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Improving Fluency in Struggling Readers


By Cathy Puett Miller

Of the five key reading components identified as essential by the National Reading Panel, fluency is the stepchild. It certainly gets less attention than the others, perhaps, in part, because its exact meaning often is cloudy. Many educators seem even less certain about how to teach it effectively. None of that uncertainty, however, changes fluency's importance.

There is much more to fluency than speed -- how many words per minute a child can read. It takes more than speed to do justice to fluency. Dr. Tim Rasinski of Kent State University suggests that fluency is critically connected with how readers deal with print and gain meaning from it.

We can look at teaching and assessing fluency as a triangle with three important sides:

Let's look at each side of the triangle:

Side 1: Decoding
For students to be able to read without effort, they must be very familiar with the alphabetic principle, understand the basics of phonics, and have a suitcase of sight words at their disposal. When most decoding skills are automatic, a larger part of the brain is free to focus on comprehension. Furthermore, a child who has strong basic decoding skills can move from strict decoding of every word to reading chunks or collections of words.

The Forgotten Element: Improving Fluency in Struggling Readers

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Side 2: Automaticity (reading effortlessly)
Many teachers measure automaticity when they time students on grade-level material. (A first grader brags, "I can read 50 words a minute!") That's a good start, but it isn't enough. Children gain automaticity the way we all gain mastery of anything -- plain old practice. Steven Stahl and Kathleen Huebach's recent article in the spring 2005 issue of The Journal of Literacy Research outlined a two-year project designed to reorganize reading instruction to stress fluent reading and automatic word recognition. That adaptation included a redesigned basal reading lesson with repeated and partner reading, a choice reading period during the day, and a home reading program. Those layers and opportunities to practice made a significant difference in the fluency of the students studied.

Side 3: Prosody/Expressiveness
This focus is rare in today's classrooms. Perhaps the best way to understand its importance is to read a short passage from your favorite read aloud, reading in a monotone and stopping purposefully after every word. It's hard to get the meaning, isn't it? Contrast that with your most expressive delivery, in which you pause, use inflection, tone, and volume. Good readers reflect the same expressive elements in their "read in their heads" voices. Dr. Rasinski calls it "making meaning with your voice." The closer your voice sounds to actual speech, the more fluency is involved.

Those three elements add up to students with increased comprehension, rather than those who read quickly with no understanding.


One of the best classroom practices for improving fluency is the reader's theater/repeated reading combination. Reader's theater is an opportunity for students to practice and reread nursery rhymes, oratory, songs, monologues, dialogue, or scripts throughout the week, and then perform them at the end of the week. Dr. Rasinski has been a leading researcher and advocate for that approach for many years. His tips on making reader's theater/repeated reading successful have been implemented in classrooms from North Carolina to Ohio. Those tips include:

  • Allow 20 minutes a day.
  • Help students achieve success by choosing engaging material and coaching them on vocabulary, expression, and delivery.
  • Set a routine: On Monday, choose the material. On Tuesday through Thursday, students practice, with coaching and feedback from peers and teachers. On Friday, stage the Readers' Theater festival/performance.
Visit Education World's Reading Room to find Reader's Theater scripts and teacher guides. If you're looking for more ideas, check out this article's "Read more for a broader perspective" endbar.

Read More For A Broader Perspective

Online Sources:
* Reader's Theater: A Reason to Read Aloud
* Stahl, S. A., Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-Oriented Reading Instruction, Journal of Literacy Research, Spring 2005

* Padak, N., Rasinski, T (2005). Fast Start for Early Readers: A Research-Based, Send-Home Literacy Program with 60 Reproducible Poems and Activities That Ensures Reading Success for Every Child. New York: Scholastic
* Rasinski, T. V. (2003). The fluent reader: Oral reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. New York: Scholastic
* Samuels, S. J. (2002). "Reading fluency: Its development and assessment." In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed., pp. 166-183). Newark, DE: International Reading Association

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.