About Fluency

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[This article was carried over from the previous issue because of interest in this subject.]

Fluency is often a significant issue for struggling readers. Over the years there have been a variety of viewpoints on when and how to address this issue, so we thought we would share our perspective. You may have already encountered these points in some of our manuals, but, if you did not, we review them here in hopes of helping you make the most of your teaching time and effort.

Fluency is most usefully defined as accuracy plus speed. Reasonable fluency is important for good comprehension. If you sacrifice accuracy to gain speed, you will not improve comprehension. (Increasing speed without accuracy does not happen often, but can occur during some kinds of instruction.) Reading with “expression” is often

a sign of a reader who comprehends well, but improving “expression” does not improve comprehension as much as improving speed and accuracy.

The first question you face is when to begin exercises specifically designed for improving fluency. Some educators feel that you should try to increase speed as soon as a student can read a short passage. Our feeling is that it is best to wait until a student has learned to decode and/or recognize automatically quite a few words. (Let’s say at least a hundred, if not several hundred.) Author Nancy Stevenson discovered, during decades of teaching and tutoring, that many students increased their fluency spontaneously after they became comfortable, confident and accurate with word-attack skills. She then began to hold off her fluency work until she had covered several vowel patterns.

With most struggling readers in the Stevenson Program, we would not initiate fluency exercises until students had learned at least all of the four-letter peanut butter and jelly words. Often we would wait until they had also completed all of the four-letter layer cake words as well. And in some cases we would even wait until the entire Beginning Green Level, including consonant blends, was completed. Nancy found that so many pupils improved their fluency on their own by the time they reached the Basic Blue Level, that it was the best use of her instruction time to hold off on special fluency work.

Of course, this decision can vary greatly from individual to individual. Some students labor extremely hard to read just the oa words, although they do decode them accurately and comprehend what they decode. With such students you might want to begin specific fluency instruction before finishing all the peanut butter and jelly words. On the other hand, a few students, even those who struggle greatly at first, will turn the reading process on suddenly – once they receive the appropriate phonics instruction. Then they never need targeted fluency exercises at all.

In our experience, the best single exercise for improving fluency is repeated oral reading of decodable text. For example, if a student labors through a reading passage, slowly decoding many of the words, then that student should read the passage over again. Many repetitions are not required; three or four are enough. Too many repetitions will encourage the pupil to memorize rather than read the material. If speed does not improve after three or four repetitions, then the student needs to work on a shorter passage. If the student flies through the passage with accuracy, the passage is too short or not challenging enough. There are a number of related points to consider when you initiate repeated oral readings:

– Make sure students read the passage accurately once before they read it another time. If they make a mistake with a word the first time through the passage, they need to decode it correctly. The idea is to go through decoding to achieve fluency, not avoid decoding altogether. If struggling readers start to guess frequently to move faster, they won’t read accurately enough to develop good comprehension.

– Vary the length of the passage being repeated according to the individual needs of the students. This point is very important. For example, one student may need to repeat the sentence “Mike likes to hike near the lake” three times before proceeding. Another student may need to repeat just the phrase “Mike likes to hike” three times before proceeding to the phrase “near the lake,” which will also need to be repeated three times before putting the two phrases together. Other students might need to read two complete sentences out loud, or even a whole paragraph, before repeating.

– Do not ask students to repeat a single word three times in a row. It will not improve fluency. If you want to practice particular words, these words should be included in a list or with other words on a set of cards. Then the whole list or set can be repeated three times.

– Pay attention to each student’s auditory memory. Some students may labor to sound out a single sentence, yet be able to repeat that sentence again fluently with their eyes closed. Your goal is to have students actually read out loud, not just parrot by rote. If you are working with students whose auditory memories allow them to repeat reading passages without actually reading them again (not common), you need to assign a longer passage.

– Use material that has already been covered and mastered for fluency practice. For example if you are currently working on Lesson 24 in the Beginning Green Teacher’s Manual, you would choose passages for oral reading from Lesson 22, or 20 or even earlier. You will increase their reading speed more efficiently if they have already learned to decode the words successfully.

– Do not focus on fluency at the same time that you are investing extra effort in accurate decoding, or some other skill. For example, if, at a particular point in a class session, you focus on getting your students to apply their reading steps without guessing, then do not also try to have them read that passage quickly. Generally you should set aside a period of a few minutes several times a week (at least) to work on fluency. During that time do not interrupt the repeated oral readings with pattern marking activities, vocabulary building discussions, or other instruction.

– Do not work on fluency for long periods. Practicing fluency resembles physical exercise in the sense that fatigue can set in, and it must be managed. In general, fluency exercises accomplish more when done frequently in short sessions. The length of the session can be slowly extended as students become “stronger.”

Having students work with recordings is another good way to improve fluency. This activity also involves repeated oral reading, but in a very different way than the activities described so far. Again the work needs to be tailored to the individual student. The student reads a passage and records it. Students are almost always surprised and often bothered by the sound of their recorded voice. However, they are also very interested in the process. They find that what they sound like inside their own heads is not what the recording sounds like. As they repeat and re-record the passage, their reading changes. You don’t have to emphasize reading faster, just get them to read the passage again until they like the recording better. As they listen to each recorded version, they almost automatically read faster. After a few brief recording sessions, you can explicitly introduce the idea of reading faster, and then reading more material, and then reading the additional material faster and so on.

Readers Theater is also a good tool. Students have a part in a short simple play and they receive a script. However, you do not ask them to memorize their lines. The group “rehearses” by reading the script out loud. Then they have a performance, all with the scripts in front of them. The process causes them to read the same material out loud repeatedly, but it does not seem like a boring “exercise.” It gives them the opportunity to become more emotionally involved in their reading and to read more expressively. It can be great fun, but it can also cause some students additional anxiety, even if the “audience” is comprised only of their classmates. It is definitely a tool worth exploring, and it is one reason why we published Ten Plays for the Stevenson Program.

If you have any thoughts on this issue that you would like to share, please contact us, and we will post them. And, as always, if you have any questions do not hesitate to call us – 800-343-1211.