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The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Fluency

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

Scientifically validated as an acknowledged component of proficient reading only within the last 50 years, fluency is still often neglected and misunderstood in classroom instruction. Some educators view fluency as merely “reading quickly,” while others view it as an oral reading activity; some find fluency instruction appropriate only for primary grade students, while still others may simply ignore fluency as an instructional priority for reading. Our understanding of fluency is further complicated by the fact that it’s a multidimensional construct, composed of two components: 1) automaticity in word recognition and 2) prosodic or expressive reading.

Automaticity refers to the ability of proficient readers to decode words in text so automatically or effortlessly, they're able to devote their cognitive resources to the more important task of comprehension. Automaticity is normally assessed by “words read correctly per minute,” or how quickly a student can read grade-appropriate text.

Prosody or expressiveness is the ability to read orally, using appropriate ­­expression reflecting the text’s meaning. Fluent readers use their voices to convey meaning. Although we often think of expressiveness as an oral reading component, silent reading tends to mirror the way one reads orally.

Fluency, the combination of automaticity and prosody, can be viewed as the bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension. The automaticity component of fluency is the link to word recognition; students must learn to read and understand words not just accurately, but also effortlessly or automatically. Prosody is the link to comprehension; appropriate expression demonstrates that students are comprehending the meaning of the text. Research has demonstrated that fluency, this combination of automaticity and prosody, remains highly correlated with comprehension even into the secondary grades.

So how do educators teach fluency? Two major instructional approaches to fluency are assisted reading and repeated reading. In assisted reading, a developing reader listens to a text read to them in a fluent manner while simultaneously reading the same themselves. In repeated reading, students read texts multiple times until they achieve sufficient fluency with the text. Research has shown that when students engage in assisted and repeated reading, their improved fluency extends to texts they’ve never read.

“Slow down, be kind, have art in your life – music, paintings, theater, dance, and sunsets.” – Eric Carle

Fluency instruction should not focus on increasing reading speed; this problematic, less-than-authentic goal in reading instruction probably results from the often misunderstood nature of fluency. Perhaps taking an artful approach to the scientific construct of reading fluency could allow for fluency instruction to be more authentic, creative, and aesthetic. Try thinking of assisted and repeated reading as rehearsal for a performance (as in a play, poetry slam, song performance, speech, etc.). If the ultimate goal is a performance, rehearsal (assisted and repeated reading) obtains an authentic purpose. That purpose isn’t reading fast, but reading with appropriate expression, so an audience (and the performer) can derive meaning from the performance.

Along with my colleagues, I’ve developed instructional routines that tap into approaches to fluency instruction. On Mondays, students are assigned or invited to choose a text (script, poem, speech, song, monologue, etc.) to perform at the end of the week. Students can be assigned to work individually or as a group. Here's how the weekly routine usually works.

  • Monday: The teacher models the reading of the texts while students follow along silently. They discuss the meaning of the texts, as well as how the teacher read the texts orally. Students choose their texts for the assignment: Friday’s performance.
  • Tuesday: Teacher and students read texts together orally and discuss ways to convey meaning through oral reading.
  • Wednesday: Students work in small groups or with a partner to continue rehearsing their assigned texts. The teacher floats from group to group providing encouragement and informative feedback.
  • Thursday: Dress rehearsal. Students practice performing all the assigned texts for themselves and their teacher.
  • Friday: The grand performance! Students perform their assigned texts for invited guests, like the school principal, caregivers, family members, and others.

Each day's focused fluency work can take about 30 minutes. Throughout the week, students are encouraged to continue rehearsing their texts at home with family members and at school. The following week, the routine continues with new performance texts. These creative, expressive activities can provide an aesthetic and emotional response, making this an artful approach to fluency instruction.

A number of studies have shown that rehearsal and performance approaches to fluency development lead to improved fluency outcomes in word recognition, accuracy, automaticity, prosody, and reading comprehension. Viewing fluency as a scientific construct is important, but teaching fluency in ways that are artistic (authentic, creative, and aesthetic) can engage students in purposeful and powerful ways.

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References
Faver, S. (2009). Repeated reading of poetry can enhance reading fluency. The Reading Teacher, 62, 350-352.
Pierce, L. (2011). Repeated Readings in Poetry Versus Prose: Fluency and Enjoyment for Second Graders. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toledo. Toledo, OH: University of Toledo.
Rasinski, T., & Cheesman Smith, M. (2018). The Megabook of Fluency. New York: Scholastic (Winner of the 2019 Teacher’s Choice Award for the classroom).
Rasinski, T. V. (2010). The fluent reader: Oral and silent reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency, and comprehension (2nd edition). New York: Scholastic.
Wilfong, L.G. (2008). Building Fluency, Word-Recognition Ability, and Confidence in Struggling Readers: The Poetry Academy. The Reading Teacher, 62(1), 4–13.
Young, C., Durham, P., Miller, M., Rasinski, T., & Lane, F. (2019). Improving reading comprehension with readers theater. Journal of Educational Research, 112:5, 615-626.
Young, C., & Rasinski, T. (2009). Implementing readers theatre as an approach to classroom fluency instruction. The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 4–13.
Young, C., & Rasinski, T. (2018). Readers Theatre: effects on word recognition automaticity and reading prosody. Journal of Research in Reading, 41, 475-485.

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