Fluency Development for Struggling Readers
Practical One-on-One Strategies for Parents and Teachers
By Dr Jason McGowan (Ed.D)
President – Literacy Foundation for Children
There has, for many years (and for very good reasons), been a significant emphasis on the teaching of Phonics and the important underlying skills associated with Phonological and Orthographic Processing.
The ‘sense’ is that in Queensland schools there is, at least a small but positive, shift away from ‘whole word and whole language’ based instruction to more explicit phonological and decoding based delivery of reading, spelling and fluency instruction.
A very positive outcome of evidenced based graphophonemic instruction is much higher word reading and single word spelling accuracy.
However, it is equally apparent that, explicit intervention in phonics and graphophonemic based word attack still falls short of achieving fully automated, effortless and language-based reading ability.
(continued from email …)
School age children may well read (and spell) very accurately as a result of explicit instruction but many still fail to read a passage of connected text at the optimal speed (not too slow, not fast but variable), obey punctuation and essentially ‘lift-out’ meaning as they read.
This lack of automaticity and failure to ‘convert’ the text to language is essentially a problem of Fluency. Specific Reading Impairment or Dyslexia is not only a decoding and whole word recognition difficulty but it extends to problems with reading rate (word per minute speed) and reading text as communicative language.
Research suggests that there may be as much as a 0.90 correlation between reading fluency and comprehension. Reading fluently does of course imply a student is an accurate reader but accuracy alone is not enough to secure immediate literal and inferential comprehension of written text.
A further and seldom discussed aspect of oral reading fluency is its impact on expressive or communicative writing. Simply put, a child who fails to read fluently will also significantly struggle to write fluently. Dysfluent readers generally struggle to grasps the conventions of written text which means they also struggle to reproduce these conventions when writing expressive text.
Put bluntly, Dysfluent readers tend to become effortful and dysfluent writers. Conversely, the early fluent readers tend to become the early fluent writers.
What to do?
Research over the past two decades has identified repeated reading as the key strategy for improving students’ fluency skills (NICHD, 2000). Repeated reading has two essential elements: 1) Giving students 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 (if necessary).
Research has also determined that having students read aloud along with a model of well-paced, expressive reading and receiving specific feedback through systematic progress monitoring also helps improve students’ fluency skills.
An interesting point is that decodable readers may be of less value to the development of reading fluency then those readers that focus on the delivery of high frequency words in the order of their occurrence in English. Unfortunately, High Frequency Word readers are far less available then are decodable readers which seem to be very prevalent in most classrooms.
When to Commence
Empirical research is so far unhelpful in indicating when fluent reading instruction should commence. Fluency researchers, Stahl and Kuhn (2002) recommend that students be given opportunities to re-read sentences and encouraged to make their reading “sound like talking” as soon as they are making good progress with basic decoding, demonstrating an understanding of the act of reading, and showing some degree of confidence-whether that happens in Prep or in grade one.
Teachers and parents should also frequently model fluent reading, demonstrating (and sometimes explicitly pointing out) how accurate reading can be done at a reasonable rate and with good phrasing, intonation, inflection and expression. Fluency development is essentially a product of ‘coached reading’. This, of necessity, involves a competent adult to model reading and provide instructive feedback for the reader.
Consider the Following Fluency Development Strategies
The strategies below have varying levels of efficacy in relation to fluency development. All should be considered as worthy to implement depending on whether the situation is one-on-one or in a classroom. It also depends, of course, on the skill level of the student. For those with specific reading impairment or Dyslexia the more explicit strategies will be more relevant.
Model / Choral / Individual / Cumulative – Repeated Reading
This repeated reading strategy may not be the most enjoyable due to the repetitive element but this is outweighed by significant efficacy in relation to whole word knowledge and oral fluency gains. (McGowan 2002)
This strategy is best used with high frequency word readers. The steps are below:
Select a portion of text and divide the text into 4 short sections:
Model: An adult (parent or teacher) reads the first portion of text to the student using appropriate voice skills;
Choral: The adult and student then read the same portion of text simultaneously (chiming their voices together;
Individual: The student then reads the same portion of text individually and out loud;
Cumulative: The previous steps are repeated on the second portion of text and then the student reads both portions of text individually and out loud
These steps are repeated until the student finally reads all fours sections individually and out loud.
