The importance of reading fluency (Part 2)

This is part two of a 2-part article on reading fluency. To read part one, click here.

In part one of this article, I explained the importance of fluency – that is to say, the ability to read text quickly and accurately, adopting the appropriate intonation.

Fluency, I said, requires a degree of background knowledge about a text, as well as an ability to rapidly retrieve requisite vocabulary.

Fluency also requires a knowledge of syntax and grammar in order to predict the words that are likely to appear next.

There is a strong correlation between fluency and reading comprehension. After all, fluency only occurs when a reader understands a text; if reading is hesitant and disjointed, all sense of meaning is lost.

It is impossible to be a fluent reader if you have to keep stopping to work out what a word is. To be fluent you have to move beyond the decoding stage to accurately read whole words.

A fluent reader has ready access to a vast bank of words which can be used in different contexts. The words to which a reader has immediate access are called their ‘sight vocabulary’. Even complex words that originally had to be decoded – like ‘originally’ and ‘decoded’ rather than monosyllabic functional words like ‘that’ and ‘had’ – but which can now be recognised on sight, become a part of the fluent reader’s lexicon.

But recognition is not enough to achieve fluency. As well as being in the reader’s sight vocabulary, words must also be stored in their ‘receptive vocabulary’ – that is to say, words which the reader knows the meaning of.

The larger the bank of words that are both recognised and understood on sight, then the broader the range of texts which are accessible. For this reason, developing sight vocabularies and receptive vocabularies are the most effective ways of developing both fluency and reading comprehension.

In this article, I will explore the three essential components of fluency: accuracy, speed and prosody.  And I will share some practical strategies for helping pupils to develop fluency…

* * *

Once your pupils’ sight and receptive vocabularies have been developed, you must make sure that the texts to which you expose pupils are appropriate to their age and reading ability so that they do not contain unfamiliar or technical words that are outside pupils’ knowledge base.

This is why early readers need simple texts to help them develop both speed and confidence.

Although it’s sometimes tempting to give pupils ‘harder books’ as a way of challenging them, this is not always the best approach.

Texts within a pupils’ knowledge base provide them with opportunities to practise their vocabulary, develop appropriate expression, and build confidence and belief in themselves as readers.

Once you’ve developed accuracy, you need to develop speed, increasing the rate at which your pupils can access texts.

Reading speed is also strongly linked with reading comprehension. When a reader is both accurate and quick, word identification becomes automated and they no longer require cognitive energy or attention, thus freeing up precious space in the working memory for higher order comprehension.

Reading speed is not the same as reading fast. People who read too quickly and therefore show no regard for punctuation, intonation or comprehension are not fluent readers. Reading speed is about being able to process texts quickly whilst understanding the text and taking account of punctuation and adopting an appropriate intonation. In short, improving pupils’ reading speed is important but it must not be at the expense of comprehension.

As a ‘back of an envelope’ calculation, the average reading speed in the primary phase is as follows:
– by the end of Year 1 = 60 words per minute
– by the end of Year 2 = 90/100 words per minute
– in Years 3 to 6 = 100–120 words per minute with fewer than 3 errors

After accuracy and speed, prosody – that is to say, reading with expression – is the third component of reading fluently.

Prosody is more difficult to achieve than accuracy and speed because it involves developing stress, pitch, and rhythm. However, Prosody is essential in rendering reading aloud meaningful.

Poor prosody can cause confusion and has an impact on readers’ interest and motivation to read. Good prosody, meanwhile, makes reading aloud come alive and reflects the author’s message more accurately and more meaningfully.

So how do we help students to develop fluency?

1. One of the best ways for teachers to help pupils develop fluency is to read aloud to them in an engaging and motivating way in order to model fluency for them. Doing all the voices, adding sound effects and dramatic pauses, heightens pupils’ engagement.

2. Using ‘fluency cards’ which contain lines of single letters and common letter combinations can also help pupils to develop fluency because fluency is achieved through automatic recognition of words and parts of words including letter sounds.

3. Another way of increasing pupils’ fluency is to display high frequency irregular words. Word walls – when they are referred to and used in competitions or quizzes – help build pupils’ automatic recognition of words.

4. Pupils may also need direct instruction in how to read punctuation. Most pupils, although they know how to punctuate their writing, have no idea how to read punctuation.

5. Whole class reading of short pieces of dialogue is a low risk activity – particularly when the teacher reads the passage first then pupils repeat it – to build fluency in lower ability readers.

6. Repeatedly reading a text provides the practice needed to develop accuracy, speed and confidence. A typical strategy is to pair pupils up and for the more fluent reader in the pair to model the appropriate rate and intonation for the less fluent reader who then repeats the passage. Alternatively, both pupils could read simultaneously. The more fluent reader in the pair is likely to start fractionally ahead of the less fluent reader, modelling accuracy, rate and intonation, but as the less fluent reader gains in confidence, the two pupils will blend together.

7. Reading lots of poetry – as well as being enjoyable in itself – helps develop reading fluency because poetry tends to have a natural rhythm when it is read aloud.

8. Get pupils reading aloud from a script, say a monologue or short scene. The focus is not on dramatic kinaesthetic performance but on interpreting the text using only the voice. Pupils are encouraged to bring the plot to life

9. Listen to audio books or ask older volunteers (parents, local people, sixth formers) to record their favourite stories to play to the class.

Follow me on Twitter @mj_bromley


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