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What Is Reading Fluency?
Fluent reading is rapid, efficient, and largely free of errors in word identification. But fluency is more than speedy, accurate word reading; a fluent reader also uses appropriate phrasing and expression. A fluent reader knows how to group words into phrases, where to pause, and what to emphasize. In other words, fluent reading sounds like speech.
Why Is Fluency Important?
Comprehension is the goal of reading, and fluency is required for comprehension (NICHD, 2000, p.3-1). At a minimum, accurate and efficient word reading is necessary. Comprehension suffers when poor readers must focus on "getting the words off the page" and therefore aren't able to give much attention to the meaning of what they are reading. In contrast, fluent readers are able to focus on meaning because for them, decoding is automatic and effortless.
In addition, some level of comprehension is required for fluency. Once again, the components work together and reinforce each other. Fluency is part of the process of comprehension because fluent reading involves interpretation: grouping words into phrases and using word knowledge and punctuation to determine pacing, pauses, intonation, and expression. Even when words are read accurately, a flat word-by-word reading doesn't sound like speech and therefore doesn't convey the writer's entire message. In speech we group words into phrases, pause and slow down to make an important point, and emphasize key words.
Most texts provide clues to phrasing, emphasis, and tone: punctuation, bold print, descriptive words, and signal words or phrases (such as finally, however, therefore, consequently, and on the other hand.) Fluent readers notice and use those clues as well as their knowledge of how words form phrases, and are therefore able to read in a manner that preserves the meaning the writer intended to convey.
Who Needs Fluency Development?
Most adult beginning readers need work on fluency, because fluency depends on rapid, accurate word reading, and beginners are, by definition, struggling to read words. However, even those with higher-level silent reading comprehension scores may need work on fluency and the underlying decoding skills and knowledge, if they are to progress beyond their current levels of reading achievement.
These intermediate-level readers are easy to miss if you look at silent reading tests only. You cannot know they need work on fluency unless you listen to them read. (However, if they work slowly on silent reading tests you might suspect they read slowly.) If you do oral reading assessments for speed and accuracy, you may discover that some intermediate-level readers need to improve decoding skills. Even those who score at a more advanced level on a silent reading test may read slowly in a word-by-word manner--or rapidly, but without expression and without attention to punctuation. Both types of less-than-fluent readers may have limited comprehension. Focused, systematic instruction and fluency practice may enable these learners to make significant gains in overall reading.
How Can We Assess Fluency?
There is no single best test or procedure for fluency assessment. Since fluency involves speed, accuracy, and expression, you will need more than one measure to address all these aspects of fluency and your three assessment purposes (initial planning, progress monitoring, and outcomes measurement).
Fluency tests measure oral reading accuracy and/or rate using paragraphs at increasing readability levels. Some also assess speed and accuracy in isolated-word identification. Fluency must be individually assessed. (See Chapter 8 for more on test tasks.)
Informal Reading Inventories. An Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) may also be an option. Although these instruments are not as reliable as more formal tests, they involve oral reading and include grade-leveled passages. The typical IRI calls for the learner to read (aloud) words in increasingly difficult lists, continuing until she reaches "frustration level," defined by a designated number of errors. Next the learner reads passages of increasing difficulty, and the administrator notes errors and types of errors in word identification (miscues). After each passage, the administrator asks comprehension questions. When the learner again reaches frustration level (based on comprehension errors and miscues) the administrator may begin reading passages to the learner and asking questions, in order to gauge listening comprehension, a measure of reading potential. These inventories typically yield scores that define independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels in terms of grade-equivalence.
An idea from research with children: Most ABE learners receiving reading instruction could be classified as poor readers. Fluency instruction may be especially effective for improving poor readers' achievement, regardless of their reading grade equivalent (Kruidenier).
However, an IRI is not intended as a fluency assessment. To get a fluency-focused score you must adapt the scoring procedure, considering the reader's word identification performance only (on the word lists and passage reading portions), not the comprehension questions (Strucker, 1997a).
Still another reservation regarding IRIs should be noted: scoring of these inventories is often unreliable. If you use such an instrument, be sure everyone who administers it has clear, complete directions, as well as training, to ensure that they are all following the same guidelines for judging reading performance. (See Chapter 3 for details on reliability.)
A grade-leveled textbook series (that you are not using for instruction) is a possible source for these passages.
Timed oral reading samples are another option for measuring fluency. Even if you choose a test for initial assessment, you may decide to monitor progress less formally by taking periodic samples of students' oral reading. Put Reading First (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001) suggests this strategy for children, which might be adapted for adults as described below.
Select three brief passages at a learner's current approximate instructional reading level and ask him to read each one for exactly one minute, reading as rapidly and accurately as possible. Then count the number of words read in each passage, and compute the average words read per minute for the three passages. Next, count the number of errors on each and compute the average number of words read correctly per minute. For each administration of timed oral readings, you will have a words-read-per-minute (WPM) score and a words-read-correctly-per-minute (WCPM) score. If you use this kind of assessment periodically, learners may find it reinforcing to chart their progress in speed and accuracy.
