Ensuring every child has the necessary skills they need to read is an essential component of literacy education. It enables children to not only learn across the curriculum but also to access numerous aspects of daily life, influencing the opportunities that they have available to them in the future.
Teaching children to read is complex and encompasses a range of skills, such as word decoding, comprehension and fluency. But how do these components build on one another, and connect, to ensure children reach the goal of reading and understanding texts?
Evidence has consistently highlighted that both decoding (the ability to translate written words into the spoken the sounds of spoken language) and comprehension (the ability to understand the meaning of the language being read) skills are necessary for confident and competent reading, but neither is sufficient on its own. So, where does reading fluency sit with these components?
What do we need to know about reading fluency?
Scientific research has consistently recognized the critical nature of fluency as a bridge between effortful decoding and comprehension. A fluent reader is one who can accurately and automatically decode words.
If readers can decode words accurately but have to employ an excessive proportion of their cognitive resources to do so, they have fewer of those resources available for comprehension. However, when readers are accurateand automatic, they can decode with minimal use of their cognitive resources, thus allowing them to channel their effort towards comprehending and making sense of what they have read.
You and I are good examples of what we mean by accurate and automatic word recognition. When we read most of the words we encounter are instantly and effortlessly recognized; very few of the words we encounter as adult fluent readers require us to stop and analyse. It is this automatic, fluent reading which should be our aim for pupils.
Another component of fluency that links word recognition to comprehension is prosody (or expressive oral – and silent – reading). Think of anyone you would consider a fluent reader: not only do they decode words automatically, but they also read the words in texts with expression and phrasing that reflects and amplifies the meaning of the text. To read with appropriate expression and phrasing requires the reader to access the meaning of the text.
Readers who read with high levels of word recognition automaticity and with good prosody tend to be the most proficient readers. Lower levels of automaticity and prosody are associated with lower levels of comprehension and overall proficiency.
Moreover, research has also demonstrated that a significant number of pupils in secondary school who struggle to become proficient readers also exhibit difficulties in reading fluency.
So, how do we teach and nurture fluency in our pupils?
Simply put, pupils need to:
- Be read aloud to: This allows them to hear fluent reading
- Engage in assisted reading: Pupils read a text whilst listening to a fluent reading of the same text; and
- Be given opportunities for repeated reading: pupils practice reading texts repeatedly until they can read the text in a fluent manner.
The Fluency Development Lesson (FDL)
The challenge for teachers is to find ways to make this practice happen on a regular basis in their classrooms. One approach I have developed with colleagues is called the Fluency Development Lesson (FDL), which combines the science and art of developing fluent readers. This strategy is well supported by evidence in US contexts and we have used it, with great success, as the core reading lesson in our university-based reading clinic for struggling readers.
The immediate goal of the FDL is for pupils to be able to achieve fluency on a new text every single day, an achievement that many struggling readers seldom experience. The texts we use are usually short in length in order to keep the lessons to no more than 20 minutes (poems can work well, as their rhythm and rhyme lend themselves to prosodic reading).
Here is the general protocol for the FDL:
- 1. Teacher presents a copy of the day’s poem to the class, then reads them the poem aloud while pupils follow along silently. The teacher may choose to read the poem multiple times with different levels of prosody. After the reading, the teacher discusses the meaning of the poem with pupils.
- 2. Teacher and pupils read the poem together chorally. Multiple readings can be made with different groupings of students.
- 3. Pupils work alone or with classmates to continue practicing the poem independently. The teacher provides feedback and encouragement.
- 4. Pupils perform the poem with fluency for an audience. The audience could be fellow classmates, the teacher, or others. Pupils are recognized for their good reading.
- 5. Teacher and pupils engage in a brief study of selected words from the poem.
- 6. Pupils continue rehearsing and performing the poem for family members at home.
What is truly appealing about the FDL is that it allows pupils to feel successful as readers.
Although fluency is often thought of as a competency learned in primary school, if pupils have not achieved fluency by then they are most likely to struggle with fluency and comprehension into middle and secondary school. To adapt the FDL for older pupils requires teachers to find texts that are age appropriate.
Reading fluency has had a history of being misunderstood and neglected in our reading curricula. It is essential that we become aware of the importance of reading fluency and find ways to make fluency instruction an integral and important part of literacy education at all school levels.
EEF blog: Shining a spotlight on reading fluency