What Is Fluency?
Fluency is a skill that strong readers have. However, fluency is not actually a reading skill by itself. Instead, it is a combination of three other reading components: phonics, comprehension, and oral language.
The ability to read aloud accurately with appropriate expression and pace.
Reading aloud accurately means a student speaks the actual words in the text. The student does not say a different word, does not say the word incorrectly, does not skip words, and neither adds nor subtracts from the written word. For example, if the word in text is “bountiful,” the student does not say “beautiful,” “bounty,” and etc. A student must accurately decode or recognize the word to say it aloud accurately—i.e., phonics.
Reading aloud with appropriate expression means the student modifies his or her tone of voice, volume, pausing, etc. to match the context of the text. The context of the text is important here because it reflects the intention of the author or characters. One way to think about this is to ask, “How would the author or character say this?” Expression relates to both fiction and nonfiction texts, but it is fairly subjective. Regardless, a student must understand the text to say it aloud with appropriate expression—i.e., comprehension.
Reading aloud with appropriate pace means the student reads at a generally acceptable pace based on both the content of the text and the norms of his or her culture. It also means that the listener can understand the words being spoken. A student must have good understanding of those norms and expectations to determine the appropriate pace for reading aloud—i.e., oral language.
Fluency does not have specific sub-skills, unlike the other reading components. This is mainly because fluency is not a separate reading skill. As you can see, each part of the definition of fluency relates to other reading components, and a reader with good fluency has skills in those other components.
Three Types of Oral Readers
There are three broad types of oral readers: too slow, too fast, and just right.
The “too slow” readers generally are trying to decode each word as they read aloud, and they may need to try more than once to read some of the words. “Too slow” readers focus on decoding skills. “Too fast” readers are trying to show you how quickly they can decode and speak the words. They may skip or incorrectly decode some words, but they keep racing along. Their focus, too, is reading aloud individual words.
If you ask either type of reader to explain or interpret what they have just read, very likely they will not be able to tell you. They have focused on individual words and not what those words mean when you put them all together. The “too slow” reader probably needs a lot of help with decoding skills. The “too fast” reader probably needs a lot of help with comprehension and pacing. Regardless, neither one is fluent. They have not read aloud accurately and with correct expression and with correct pacing. To be fluent, a reader needs to do all three.
The “just right” reader does all three. Strong readers read aloud “just right.” If you ask the “just right” reader to explain or interpret the text, he or she will likely be able to do it. At a minimum, the “just right” reader will be able to ask questions about the text that indicate he or she has a basic understanding of the content, though the concepts or information may yet be confusing.
With well-designed fluency activities that address decoding, comprehension, and oral language skills, the “too slow” and “too fast” readers can become “just right” readers.
When the National Reading Panel discussed fluency, they noted that it is something that strong readers can do as a result of having strong skills in other areas. So, if fluency is only a combination of other skills and is not a specific skill by itself, why teach it?
Why Teach Fluency
You do not actually “teach” fluency: you teach students skills in those other three areas. When you do fluency activities, you are teaching skills in phonics, comprehension, and oral language. “Teaching fluency” means activities that allow students to practice and demonstrate their skills in phonics, comprehension, and oral language by reading aloud.
As it turns out, there are several excellent reasons for specifically including fluency activities in your reading instruction.
- As noted, fluency activities give students opportunities to practice their decoding/word recognition skills, comprehension strategies, and oral language using meaningful text. I will describe effective fluency activities below: they are very good for practice. They help students strengthen their existing skills and provide opportunities to expand on those skills.
- Also as noted, fluency activities give students the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in decoding, comprehension, and oral language. This means that you, the teacher, can gauge how well students are decoding and interpreting the text. Fluency activities are a natural assessment, and you can use that information to make instructional plans.
Three Misconceptions about Fluency Instruction
- Flash cards help with fluency. Often, what is described as fluency instruction is actually word recognition, which is phonics. Reading individual words on flash cards accurately is not fluency. You cannot become or demonstrate fluency unless you are reading actual text as opposed to sample phrases or single words. To be fluent, you need to demonstrate all three parts of the definition: accuracy, expression, and pace. And this means you need to read meaningful text.
- Fluent readers read fast. Being able to read aloud fast, even if accurately, is not fluency. Being able to read quickly might be a sign of good word recognition and decoding, but that is only part of the definition for fluency. Additionally, it can promote the idea that the point of reading is to get through it as quickly as possible. It isn’t. The point of reading is to understand and make use of what we read.
- Fluency requires 100% accuracy. It is possible to be fluent and still not have 100% accuracy in reading aloud, particularly if you are reading a sample of text for the first time. With practice on a single piece of text, you can attain 100% accuracy, but you might not have perfect accuracy when you first read aloud a new piece of text. Measuring a student’s accuracy on the first attempt, or giving students only one chance, sets up that student for failure. A better expectation is improvement over time.