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Reading Fluency

By: N. Mather and Sam Goldstein (2001)

Reading fluency encompasses the speed or rate of reading, as well as the ability to read materials with expression. Meyer and Felton defined fluency as "'the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly, and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading, such as decoding" (1999, p. 284). Children are successful with decoding when the process used to identify words is fast and nearly effortless or automatic. As noted, the concept of automaticity refers to a student's ability to recognize words rapidly with little attention required to the word's appearance. The ability to read words by sight automatically is the key to skilled reading (Ehri, 1998).

Some children have developed accurate word pronunciation skills but read slowly. For these children, decoding is not automatic or fluent, and their limited fluency may affect performance in the following ways: 1) they read less text than peers and have less time to remember, review, or comprehend the text; 2) they expend more cognitive energy than peers trying to identify individual words; and 3) they may be less able to retain text in their memories and less likely to integrate those segments with other parts of the text (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999).

When Maria was in sixth grade, she still read very slowly. Although she pronounced most words correctly, she read with little expression. She complained that because she read so slowly, she could not understand what she was reading. She usually had to read materials several times in order to comprehend them. Students like Maria, Ryan, and Ben require more exposures and more practice to recognize individual words easily and automatically. Even into middle school, these students often devote an inordinate amount of energy to word identification.

Determining a student's reading rate

A student's reading rate may be calculated by dividing the number of words read correctly by the total amount of reading time. You may count out 100 words in a passage and then time the student as he or she reads the passage. Maria was given a passage to read with 100 words. She read 92 words correctly in 1.5 minutes, or 61 words per minute (wpm). Table 8. 1, adapted from information presented in Carver (1990), presents approximate reading rates for students in Grades 2-12. Analysis of this table reveals that Maria is reading at a slower rate than many of her peers.

Adjusting reading rate

Most people have a constant rate when reading. This rate is the fastest pace at which a person can understand complete thoughts in successive sentences of relatively easy material. As long as the material is relatively easy to read, a person's rate stays constant. For different types of tasks, however, readers often alter their rate. Students with slow reading rates are often not aware that good readers adjust their rate depending on the purpose of reading. Making these types of adjustments is particularly important for studying or completing assigned readings because a student with poor reading skills otherwise struggles to complete lengthy reading assignments.

Table 8.1. Average rates for reading with understanding for students in Grades 2-12
Grade equivalent Standard words per minute
2.5
3.5
4.5
5.5
6.5
7.5
8.5
9.5
10.5
11.5
12.5
121
135
149
163
177
191
205
219
233
247
261

Source: Carver (1990). A standard word is six letter spaces including punctuation and spacing.

Carver (1990) used the analogy of adjusting reading speed to the shifting of gears in a car. First and second gears are the slowest, most powerful gears. First gear is used to memorize materials. Second gear is used to learn material. Third gear is the typical reading rate. The fourth gear, skimming, and the fifth gear, scanning, are the fastest but least powerful gears. These gears are useful when you are trying to locate a specific piece of information or trying to get the general sense of a passage without reading every word.

As an adult reader, consider the ways that you monitor your reading pace and shift gears depending on your goals. If you are trying to memorize material for a test, your pace is slow and reflective, characterized by stopping and reviewing as you progress. If you are reading a novel for pleasure, your pace is steady and fluent. If you are searching for information in a catalog, your pace is rapid. As a skilled reader, you know how to adjust the gears of your reading on the basis of your purpose.

Some children have not learned how to adjust their reading rates. They attempt to read information in an encyclopedia at the same pace that they read a novel. To help develop increased reading speed, encourage students to adjust their rate depending on the purpose of reading. Provide practice in skimming through a chapter to get a sense of the information and then how to study that chapter for the weekly test. Demonstrate to students how you change your rate for different types of reading materials.

Activities for increasing reading rate

Students who would benefit from methods to increase reading speed are often described by their teachers as slow, laborious readers who read word-by-word with limited expression. These types of techniques are most useful with students who have acquired some proficiency in decoding skill but whose level of decoding skill is lower than their oral language abilities. Methods for increasing reading rate have several common features: 1) students listen to text as they follow along with the book, 2) students follow the print using their fingers as guides, and 3) reading materials are used that students would be unable to read independently. Chard and Osborn (1999a) suggested that a beginning reading program should provide opportunities for partner reading, practice reading difficult words prior to reading the text, timings for accuracy and rate, opportunities to hear books read, and opportunities to read to others. The following methods are easy to use.

