.

Sources:

  1. Christensen, J., & Esser, L. Fluency: The Bridge from Word Identification to Reading Comprehension. Video from Waterford.org. January. 2021.
  2. Christensen, J. The Science of Reading: From Research to Instruction. Waterford.org, April 2021.
  3. International Literacy Association. Reading Fluently Does Not Mean Reading Fast. 2018. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/ila-reading-fluently-does-not-mean-reading-fast.pdf
  4. Kilpatrick, D.A. Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons. September 2015. Print.
  5. Castles, A., Rastle, K., and Nation, K. Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, June 2018, 19(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1529100618772271

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