Lots of people are under the impression that to check for reading fluency, one must whip out a timer and a passage and determine how many words are read in one minute. Teachers inadvertently express this message to students and parents when the focus is on a timer. Fluency is often mistaken for speed and speed alone, but what is fluency exactly and how do you check for it?
Speed is not the only aspect of fluency
For starters, speed is only one aspect of reading fluency and the reason why it is even considered is because it is needed for comprehension. In the end, the purpose of reading is comprehension. One would not read and call it fruitful or enjoyable if they took nothing away from it.
In fact, if we were to only look at speed as a determiner of fluency, we would do students a great disservice. Often times, students who can read fast are left to read and fend for themselves. When it comes to explicit reading instruction and guided reading groups, these fast readers are sent to read on their own or to complete worksheets. During this time, teachers meet with students who are still at a word by word level and are seen as the only students who “need” explicit reading instruction.
“Why is Maria never in a reading group?” “Oh, she can read fast! She doesn’t need reading groups!”
On the contrary, if reading is about comprehension and thinking deeply, the students who are reading fast could benefit greatly from guided reading instruction that is tailored to them and their needs. These students who read fast, but do not get direct instruction fall through the cracks. Before anyone has the chance to even notice, they’re the ones falling behind in other academic areas. Although they can read fast, they may not possess the higher order thinking skills that their peers possess.
Fluency affects comprehension. Comprehension affects fluency.
The many aspects of Reading Fluency
What are we looking for if we are to check for reading fluency? We are looking for accuracy, automaticity, expression (prosody), and phrasing.
When a reader is able to read accurately, it means that they identify the words in the text correctly. Students who read at a good pace and meet reading benchmark for their grade level cannot be considered fluent if their errors are significant.
The comprehension of the text suffers if the student is consistently making errors and not being precise with their word recognition. Think of the effects inaccuracy can have on a student’s critical thinking skills if they don’t receive guided instruction.
When students become automatic with their reading, they are able to identify words without the need for decoding. Automaticity is the reason why we teach high frequency words. High frequency words are words most commonly found in text. Once students are continuously exposed to these words, they become sight words. Sight words are words that students can read automatically without the need to decode because of their constant exposure to said words.
There are also the sight words that need to be memorized because they may not follow phonetic rules that the students are being taught. In that case, we would not want the student to spend a large amount of time trying to decode a word that can not be decoded through previously taught phonetic rules. One resource that I use in my classroom and has been extremely beneficial are Sight Word Sentences. I use them because words read in isolation do not constitute automaticity. We want students to read words in context and make meaning of what they have read.
Prosody is the pattern of rhythm created by stress, emphasis, and appropriate phrasing. Through this combination, readers create an expressive rendering of the text.
One of the most effective ways to help students with increasing that aspect of fluency is to engage them with reader’s theater. When engaging in reader’s theater, students are able to read aloud with expression. While doing so, they are gathering meaning from the text they are engaging with. They will also have the opportunity to practice speaking skills, such as pronunciation, inflection, expression, and varied volume.
The re-reading of these scripts increases comprehension of what is being read and it is notable when students begin show expression through the reading.
Phrasing is all about maintaining the appropriate syntax when reading. Students should be able to break sentences into appropriate phrase units. Using phrasing adequately supports comprehension.
We want to take students from reading word by word, to being able to read phrases and connect words in ways that they can make sense of them. This further supports the research that exclusively reading words in isolation will not lead to fluency.
Punctuation helps students to phrase accordingly; however, not all phrases or thoughts are marked by punctuation. This is when students have to rely heavily on comprehension of the text in order to practice proper phrasing. Phrasing practice is very effective when done with poetry which tends to lack in the use of punctuation.
fluency, fluency, fluency
We know that it’s more than just speed. Let’s continue to strengthen our students’ reading and support them in their comprehension as well.
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