Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report - (Page S20)
EDUCATION WEEK MAY 13, 2015
Building Literacy Skills > www.edweek.org/go/buildingliteracy
Fluency Still Seen
As Neglected Skill
FOR TYPICALLY DEVELOPING
readers, fluency-or the ability to
read with speed, accuracy, and expression-is
often simply a product
of practice. Having mastered the
letter sounds, decoding rules, and a
good base of sight words, many pupils
begin to feel the flow of good reading,
and eventually, the process becomes
But for some young readers, fluency
becomes a blockade. The letter
sounds, words, or phrases never
seem to fit together correctly. The
sentences said aloud come out
choppy or robotic. Far from fluid, the
process is a series of hiccups.
Fifteen years ago, the National
Reading Panel, a group of reading
experts convened by Congress,
flagged fluency as a pillar of reading
instruction, along with phonemic
awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and
comprehension. But the researchers
also noted that fluency, a precursor
of comprehension, "is often neglected
in classroom instruction."
According to some experts, not too
much has changed since then. While
studies have identified some best
practices, fluency remains neglected,
and also somewhat misunderstood.
"There's this idea it's about making
kids read fast," said Timothy V. Rasinski,
a literacy education professor at
Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
"How can you read as fast as you can
and yet with good expression? They
seem to be opposing concepts."
In fact, fluency instruction is much
more than an attempt to hit fast
forward on a student's reading rate.
"What we're seeing is those of us who
are skilled readers, we slow down,
we vary our rate, we think about our
reading as we're going," said Melanie
R. Kuhn, an associate professor
of language and literacy education
at Boston University. By focusing on
rate, "we're teaching kids to be quick
readers but not to comprehend."
A Complicated Problem
Fluency problems can stem from a
number of factors. Some students lack
fluency because they're still struggling
with decoding words. Proficient readers
"hardly ever have to stop to sound
out a word," said Mr. Rasinski. But
readers who are still in the soundingout
phase "use up cognitive energy
doing that, and they don't have much
left for reading automaticity."
Other students don't have enough
sight words-words that they recognize
as quickly as their own name-
to read fluently.
Still other students lack fluency
because they're not connecting
meaning to the words they're
reading. "You can tell they're not
understanding what they're reading
by the way they're reading it,"
said Kristina Phelan, a teacher who
works with struggling readers in
grades 1-3 at Mahala F. Atchison Elementary
School in Tinton Falls, N.J.
A 2002 special study on oral reading
by the National Assessment of
Educational Progress showed that
40 percent of students in a nationally
representative sample of 4th graders
lacked proper expression and adherence
to syntax in their reading. About
25 percent of students read with less
than 95 percent accuracy, and 35 percent
read fewer than 104 words per
minute, which most experts would
consider too slow for 4th grade.
"You have to figure out for each
child what the missing piece is," said
Literacy experts are adamant that
fluency can and should be explicitly
taught. But according to a 2008 study
of Reading First, a now-defunct federal
program that aimed to improve
reading instruction, 1st and 2nd
grade teachers at 125 schools using
the program were devoting less than
five minutes a day to fluency instruction.
Four years later, Mr. Rasinski
wrote in The Reading Teacher, the
International Literacy Association's
journal, that fluency had become "a
pariah in the reading field."
But there's at least one strategy that
researchers and literacy experts agree
works: repeated reading. The National
Reading Panel found that repeated
oral reading with feedback and guidance
had a positive effect on fluency.
"I don't think even today there's
much evidence we have a replacement
for that," said David J. Chard,
the dean of the Annette Caldwell
Simmons School of Education and
Human Development at Southern
Methodist University in Dallas. All
the proven strategies "at their root
involve a model and some kind of repeated
Teachers often follow that practice
by sitting with students one-on-one
and timing them as they read the
same short passage several times,
or until they reach an acceptable
Many teachers have students
graph their results and set goals for
improvement. "It's a way of tricking
kids into practicing," said Roxanne
According to the National
Reading Panel's 2000 report,
"Fluent readers are able to read
orally with speed, accuracy,
and proper expression." Some
experts, however, argue that
speed as a goal can lead to
bad practice. Instead, students
should be encouraged to read
at a "conversational" rate
or one that allows them to
comprehend a particular text.
F. Hudson, an associate
professor of special
education at the University of
Washington in Seattle.
The caveat for timed repeated
reading, some say, is that it can lead
to a focus on rate at the expense of
expression and comprehension.
More students in the Kent State
reading clinic have begun to ask,
" 'Should I read this as fast as I can?'
That's something we didn't hear before
but now we hear it a lot," said
Mr. Rasinski. "A lot of the publishers
have created materials that emphasized
the speed of reading. I think
that's not helping things at all."
Reading rate is easy to measure,
and therefore a focus of many of the
early-reading tests used in schools,
said Ms. Kuhn of Boston University.
To move away from the mindset
that only words-per-minute matter,
Mr. Rasinski recommends doing repeated
reading with poetry. "The key
would be to make repeated reading
an authentic experience," he said.
"Now, kids do it with the purpose
of trying to read faster, but we like
the idea of performance with a poem
or play or song, where your natural
inclination would be to rehearse it."
Reading With Expression
Poetry, however, has not been a
priority in classrooms recently, Mr.
Rasinski said. The Common Core
State Standards, which 43 states
and the District of Columbia have
adopted, put renewed emphasis on
reading nonfiction and informational
text-though Mr. Rasinski
says the use of poetry dwindled before
the standards were in place.
For students who lack expression
and intonation in their oral reading,
researchers and educators agree
that modeling and talking about the
purpose of reading can help. Some
students "who don't read with good
prosody [expression and intonation]
don't necessarily know it's supposed
to make sense," said the University
of Washington's Ms. Hudson. These
students read "because the teacher
wants me to, as opposed to it's
something I do because I want to
get more information."
Mr. Rasinski recommends that
as teachers read aloud, "they should
talk about how they read. 'Did you
notice my voice? Did you hear I sped
up here and slowed down here?' "
Echo reading, in which a student
follows along as a teacher reads and
then echoes the passage, is one of
several "assistive" strategies that
Ms. Kuhn, Mr. Rasinski, and other
experts recommend. They've also
found that choral reading, listening
to a recorded version of a book while
reading, and partnering with a proficient
reader can boost fluency.
There are also some strategies
that researchers, for the most part,
say don't work to improve fluency-
in particular "round robin" and
"popcorn" reading. In both methods,
which nearly all classes use at some
point, students are called on to read
orally in front of the class. Experts
say the methods offer too little practice
per student and can humiliate
"Sustained silent reading" is another
conventional method that most
experts now say is outmoded. The
National Reading Panel determined
there was insufficient evidence to indicate
that silent, independent reading
had a positive effect on fluency.
A decade and a half after later, some
experts say, that strategy is still ripe
for more research. ■
Coverage of "deeper learning" that will
prepare students with the skills and
knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly
changing world is supported in part
by a grant from the William and Flora
Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.
MULTIMEDIA: Listen to fluent
and nonfluent readers.
By Liana Heitin
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report
Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report
Teachers Turn to New Read-Aloud Strategies For Common-Core Era
Alabama Coaches Up Literacy Lessons
Broadening the Push for Grade-Level Reading
Forget Word Lists: Vocabulary Lessons Start With Context
Should 3rd Grade Be Pivot Point for Early Reading?
Fluency Still Seen as Neglected Skill
Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report