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Fluency: A key to reading success

Despite significant investments at the national, state and local levels, many students still struggle in reading fluency

fluency-reading-writingAccording to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report, approximately 33 percent of fourth grade students read at a level considered “below basic.”

Over the past 20 years, the percentage of fourth graders identified as “below basic” has remained over 30 percent. Clearly, new and different ways are needed for delivering effective reading instruction for struggling readers.

What is the source of concern for students who struggle? Difficulties in word decoding and reading fluency can be major barriers to proficient reading.

Indeed, the Common Core State Standards identify word recognition and reading fluency as foundational competencies necessary for growth in reading.

Yet, despite its importance, fluency instruction is often limited in classrooms.

One reason is that many see fluency only as a quest for speed. Because word recognition automaticity, a component of fluency, is often assessed through reading speed, instructional methods for fluency have evolved into increasing students’ reading rate, without regard for comprehension.

As a result, fluency instruction has been deemphasized in the classroom. In the International Reading Association’s 2013 “What’s Hot; What’s Not” survey of literacy scholars, reading fluency was ranked as “not hot.”

Appropriate instruction in fluency — without emphasizing speed reading — is sorely needed.

(Next page: Two critical components of reading fluency)

Automaticity and Prosody

Automaticity and prosody are two critical components of reading fluency. Automaticity is the ability to accurately and effortlessly read words in text. As a reader becomes automatic and accurate in recognizing words, the reader’s required attention to word recognition diminishes. As such, the reader has greater capacity to employ higher-level thinking processes for text comprehension.

Prosody is to the ability to read orally with appropriate expression or intonation. Studies have found that students who read with good expression generally exhibit better comprehension in silent reading.

Instruction in these areas can lead to improvements in fluency as well as the more important goal of reading: comprehension.

Instructional methods

Several instructional methods to develop fluency can readily be incorporated into regular reading instruction as well as intervention instruction for students who have not achieved grade level proficiency.


To help students develop a clear sense of what constitutes reading fluency, teachers or other more fluent readers can model fluent reading. When reading aloud to students, the teacher can help students notice how she uses her voice to enhance the meaning of the text and to make the reading experience more satisfying. Students can then aim to make their own oral reading approximate the teacher’s reading.

Assisted Reading

In assisted reading, the developing reader is supported by a more proficient reader during oral reading. Common forms of assisted reading are group reading or paired reading. For readers who do not have a person or group to read with, technology provides an answer.

In technology-assisted reading, the reader listens to a fluent recording of a text while reading. Cassette tapes provided one form of recorded reading, but they were often easily lost or damaged. In captioned television programs, the reader sees the words on the screen while hearing the words read.

More recently, teachers have turned to digital recording applications, such as podcasts, to create technology-assisted readings. In other instances, software publishers and online providers have combined authentic literature with technology to create interactive programs for modeled and assisted reading.

One such program is Reading Assistant, an online reading tool that uses speech recognition to correct and support students as they read aloud, helping them build fluency and comprehension with the assistance of a supportive listener. A range of reading levels allow for differentiated instruction. In addition, automatic calculation of words correct per minute and access to comprehension and vocabulary reports make it easy for teachers to track students’ progress.


In wide reading practice, which is the type of reading practice generally found in classrooms, students’ volume of reading is maximized by regularly reading new, never-before-read materials. But what about students who are not good readers?

They read the text once but they don’t read it or understand it well. For these students, as well as normally developing readers, it is important to occasionally ask them to read a text multiple times until they can read it fluently and with good comprehension. This is known as repeated or deep reading.

Research shows that when students read a text several times, with feedback, they improve their performance on the practiced text as well as their performance on new texts.

The challenge for teachers, however, is to make repeated readings an authentic and purposeful activity. One way to is to make it a performance activity. If students know they will eventually read the text orally, they have an authentic purpose for their practice.

Instead of reading for speed, they aim to make their reading meaningful to the audience. They learn to manipulate the prosodic aspects of their oral reading to enhance the listeners’ understanding. This type of practice helps readers improve their word recognition, reading rate, prosody, comprehension, and motivation for reading.

New approaches

Despite significant investments in training and materials for teaching reading, we have not made great progress in helping more students achieve the level of literacy development necessary for success. The old methods of instruction are not sufficient to help students who find reading difficult.

If they were, we should have seen a decline in the incidence of students with reading problems. However, not much has changed.

Fluency instruction is one approach that offers great potential for many students, particularly those who experience difficulty in reading. Modeling fluent reading, providing support and assistance while reading, and wide and repeated reading are the building blocks of fluency instruction.

Making reading fluency a part of daily classroom instructional routines, through traditional and technology-based approaches, can accelerate the progress of students who struggle — and turn disinterested readers into interested readers.

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University and director of its award-winning reading clinic. He has written over 200 articles and authored, co-authored or edited over 50 books or curriculum programs on reading education. His website is He can be reached at

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