Reading fluency has been at the apex of my own reading instructional agenda for quite a long time, and today I’d like to share the story with you of how it got top billing. I have found that reading fluency is a necessary competency for reading comprehension and that many students who struggle in reading comprehension are also very likely to manifest difficulties in reading fluency.
I like to say that fluency is the gateway or bridge to comprehension and that teaching fluency can lead to improvements in reading comprehension for many students. Research has shown that students who struggle in fluency are more likely to struggle in comprehending what they read; and students who are more fluent in their reading are more likely to have better comprehension.
My journey into fluency began as an intervention teacher in Nebraska. I was working with students who should not have been struggling readers. They were quite bright, did well in other subject areas, but seemed unresponsive to the instruction I was providing in what, at the time, were the big areas of reading—word recognition and reading fluency.
Fortunately for me, I was working on my master’s degree at the time and the professors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha had us reading some of the early articles that were beginning to come out on reading. One article was “After decoding, then what?” by Carol Chomsky. Dr. Chomsky worked as a reading specialist and had been instructing students in word recognition to the point where they were quite proficient in word decoding. Still, despite this accomplishment her students made little progress in overall reading proficiency, including reading comprehension. Willing to try just about anything, she came upon the idea of having students read a passage while simultaneously listening to a recorded version of the same text by a fluent reader. Students would practice with this aid until they could read on their own. Not only did the students make remarkable improvements in their reading, Chomsky reported that their confidence in themselves as readers and their motivation to read increased as well.
Another article I read in my master’s program was Jay Samuels’ “The method of repeated reading.” In this paper, Dr. Samuels had low achieving readers (those who had been making slow progress) read one text several times through until they achieved a level of fluency in the text. Then they moved on to another passage and did the same thing. Samuels found that every time the students read a passage they improved in all aspects of their reading. That is to be expected. The unexpected finding, especially since these were students who previously were making minimal progress in reading, was that when the students moved on to a new passage they had not previously seen there were vestiges of improvement on the new passage as well. Students had transferred something of what they had learned through the practice of one passage to a new never-before-read passage. That was real progress for these students.
I decided to try these fluency methods with my own students who had been making hardly any progress despite my best efforts. Lo and behold, by having students practice texts while listening to a recorded version of the reading or while listening to me read with them, my students who had previously been making minimal progress began to take off; and in some cases their progress was breathtaking. I have been using fluency methods and studying fluency ever since. When the National Reading Panel decided to explore a scientific foundation for the teaching of reading, they cited some of my own research and writing to support the importance of reading fluency.
Fluency instruction can include a variety of components. It is important to model fluent reading for students so that they know what reading fluency actually is. In many classrooms around the country, students have developed the idea that fluency is reading fast without regard to comprehension. What better way to show them what true fluency is than by reading to your students and talking with them about how you improved their appreciation of the text by reading with fluency.
Fluency is also developed by having students read a passage while listening to a fluent reading of the same passage. This can be done by providing students with recorded versions of the passage or by having students read with you or together with other members of the class. Practice is another way to build fluency. Reading practiceshould consist of deep as well as wide reading. Deep reading means reading a text several times until it can be read with appropriate fluency that reflects and enhances the meaning of the passage. Wide reading means reading independently from a variety of texts to increase vocabulary, word recognition and knowledge.
I hope I have enticed you to think more about fluency in your own instruction. Please join me on September 11 th when I will be initiating a series of webinars on effective teaching and reading fluency (and comprehension).