We’ve addressed the issue of reading fluency in emerging readers a number of times, as it’s one of the fundamental concepts that must be explicitly taught by the teacher and practiced by the students (you can find previous texts here and here).
Reading fluency generally refers to a student’s oral reading fluency, as they’re encouraged to become fluent by reading out loud. Either the teacher first models the text by themselves, or the task is performed in groups. Fluency is the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and with appropriate inflection and expression, also known as prosody. To achieve fluency, students first have to master a number of other skills, including decoding, obtaining high-frequency word knowledge or receiving direct instruction in unfamiliar words, demonstrating the ability to multitask — process one word while moving to the next — and understanding what the author is saying (comprehension).
After third grade, though, students transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, and direct fluency instruction is rarely part of the new instruction. While students who already display good automaticity (reading speed and fast word recognition, though not necessarily overall comprehension) with simpler text move to more complex text, while continuing to improve their rate, word-attack skills, and reading with expression. For students who haven’t mastered the foundational skills, the lack of fluency instruction after this point can cause them to fall further behind.
According to the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a not-for-profit organization, there may be a number of reasons why teachers don’t focus on fluency instruction past the third grade. First, state summative tests don’t measure fluency, so many may feel it’s not worth the time covering it when other material that’s assessed also needs to be taught. Second, teachers in classrooms beyond the third grade may not have the familiarity with the pedagogy for ongoing fluency skills because it’s not part of standard practice. And third, current fluency assessments aren’t developed with fourth- and fifth-graders in mind and therefore lack age-appropriate content or interfaces.
Yet the consequences for limiting explicit fluency and other foundational skills instruction and assessment beyond the third grade impacts struggling readers severely. If they find that reading is both difficult and frustrating, they’re less likely to read. That means they’re limiting their exposure to more complex vocabulary, decoding multisyllabic words, and syntax. And if they don’t practice their oral reading in the classroom, they may stop reading aloud at all. At the same time, stronger readers will continue to improve, and this widens the gap not only in the classroom, but also in any area of life where reading is a part. Studies have shown that third-grade reading ability is a strong predictor of on-time high school graduation rate.
So what are educators to do?
Even with time restraints, teachers have many opportunities to strengthen oral reading fluency for older students reading on, above, or below grade level. And many strategies, including those below, can be applied to students’ other classes, allowing greater practice time for those who need it.
This method breaks down learning into smaller, right-sized blocks or ideas that students can handle without becoming overwhelmed. Suggestions for appropriate scaffolding include students reading to each other, the teacher pre-reading a text with students to introduce more difficult vocabulary, and setting up recording stations so students can listen to how they read and make improvements where needed.
- Creative read-aloud opportunities
This method includes not just solo oral reading, but also what’s called “reader theater.” Small groups of students perform the story they’re reading (or poetry or plays), giving them a way to practice their clarity, inflection, and speed using their character’s lines.
- Better assessment programs
Those who create the state assessments need to expand their coverage to better support at-risk fourth- and fifth-graders. By including more complex passage levels, expanding to 1000L (Lexile framework), and taking advantage of emerging educational technologies, they can support a wider range of early readers.
Yes, third grade is an inflection point where students’ education heads off in a new direction, reading-to-learn. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the needs of those who are still struggling with fluency at that time. By addressing their needs when they’re still in fourth or fifth grade, we can narrow the achievement gap and give these students a chance at a richer life with greater opportunities and success.
 NWEA. (nd). “3 Ways to Promote Reading Fluency After Grade 3.” Retrieved from https://www.nwea.org/resource-center/resource/3-ways-to-promote-reading-fluency-after-grade-3/.
 Sparks, Sarah D. (April 8, 2011). “Study: Third Grade Reading Predicts Later High School Graduation.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/study-third-grade-reading-predicts-later-high-school-graduation/2011/04.