Speed drills

For reading lists of words with a speed drill and a 1-minute timing, Fischer (1999) suggested using the following general guidelines: 30 correct wpm for first- and second-grade children; 40 correct wpm for third- grade children; 60 correct wpm for mid-third-grade; and 80 wpm for students in fourth grade and higher. To conduct a speed drill, have the student read a list of words for 1 minute as you record the number of errors. You may use a high-frequency word list or the sample speed drills provided in Fischer's program Concept Phonics (see Additional Resources). These drills are designed to develop automatic sight recognition of words.

Rapid word recognition chart

A way to improve speed of recognition for words with an irregular element is the use of a rapid word recognition chart (Carreker, 1999). The chart is similar to a rapid serial-naming task. It is a matrix that contains five rows of six exception words (e.g., who and said), with each row containing the same six words in a different order. After a brief review of the words, students are timed for 1 minute as they read the words in the squares aloud. Students can then count and record the number of words read correctly. This type of procedure can help students like Ben who struggle to memorize words with irregular orthographic patterns.

Great Leaps Reading Program

Great Leaps Reading Program (Campbell, 1996) was designed to help students to build reading speed. One-minute timings employ three stimuli: phonics, sight phrases, and reading short stories. Before beginning this program, teachers assess the students' present reading level. Instruction begins at the level within the program at which reading speed is slow and the student makes several errors. After the recording, the teacher reviews the errors with the student and discusses strategies that they can use to improve performance. Performance is charted on graphs so that both students and teachers can keep track of progress. The program takes approximately 10 minutes per day. A K-2 version of this program provides a phonological awareness instruction component (Mercer & Campbell, 1998). Results from one study indicate that daily application of this program with middle school students with LID contributes to growth in reading and an improvement in reading rate, (Mercer, Campbell, Miller, Mercer, & Lane, 2000).

Choral reading or neurological impress method

The neurological impress method (Heckelman, 1969, 1986) is a method for choral or concert reading. In this method, you read aloud together with a student for 10- 15 minutes daily. To begin, select a high-interest book or a content-area textbook from the classroom. Sit next to the student and read aloud as you point to the words with your index finger. Read at a slightly faster pace than the student and encourage him or her to try and keep up with you. When necessary, remind the student to keep his or her eyes on the words. Successful decoding requires the reader to connect the flow of spoken language with the flow of text (Carreker, 1999). Reading aloud with students can help them to practice phrasing and intonation.

Repeated readings

The repeated readings technique is designed for children who read slowly despite adequate word recognition (Samuels, 1979). For this procedure, the child reads the same passage over and over again. To begin, select a passage that is 50-100 words long from a book that is slightly above the student's independent reading level. Have the student read the selection orally while you time the reading and count the number of words that are pronounced incorrectly. Record the reading time and the number of words pronounced incorrectly. If desired, set a realistic goal for speed and number of errors. Figure 8.8 presents a sample recording form to use for repeated readings. You may use two different color pencils for recording time and errors, or you may use a circle to indicate points on the line for time and an X or a square to indicate points on the line for errors.

Between timings, you may ask the student to look over the selection, reread it, and practice words that caused difficulty in the initial reading. When the student is ready, have him or her reread the same passage. Once again, time the reading, and record the time and number of errors. Have the student repeatedly practice reading the selection as you chart progress after each trial until a predetermined goal is reached or until the student is able to read the passage fluently with few mistakes. Research on repeated reading suggests that fluency can be improved as long as students are provided with specific instructions and procedures are used to monitor their progress (Mastropieri et al., 1999). An easy way to monitor student performance using this chart is to keep a log of the dated charts. To control for a similar readability level, select the passages to read from the same book. As performance improves, the time to perform the initial reading should decrease.

Repeated reading has also been used as a component of class-wide peer tutoring (Mathes & Fuchs, 1993). In a study of this intervention, pairs of students in one group read continuously over a 10-minute period, whereas pairs of students in the other group read a passage together three times before going on to the next passage. Although both experimental conditions produced higher results than the typical reading instruction, no difference existed between the procedures, suggesting that the main benefit of the intervention is the student reading involvement and the increased time spent in reading (Mastropieri et al., 1999).

Click to see Figure 8.8. Sample repeated readings graph.

