Five Things I Wish I’d Said About Reading Fluency

A few months ago, my book about the teaching of reading was published. It was my attempt to distill into an accessible format what I had learned from the research into reading, informed by well over a decade of classroom teaching across the primary phase. I like to think that in most cases I got the balance right between accessibility and complexity. Inevitably, though, there are some decisions that I continue to deliberate. Chief among these was my decision to make the fluency chapter as brief as it is. While I hope I communicated the key messages, I think it might have been worth addressing the subject in a little more detail. This is what I will do in this blog.

The key messages that do appear in the fluency chapter of my book can be roughly summarised as follows:

+ Reading fluency is the flow of words as we read. It can be productively analysed by looking at the components of oral reading fluency: accuracy, automaticity and prosody. (I.e. Are the words correct? Do they move at a rate that allows for unconscious decoding? Does the reading sound like a natural spoken voice?)

+ Fluency is supported by orthographic mapping, a process that allows words to be instantly and unconsciously recognised through repeated decoding. For this reason, the quantitative aspect of reading (i.e. how much decoding is undertaken) is an important factor when considering classroom practice.

+ There is a solid evidence base to suggest that repeated oral reading is a helpful way to support reading fluency. This can be organised in classrooms through the use of short texts, teacher modelling and mixed-attainment pairs.

+ Reading fluency can be assessed and this is a particularly useful measure for understanding reading development.

And below are the aspects of reading fluency that I wish I had addressed but didn’t. In most cases they are extra bits of information that I decided to remove for the sake of accessibility. In a few other cases, they are ideas that have developed since I wrote the book due to further reading and discussions with colleagues:

1. Oral reading fluency is a useful proxy for reading fluency more generally, but it isn’t a perfect proxy. A small proportion of children will be unable to read aloud fluently despite having developed perfectly adequate levels of fluency in silent reading. This can be the case for a variety of reasons including speech impediments, anxiety, shyness and neurodiversity. This needs to be kept in mind when considering classroom practice and assessment relating to oral reading fluency. A sensitive approach built on a relationship of trust is essential here (as it is in almost every area of teaching).

2. Fluency, by definition, must relate to the flow of something. To my mind, it makes most sense to consider reading fluency as a description of word flow. This means that this construct is tightly linked with word recognition proficiency. But word recognition is a complicated process that interacts with all elements of reading development. For example, we orthographically map words as we repeatedly decode them by relating them to pronunciations stored in our memory, so our vocabulary is implicated in this process. Equally, prosody relies on our understanding of what is being read. Yes, it is possible to read with prosody without complete comprehension. (Read a nonsense poem aloud for evidence of this.) But prosody is impossible without some grasp of the words being read and the sentence structures being employed. In short, while fluency is closely associated with word recognition, the various elements of language comprehension play a role both in fluency’s operation and in its development.

3. Orthographic mapping involves not just the mapping of whole words, but also chunks of words. Imagine you are presented with a neologism, such as ‘antiventic’. Your decoding of this word would be assisted by the chunks of words that you had already orthographically mapped, such as the morphemes ‘anti’ and ‘ic’.

4. Beyond orthographic mapping, students learn about the wider patterns of English orthography through instruction and reading practice, and this also likely contributes to reading fluency. (This orthographic learning can be seen in our ability to recognise less likely spellings of words that don’t exist: ‘cholp’ seems like a reasonable spelling; ‘tcholp’, in contrast, does not.)

5. Repeated oral reading isn’t the only practice that has been shown to potentially benefit reading fluency. In particular, wide reading (sometimes described as continuous reading), in which students read aloud without the repetition of text, has shown itself to also be effective for this purpose in interventions. There is also some evidence that echo reading and choral reading can have positive effects. However, there are other considerations that lead me to advocate repeated oral reading primarily:

(a) Organising paired oral reading without repetition is a much more challenging logistical feat. Ensuring that partners are supporting each other and that the they are decoding accurately becomes far more challenging when pairs have reached completely different chunks of text, as inevitably happens without repetition.

(b) My experience with repeated oral reading has strongly suggested that pupils who are low in confidence gain a great deal from the opportunity to perform a given text after repeatedly rehearsing it. Repeated oral reading gives students frequent experiences of success that are essential to building motivation.

(c) Repetition of relatively short texts allows teachers to focus on aspects of prosody through modelling in a way that is not easy to achieve otherwise.

(d) Without close supervision of where students’ eyes are attending, echo reading can easily become mere echo speaking. This can give a teacher a sense of accomplishment that all students are involved without the students necessarily relating what they are saying to the text in front of them. (That said, using some echo reading as a way to model the prosody of a text before repeated oral reading may well be useful.)

In short, while fluency is in the early stages, it is guided decoding that seems to be the essential ingredient in practices that support reading fluency development. Of the range of available evidence-informed practices, it is repeated oral reading that I have found to be easiest to organise and most effective.

As ever there is plenty more that I could discuss, but even in a blog (or especially in a blog) the balancing act between accessibility and complexity remains. Thanks for reading.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading18(1), 5-21.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Meisinger, E. B. (2010). Aligning theory and assessment of reading fluency: Automaticity, prosody, and definitions of fluency. Reading research

Padeliadu, S., & Giazitzidou, S. (2018). A SYNTHESIS OF RESEARCH ON READING FLUENCY DEVELOMPENT: STUDY OF EIGHT META-ANALYSES. European Journal of Special Education Research.

Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher58(6), 510-519.quarterly45(2), 230-251.

Rasinski, T. (2014). Fluency matters. International electronic Journal of elementary education7(1), 3-12.

Ardoin, S. P., Binder, K. S., Foster, T. E., & Zawoyski, A. M. (2016). Repeated versus wide reading: A randomized control design study examining the impact of fluency interventions on underlying reading behavior. Journal of School Psychology59, 13-38.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition55(2), 151-218.

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