Louise Spear-Swerling

Preventing and Remediating Difficulties with Reading Fluency

May 2006

Difficulties with reading fluency are nearly universal among individuals with learning disabilities in reading. Reading fluency is the ability to read text not just accurately, but also quickly and effortlessly. Fluency is characterized by appropriate intonation and expression during oral reading, as well as by a high degree of accuracy and speed in recognizing individual words in the text. Accurate word decoding is necessary, though not sufficient, for fluent reading. Thus, a student who reads quickly, but with many decoding errors or substitutions of words, is not “fluent.”

Reading fluency is important for at least three reasons. First, if students need to put effort into reading individual words, they tend to lose comprehension. Second, students with poor fluency often experience reading as laborious and difficult, so they lose motivation to read. Lack of motivation to read results in less practice, further compounding the difficulties of struggling readers. And third, as they advance in school, students with poor fluency have difficulty keeping up with the high volume of reading required for academic success beyond the elementary grades.

Patterns of difficulties in students with reading disabilities

Among students with reading disabilities, two patterns of difficulties are especially common. In the first pattern, a student has difficulty reading words accurately and also reads in a slow, labored fashion. In the second pattern, a student may have achieved reasonably accurate word decoding, especially after remediation in phonemic awareness and phonics, but still reads very slowly relative to other students his or her age.

Fluency deficits in individuals with reading disabilities may be linked to several underlying factors. One especially important factor involves a cumulative lack of exposure to printed words. Struggling readers receive much less exposure to words (e.g., through independent reading both in and out of school) than do skilled readers. If struggling readers’ difficulties are not remediated early, this cumulative deficit in exposure to words may be extremely difficult to overcome. In addition, some scientific investigators have linked problems in developing reading fluency to underlying deficits in naming speed, or the speed with which children can retrieve the names of familiar items, such as letters or numbers. Other researchers view these difficulties as reflecting a single underlying phonological deficit, the core deficit in most individuals with reading disabilities.

The use of fluency measures in early identification

Measures involving fluency can be very useful in identifying at-risk readers in the early elementary grades. Depending on the age of the children, these measures may involve identifying letters, reading real words or nonsense (made-up) words out of context, or reading grade-appropriate passages. The measures are timed and the child’s score is simply the number of letters or words read correctly per minute. Children must be tested individually because the measures involve oral reading; however, typically these measures are easy to administer, take only a few minutes of time, require only minimal training of teachers, and are excellent predictors of children’s risk status. Thus, fluency measures can be used in general education settings to monitor the progress of all children and to identify early those who are in need of additional help. Early identification and appropriate intervention (which may or may not include special education) can help to prevent the cumulative deficits which make it so difficult for older struggling readers to catch up to their age peers.

Instruction and remediation in fluency

Once serious fluency problems have developed, they can be resistant to remediation. However, several approaches have shown promise for addressing fluency difficulties. An especially helpful technique involves repeated oral readings of text under timed conditions. In this technique, the teacher selects an appropriate level passage---one that is not too difficult---for a child to read aloud repeatedly. The child rereads the passage until he or she reaches a predetermined criterion for accuracy and rate, then moves on to another, more difficult passage. A somewhat similar approach, but one that does not necessarily use timing, involves having children reread familiar books aloud several times, with appropriate guidance and feedback from the teacher. Other approaches to developing reading fluency include the use of timed speed drills on individual words (e.g., common sight words), readers’ theatre, paired or partner reading, and encouraging independent reading (e.g., by making books available to children that are interesting and at an appropriate level of difficulty).

Teaching basic phonics and skills for decoding multisyllabic words, such as syllabication strategies and structural analysis, is essential for students whose reading is not accurate. Without a foundation of accurate decoding, students cannot become fluent. However, by itself, phonics instruction will not meet students’ needs for building fluency. Rather, fluency must be directly addressed, through the kinds of approaches discussed above, as part of a comprehensive program of reading instruction.

Examples of sources

Peer-reviewed journal articles

Carver, R. P., & David, A. H. (2001). Investigating reading achievement using a causal model. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5, 107-140.

Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Hosp, M., & Jenkins, J. R. (2001). Oral reading fluency as an indicator of reading competence: A theoretical, empirical, and historical analysis. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5, 239-256.

Good, R. H., Simmons, D. C., & Kame’enui, E. J. (2001). The importance and decision-making utility of a continuum of fluency-based indicators of foundational reading skills for third-grade high-stakes outcomes. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5, 257-288.

Kuhn, M. R., & Stahl, S. A. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3-21.

Mercer, C. D., Campbell, K. U., Miller, M. D., Mercer, K. D., & Lane, H. B. (2000). Effects of a reading fluency intervention for middle schoolers with specific learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15, 179-189.

Meyer, M. S., & Felton, R. H. (1999). Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions. Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283-306.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., McKeon, C., Wilfong, L., Friedauer, J., & Heim, P. (2005). Is reading fluency a key for successful high school reading? Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 49, 22-27.

Sunseth, K., & Bowers, P. G. (2002). Rapid naming and phonemic awareness: Contributions to reading, spelling, and orthographic knowledge. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6, 401-429.

Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C., Voeller, K., & Conway, T. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 33-58.

Wolf, M., & Katzir-Cohen, T. (2001). Reading fluency and its intervention. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5, 211-238.

Wolf, M., Miller, L., & Donnelly, K. (2000). Retrieval, automaticity, vocabulary, engagement with language, orthography (RAVE-O): A comprehensive fluency-based reading intervention program. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33, 375-386.

Other helpful sources

Bowers, P. G., & Ishaik, G. (2003). RAN’s contribution to understanding reading disabilities. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 345-363). New York: Guilford.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2004). A road map for understanding reading disability and other reading problems: Origins, intervention, and prevention. In R. Ruddell & N. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading, vol. 5 (pp. 517-573). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Stahl, S. A. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 187-212). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

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