In a review of the effectiveness of repeated reading, Meyer and Felton (1999) concluded that the method of repeated readings improves reading speed for a wide variety of readers. They make the following recommendations for helping students to improve fluency:

  1. have students engage in multiple readings (three to four times);
  2. use instructional level text;
  3. use decodable text with struggling readers;
  4. provide short, frequent periods of fluency practice; and
  5. provide concrete measures of progress. Base the amount of teacher guidance on each individual's characteristics. With students with poor reading skills, modeling and practicing of words between readings improve student performance and reduce frustration.

Previewing is a technique similar to repeated reading, involving pre-exposure to materials before they are formally read (Rose, 1984). For this type of procedure, a student can preview the material silently, or you may read the passage aloud as the student follows along, or the student may first listen to the recorded passage on tape. Rose and Sherry (1984) found that both silent previewing and teacher-directed previewing were more effective than no previewing. Maria found that, by hearing the passage before she was asked to read it, she made fewer errors and was more successful reading the text.

Taped books

Another way to help students practice reading is to use taped books. Have the student listen to the reading while he or she follows along with an unabridged copy of the book. Most public libraries provide a wide selection of recorded books for loan. When Maria. was in fifth grade, she was interested in horses. Her mother would take her to the library, and they would check out books and the corresponding book tapes. Each evening, she would listen to classic stories about horses as she followed along with the text.

If a student has been identified as having LD or dyslexia, taped books are available from Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D). This national, nonprofit organization provides textbooks for individuals who are unable to read standard print because of visual, physical, or perceptual disabilities. The extensive tape library has educational books that range from upper-elementary to postgraduate level. If a book is unavailable, an individual may request that it be recorded, and, if it fits within the scope of the collection, the book will be recorded.

Unabridged audio books are also available for rent from either Books on Tape or Recorded Books. Selections include bestsellers, classics, history, biographies, and science fiction. Books may be rented for 1 month and then returned by mail. Prices vary according to the length of the books. Sources for obtaining books on tape are listed in Additional Resources.

Some commercial recordings, such as those obtained at the public library; go too fast for individuals with reading disabilities. In addition, because younger and struggling readers lose their place quite frequently, it is important to have a procedure for relocating the place at the top of each page. Many teachers prefer to make their own recordings of books so that they can select materials that are of high interest to students and control the rate of delivery.

Carbo Method (1989) developed procedures for recording books to achieve maximum gains in fluency. A brief description of how to record books using this method is described:

  1. Decide which pages you will record on each cassette side.
  2. Because every tape cassette has about 5-8 seconds of lead time, let the tape run for that amount of time before starting to record.
  3. Speak into the microphone from a distance of approximately 6-8 inches.
  4. Convey your interest in the book through your voice.
  5. Begin by reading the story title, providing a brief introduction, pausing, and then telling the student which page to turn to. Pause long enough so that the reader has enough time to turn pages and look at pictures.
  6. Tell the student when to turn the page. In order not to distract from the content, soften your voice slightly when stating a. page number.
  7. Read the story in logical phrases, slowly enough so that most students can follow along but not so slowly that they become bored.
  8. End each tape with, "Please rewind the tape for the next listener. That ends this recording." This prevents students from continuing to listen to the blank tape.

As general guidelines, record 5-15 minutes at a typical pace for instructional level material and have the student listen to the tape once. For difficult material, record no more than 2 minutes at a slow pace with good expression and have the student listen to the passage two or three times. After listening, have the student read the passage aloud.

Read Naturally Another program designed to build fluency in students from mid-first through sixth grade (see Additional Resources). Instruction is individualized and involves three main steps:

  1. reading along with an audiotape of a story that provides a model of fluent reading;
  2. intensive, repeated practice to build speed and accuracy; and
  3. monitoring and evaluating performance through graphing.

To use the program, students are placed into an appropriate level on the basis of their oral reading fluency. The sequenced reading levels range from beginning reading to sixth-grade level with 24 stories available for each level. In addition, the lower level materials have been translated into Spanish.

Fluency methods are designed to increase rate and automaticity. They are particularly beneficial for students like Maria and Ben who have strong conceptual abilities but poor automaticity because of weaknesses within phonological or orthographic abilities. These repeated readings provide repeated exposures that facilitate word mastery and automaticity. They help a student move from Ehri's (1998) full alphabetic stage to the consolidated alphabetic stage, in which word learning is accomplished more easily.

Mather, N., & Goldstein, S. (2001). Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors: A Guide to Intervention and Classroom Management (pp. 235-242). Available in the LD OnLine Store;
Copyright 2001 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; posted by permission. All rights reserved.