This strategy involves the adult and student reading aloud together. The student focusses on accuracy but also following the adult’s pace and phrasing so the student obtains the benefit of a model while they practice reading aloud. The adult can stop at any time to ask questions, comment on the text, or discuss vocabulary. The student may benefit from using their finger to point to individual words or a ruler set below the line being read.
Cloze Reading is similar to choral reading, except that the adult does most of the oral reading while the students read along silently. Once or twice every few sentences, the adult omits an important vocabulary or content word, not a simple sight word, and the students’ ‘job’ is to read this word aloud.
Notice that with cloze reading, as opposed to choral reading, students spend less time practicing oral reading. Therefore, cloze reading is best thought of as an infrequent alternative to other strategies.
In a class context, Cloze Reading allows teachers to cover text and keep students engaged while avoiding the pitfalls of subjecting the class to examples of poor reading and embarrassing struggling students. However, it is likely that the lowest performing readers will be unable to keep up or to correctly read every omitted word, but they will not be singled out-and will be provided with examples of proficient reading.
Another classroom method for improving fluency is to have students read aloud to a peer (same age). This procedure works best when students are taught some techniques for giving feedback and managing their time, and when the partners have been selected by the teacher.
Performance Reading (One on One)
Performance reading is specifically for developing the voice skills that important to reading for meaning. It is sometimes referred to as Theatre Reading or Dramatic Reading. (Rasinki 2006), McGowan 2002)
These kinds of activities provide students with an opportunity to read text that is enjoyable-and provides a clear incentive for students to read, and re-read, their assigned portion of text. It also works well with rhyming poetry where it is important to stress certain words.
The following are markers or qualities of oral reading that indicate how fluent a child is when reading orally. The presence of the following markers (performed correctly and timely) should result in a student reading the text in the way that the author intended it to be read. Thus, it should allow for the highest possible level of comprehension on the first reading of the text.
- Reading Accuracy (usually measured quantitatively)
- Reading Rate (usually measured quantitatively)
- Use of Voice Intonation (the rise, fall, pitch and tone)
Inflection (stress, rhythm, cadence, accentuation)
Expression (emotional control)
- Obedience to punctuation
- Reading the text in the way that the author intended it to be read
- “Lift out meaning” as ‘you’ read
The markers above can be coached and this strategy is best used in a one-on-one situation. The student should stand (as if performing) while the adult (coach) sits nearby. The student must ‘give permission’ for the adult to provide coaching along the way. This creates a sense of trust and engagement. This strategy will likely involve the adult asking the student to re-read a sentence or more as well as the adult taking time to model the markers mentioned above. The adult will need a copy of what the student is reading.
Each of the Fluency Development and Repeated Reading Strategies mentioned above have strengths and weaknesses. However, the one weakness that they all share is overuse or prolonged use at any single sitting. Therefore, it is important that the implementation time be limited to approximately 15 minutes. This will allow a proper implementation but also allow for other important strategic work to be completed within an overall intervention time of 45 minutes daily. As with all explicit strategies, benefits will be noticed when a student engages for 5 days per week.
The ability to read text accurately, at a reasonable rate, and with appropriate expression and phrasing is a key factor in being able to understand what has been read and to enjoy the process of reading.
Parents and teachers must strive whenever possible to emphasize that reading is essentially a language skill. The student’s ‘job’ when reading text is to convert it into intelligible and communicative language that can be understood, enjoyed and if necessary, illicit a response from the reader or for the listening audience.
Hasbrouck, J. (2006). For Students Who Are Not Yet Fluent, Silent Reading Is Not the Best Use of Classroom Time. American Educator, Summer 2006, 30(2).
Hudson, R.F., Lane, H.B.,&Pullen, P.C. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why, and how? The Reading Teacher, 58, 702–714.
Martinez, M., Roser, N.,&Strecker, S. (1999). “I never thought I could be a star“: A Readers Theatre ticket to reading fluency. The Reading Teacher, 52, 326–334.
Shaywitz, Sally. (2020) 2nd Edition. Overcoming Dyslexia, A New and Complete Scientific Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level Yale University
Stahl, Steven A, Kuhn, Melanie (2002) Making it Sound Like Language: Developing Fluency. The Reading Teacher, 55, 6
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