This approach may be especially appropriate for ESOL students because they may read slowly, in part, because English is not their first and most "comfortable" language. Comparing an individual's performance over time may be more meaningful than looking at test scores based on national norms.
You may also use a scoring rubric to rate reading performances for phrasing and expression. A four-level rubric was used in a study of fourth-graders' fluency conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (Pinnell, et al., 1995). A six-point scale is described in the article, "Fluency: The neglected reading goal" (Allington, 1983).
Most readers will perform more fluently if they have read a passage silently before they read it aloud. You may decide to allow silent reading before you take an oral sample. If you do this, you must, of course, be sure you do it every time, so you can make valid comparisons between samples.
A Fluency Assessment Plan
What Kind of Fluency Instruction is Most Effective?
Research suggests that guided repeated oral reading may improve one or more aspects of fluency as well as comprehension (NICHD, 2000, p. 3-28). These approaches call for the learner to read a passage several times, with guidance, until an acceptable level of fluency is reached, at which point she begins work on another passage at the same or a slightly higher level of difficulty.
Guidance may involve any of the following:
Approaches to guided repeated oral reading
No one approach to guided repeated oral reading has been demonstrated to be consistently more effective than others. Several are described below.
An idea from the children's research: To improve ABE readers' fluency (as well as word recognition and reading comprehension achievement), use repeated guided oral reading procedures (Kruidenier).
Reading to the teacher or tutor. The learner reads a brief passage aloud, and the teacher or tutor provides help as needed to identify problem words. The teacher may also ask a couple of recall questions after the reading. Then the learner reads the passage aloud again one or more times, continuing until he can read it comfortably with few errors and can recall facts and details accurately. By engaging the reader in discussion and asking comprehension questions after each reading, the teacher maintains a focus on meaning and demonstrates to the learner that re-reading not only increases accuracy, but also results in better understanding. When fluency is achieved with one passage, the learner begins working on another one. In a slight variation on this approach, the teacher begins the session by reading the passage aloud before asking the learner to read.
Echo reading. The teacher or tutor reads a sentence aloud and the learner reads the same sentence immediately afterward, imitating the teacher's phrasing. They proceed through the text this way. Then the learner may attempt re-reading the text aloud independently. As an alternative, echo reading may be used as an additional level of support during other guided repeated reading procedures. For instance, when the learner finishes reading a passage aloud, the teacher may use echo reading with selected phrases or sentences that were especially challenging for the learner.
Dyad and choral reading. In dyad reading the teacher or tutor and learner read a passage or story aloud in unison. At any point, if the learner is reading comfortably, she may offer to read alone or the teacher may simply stop reading. If the learner begins to struggle or miscalls one or more words that have significance for the meaning of the passage, the teacher resumes reading. The teacher's role is to provide a model for fluent, expressive reading and to provide any words the learner can't quickly identify. They might practice this way for a few minutes during each class meeting, continuing to re-read the passage until the learner is reading accurately and smoothly, perhaps to a predetermined standard for word errors (miscues) and/or reading speed. They would then begin work on another passage, gradually increasing the readability level of the material. The teacher may also ask comprehension questions after each reading.
In choral reading, a group of learners reads aloud in unison.
Paired or partner reading. Pairs of learners take turns reading and re-reading the same passage to each other, or they read aloud together as in dyad reading above. Learners may be similar in reading fluency or one may be deliberately paired with a better reader so he can provide assistance.
Tape-assisted reading. Using taped readings, a learner is able to work more independently, reading along while listening to the passage on tape. This could be done during class time or at home. Sometimes the learner is instructed to listen and read the passage a set number of times (usually at least three). Alternatively, the direction might be to re-read until she feels able to read it accurately and comfortably. The teacher might use commercial books on tape or make recordings of texts or authentic materials.
Performance reading. A class or group of learners practices reading a text to prepare for performance of a poem, play, or story. Because of its rhythm, poetry requires a measure of fluency to be appreciated, and a proper, expressive reading may require repeated readings (Rasinski, 2000). Poetry provides a natural, authentic reason to reread, and adults often enjoy modern poetry (Strucker, 1997a). Adults also may find children's poetry amusing, and those who are parents might enjoy preparing to share a poem with their children.
Learners also might use performance reading to present the findings of a project or problem they have studied together, selecting text from different sources to illustrate important facts or concepts. They might divide up sections or roles and practice reading their parts aloud to each other and the teacher. They also might tape their readings so each reader can assess his delivery and make improvements. Performances like these give learners a real reason to re-read text.
Cross-generational reading. As a variation on performance reading, parents might prepare to read to their children by re-reading stories with a teacher's assistance or a tape recording. (This activity is most appropriate for parents who find reading age-appropriate children's books sufficiently challenging to benefit from fluency practice. If they have very young children, appropriate stories may be too easy for many parents, and re-reading such material is therefore less likely to result in fluency gains.)
An idea from research with children: Use systematic phonics instruction (as opposed to non-systematic or incidental phonics instruction) to improve adult beginning readers' reading fluency (Kruidenier, 2002).
