[Editor’s note: This is the third part of our five-part series on the best practices of learning to read and learning to read better.]
To read Part 1, “Unlocking Language,” click here.
To read Part 2, “Vocabulary and Comprehension,” click here.
For emerging readers, text reading fluency generally refers to oral reading fluency, as students are encouraged to become fluent by reading out loud, with the teacher as a model, by themselves, or in groups. Fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and with appropriate prosody, or inflection and expression. To achieve fluency, students need to have mastered a number of skills, including decoding, knowledge of high-frequency words or direct instruction in unfamiliar words that they’ll encounter in the text, the ability to multitask — process one word while moving toward the next — and comprehending what the author is saying.
People often use the terms automaticity and fluency interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Automaticity refers to fast, effortless word recognition that comes with extensive reading practice. While early readers may be accurate in reading, they are often slow and inefficient at recognizing words, as their vocabularies have not yet been well developed. It’s only through continued reading practice that word recognition becomes faster, more automatic, and effortless. Automaticity, therefore, refers only to reading speed and fast word recognition; it has nothing to do with comprehension and expression.
Fluency refers to readers who are able to read quickly but who also can make connections between words and between ideas in the text; and who can apply their own background knowledge to aid overall comprehension. These readers also apply proper intonation and expression to what they are reading — they read as if they were speaking naturally.
But how do we teach students to become fluent readers? Research over the last 20 years has identified repetition — repeated reading — as the key strategy (NICHD, 2000). Repeated reading contains two essential elements: 1) Providing students with the opportunity to read and then re-read the same text, and 2) Having students practice their reading orally, with an opportunity to receive corrections and guidance from the teacher and/or classmates, if necessary. Research has also determined that having students read orally, together with a model of well-paced, expressive reading and specific feedback through systematic progress monitoring, also improves their fluency skills.
A key part of developing the foundations for fluent reading begin in kindergarten (or even in preschool), with fingerpoint reading, the ability to point at a print word as it is being said aloud.
Ehri and Sweet (1991) conducted a study of this technique to determine what skills the students needed to have to sustain fingerpoint reading and what such a task contributed to reading development. They found that to be proficient at fingerpoint reading, students needed to develop at least some knowledge of phonemic segmentation, some beginning sounds and the letters they correspond to, and some vocabulary knowledge. The task also includes left-to-right and top-to-bottom orientations, some familiarity with the structure of written language, and an understanding that spoken language corresponds to written language (Bowling and Cabell, 2018; Ehri and Sweet, 1991; Mesmer and Lake, 2010).
Additional studies point out the difficulties in applying phonological knowledge to text without a clear understanding of the “concept of word” that we discussed in Part 1 — the idea that groups of letters separated by spaces and punctuation marks refer to words and not to syllables (Morris, 1983; Morris, 1989; Morris and Henderson, 1981). That means students must coordinate what they learn about segmenting phonemes with both the concept of a word and an idea of how print works.
Reading words and pointing to their counterparts tends to be a bit choppy, but until students develop these initial abilities to match speech and print, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to go on to develop fluency as it’s more traditionally defined.
Accuracy, too, is a fundamental aspect of fluency, so teachers working with beginning readers need to focus significant amounts of their instructional time on basic word recognition and word analysis skills (Pikulski and Chard, 2005). The most effective way to accomplish this is by providing instruction that systematically presents daily opportunities for students to learn to read words accurately (Snow, Burns, and Griffith, 1998). Increased, accurate word knowledge is an important early step in becoming a skillful, proficient, and motivated reader. Pushing students to “read faster” too soon, however, can lead them to guess more frequently and undermine their focus on reading accurately.
Empirical research doesn’t weigh in on when, precisely, teachers should formally begin encouraging their beginning readers to increase their reading speed, but teachers usually wait until students reach the middle of first grade. Fluency researchers Stahl and Kuhn (2002), however, recommend that students be given ample opportunity to re-read sentences and to make their reading “sound like talking” as soon as they have a good grasp of basic decoding, which denotes some understanding of the act of reading.
Teachers and parents can aid student fluency by frequently modeling fluent reading, either demonstrating or even explicitly pointing out how students can read accurately at a reasonable rate and with good expression. One way to accomplish this in both the classroom and at home is for the teacher/parent to read aloud from large-format books so the students can follow along.
No research data currently exist to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency, even though the ultimate educational goal is to read accurately with speed while reading silently.
Next week: Part 3B: Developing Fluency (continued)
 Partnership for Reading. (2001). “Fluency: An Introduction.” Reading Rockets. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/fluency-introduction.
 In Hasbrouck, J. (2006). “Developing Fluent Readers.” Reading Rockets. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/developing-fluent-readers.
 Shanahan, Timothy. (June 23, 2020). “First You Have to Teach Them to be Disfluent Readers.” Shanahan on Literacy, in Reading Rockets. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/first-you-have-teach-them-be-disfluent-readers.
We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Paul Schmidt, ME Secondary Reading Specialist — Education, in the development of this series.