Phonics instruction and decoding practice
If word identification is part of the fluency problem, phonics instruction may make a difference. The teacher uses assessments to identify learners' specific decoding problems, and then provides focused, systematic instruction in phonics and/or sight word recognition.
Issues in fluency instruction
When you begin planning for fluency development, you will find several issues need to be resolved.
Appropriate difficulty level of materials. When choosing reading materials for fluency practice, how do you decide on the difficulty level? For fluency practice aimed at building speed and improving phrasing and expression, some authors suggest using material at the learner's independent reading level, to minimize word identification problems. If, however, you also want to work on the word-reading aspect of fluency, you may want a passage that is somewhat difficult--at the instructional reading level--so the learner gets decoding practice as well as work on the other aspects of fluency. As fluency improves you should increase the difficulty of reading material.
Text readability. You can calculate the reading grade level of any passage using a simple readability formula. (See Appendix C.) Your computer word processing program also may evaluate text for readability. If you are using commercial textbooks written to grade-level specifications as a source for oral reading passages, you might still check the readability with a formula, because materials may vary from one publisher to another. Once you have located a number of passages at different reading levels, you can match materials to each learner's assessed level.
If you have only a silent reading comprehension score from a standardized test, you should use it cautiously in this situation because such measures do not assess oral reading accuracy.
Learners' reading levels. The learner's oral reading level (grade equivalent) may be assessed with an informal reading inventory (IRI). Alternatively, if you are using passages from graded textbooks for fluency practice, you may simply have the learner try one or more sample passages and determine reading level based on word-reading accuracy. Of course you'll need a standard for defining levels, and these vary from one author to another. A conservative estimate would judge text to be at the learner's independent reading level if she is able to read it with 98-99% accuracy, or no more than two errors in 100 words. Instructional reading level may be defined as approximately 95-97% accuracy, or no more than five errors in 100 words. Then, depending on the focus of your practice activity (speed/expression or accuracy), you may choose an independent- or instructional-level passage.
Length of passage. There are no generally accepted guidelines, but time is a consideration. It is usually recommended that fluency practice should occupy only a small portion of each reading lesson, so you will need to choose passages that can be read aloud several times in a few minutes. Passages might range from 50 to 200 words, depending on the reading ability of the learner.
Type of text. This decision again depends not only on the reader's ability, but also on his goals and interests. In general, it makes sense to provide practice with various types of texts, including children's and adults' literature, samples taken from workbooks and other classroom materials, as well as authentic materials adults need to read outside of class.
Audiotapes. You may use commercial books-on-tape for this activity. However, these products are not intended as instructional aids, and the reader may read more quickly than an adult learner can follow. Tape players with variable-speed playback may solve this problem. Another option is to create your own tapes of selected passages. If you do this, you can provide support for the reader, reading slowly, for instance (while still modeling phrasing and expression), and signaling (perhaps by ringing a bell) at the end of a section or page.
Teacher assistance. How much help should you provide? When and how should you correct errors? One guideline for correcting miscues is to refrain from stepping in unless the reader makes an error that affects meaning. It's also a good idea to allow the reader a few seconds to identify the word or correct a mistake. Then you may provide the word--or a phonic cue if you think the learner should be able to figure it out. But you probably should not choose this moment to teach or review a phonics rule. In general, you want to avoid interrupting the flow (Strucker, 1997a). (However, you might ask the learner to re-read a phrase or sentence after correcting a word.)
Silent reading. Most people perform better in oral reading when they read silently first. You may want to encourage learners to read a passage silently before reading it aloud. After all, repeated reading activities are intended as learning and practice opportunities, not assessment tasks. Silent reading may allow time to identify words that might cause a reader to stumble, and also give her time to decide on the grouping of words into phrases. Figuring out when to pause and how to group are important decisions and readers don't always do it right the first time.
Fluency standards. You may ask, "How long does one continue to re-read a passage? Are we aiming for perfection? How fluent is fluent enough?" There seem to be no generally acceptable standards. And of course, fluency has three different aspects: speed, accuracy, and expression. So you may need more than one kind of standard.
Regarding speed, it's hard to say what's fluent enough. Reading rate guidelines for children at different grade levels may not apply to adult learners.
If you're working on accuracy, you probably have chosen a slightly difficult passage to build decoding skills.
You might use independent reading level as your target, so that reading with 98-99% accuracy is the aim. At that point, you move to the next level passages. However, this is a high standard, and the learner might find the number of repetitions required to be unacceptable, so you might need to lower your expectations. You might also use one of the fluency scoring rubrics to judge phrasing and expression (see References, Pinnell, et al., 1995 and Allington, 1983), and then set your sights on an improved rating.
Of course, since this is not a high-stakes decision, perhaps teacher and learner judgment will suffice: If you and the learner are comfortable with the progress made and ready for a little more challenging material, you might try the next level.
What Does Fluency Practice Look Like?
Oral reading for fluency should be a regular activity for adults who need to improve speed, accuracy, or expression, but it doesn't have to take a lot of time. The sample activities below should require only 10-20 minutes each.
Sample #1: Echo reading activity
Sample #2: Paired repeated reading
Summary: Fluency Tips in a Nutshell