When people think of foundational skills, they often think of early elementary school reading instruction. But focusing on foundational skills, especially reading fluency, is critical for reading success in upper elementary school and middle school as well.
Fluency is even more important this year, as we focus on helping readers who may be struggling—especially after months out of school—catch up. Fluency instruction often isn’t prioritized in upper elementary and middle school classrooms, but to help address student gaps from the past several months, it should be a priority in all classrooms.
What makes a fluent reader?
A fluent reader is able to read words accurately, effortlessly, and automatically. Doing so allows them to use their cognitive resources to focus on comprehending the text and reading with appropriate accuracy, rate, and prosody, instead of struggling to decode every word.
If a student reads with accuracy, they are able to read and pronounce words correctly. To read with accuracy, students need to have a strong understanding of decoding and phonics patterns.
If a student reads at a fluent rate, they can read at a consistently conversational pace. Reading too slowly makes it harder for a reader's short term memory to hold onto what they are reading. Reading too quickly often means a reader isn’t noticing key aspects of the text.
Prosody refers to a reader's ability to read with correct expression and volume, phrasing, and smoothness. Reading with prosody signals that a reader comprehends what is happening in the text, and also is able to attend to features of language, such as punctuation, to pause at appropriate points.
Logically if a student is disfluent in terms of accuracy, rate, or prosody, they will struggle to comprehend a text.
Typically in middle school, teachers focus on comprehension and independent reading, and don’t spend much, if any, time on fluency. This is a problem when many students enter middle school as disfluent readers and subsequently struggle to access complex texts.
Therefore, as you plan for the upcoming school year, it’s important to think about the ways you can scaffold and support student fluency development alongside comprehension. This aligns with Student Achievement Partners’ Priority Instructional Content guide, which suggests heavily emphasizing fluency practice with grade-level anchor texts, as it is a key to reading comprehension.
Analyzing a passage for fluency demands
The first step to building student fluency is to know the text and what aspects of the text could hinder fluent reading, and thus comprehension. Let’s look at this example from the novel Seedfolks, the core text of 5th Grade Unit One.
My grandmother's sampler, from when she was a girl, said "Be Not Solitary, Be Not Idle."
That was easy all those years in the library. Being retired, it's harder. So I try to take a walk every day, which is how I found the garden to begin with. I'd always stop there, to see what was new. I was just a watcher, but I was proud of the garden, as if it were mine.
Proud and protective. I remember how mad I got when I saw a man reach through someone's fence by the sidewalk and try to grab a tomato. I said "How dare you!" He pulled his hand and said he'd heard it was a community garden.
It's sad every fall, seeing it turn brown. Fewer and fewer people there. That very first year was the hardest. It had been such a wonderful change to see people making something for themselves instead of waiting for a welfare check. To see a part of the neighborhood looking better every day, and to smell those good smells of growing plants. The green drained away. Then the frost hit. You'd pass and hear those dry cornstalks shaking in the wind as if they were shivering. The pumpkins were about the only color left, and then the boy sold them all. Some people cut up their old plants with clippers and dug them back into the soil. A few covered their ground with leaves.
Fleischman, Paul. Seedfolks. Harper Trophy, 2004. Print. Pages 84-85.
At first glance, this passage doesn’t appear to have many fluency demands because there are not that many multisyllabic words that would make the text hard for students to decode accurately. But remember, fluency is about more than just decoding words, it’s also about reading with appropriate rate and prosody.
We include an analysis of the fluency demands of a unit’s core text in our Unit Launches, part of the Fishtank Plus package. To read this particular passage with proper prosody and rate, students would need to understand a few key features of fluent reading:
- Noticing and reading end punctuation to guide expression, volume and intonation
- Adhering to commas and punctuation as a guide for when to pause and how to cluster words
- Using context (i.e. character feelings, actions etc,) to determine expression and vary expression based on events
This year, we are also adding a feature to each Unit Launch that includes a video highlighting text features that could impact a student’s fluency and shares an example of fluent reading.
Modeling fluency in a lesson
Once you’ve identified potential fluency demands of the text, it’s important to plan for how to teach and address those demands in your lessons. The easiest way to do that is to model fluent reading.
Models of fluent reading should not take the entire lesson block. Instead, they should last about 2–3 minutes and focus on sections of the text that lend themselves to modeling or thinking aloud. During this time, teachers should also introduce key vocabulary and any morphology features that are important for students.
While reading aloud, teachers may use models, think alouds, and examples/non-examples.
- Models: Teachers read a section of a text with a clear fluency goal in mind. After reading, teachers probe students to explain what they noticed and why.
- Think Alouds: Teachers read a section of the text aloud and then model the thinking behind why they used a particular fluency strategy or goal.
- Examples and Non-Examples: Teachers read a section of the text in multiple ways to highlight effective use of a particular fluency strategy.
Suggestions for when to include think alouds and models are included in the Enhanced Lesson Plans, provided with Fishtank Plus for Kindergarten–8th Grade ELA.
For example, in the 2nd lesson of the Seedfolks unit, the Enhanced Lesson Plan suggests:
Models of fluent reading should be included in your plans, regardless of whether you are teaching in-person, remotely, or a hybrid model. For remote instruction, you can have students listen to the book read aloud, giving them specific guidance on what features of fluent reading to notice while listening. Or, you can record yourself reading a short section of text aloud and include a think aloud about the strategies you used to make decisions about fluent reading. Either way, it should be a standard routine in all weekly plans.
Providing fluency practice
Once students have heard an example of fluent reading, they need ample time to practice.
Practice can happen in multiple ways, and just like with read aloud, shouldn’t last for very long. Some forms of practice is better suited for certain instructional modes.
Some ways to practice fluency synchronously, with more teacher support include:
- Whole-Class Choral Reading
- Echo Reading
- Repeated Reading
Some ways to practice fluency asynchronously, with less teacher support include:
- Partner Reading
- Independent Reading
In a hybrid setting you may model fluent reading when students are together in class, naming specific strategies for students to notice. Then, at home students should reread the same passage they read in class multiple times. This could be done with a parent or sibling as part of a partner read, or independently. The key is that they are rereading the same passage, or section of text, multiple times in order to build fluency.
In a fully remote model, you could include fluent reading as part of of your synchronous time together, or as part of a filmed video, and then have students practice rereading at home with a partner or independently.
Monitoring fluency progress
At the end of each unit, we recommend monitoring students’ fluency progress using our end-of-unit fluency assessment, available with Fishtank Plus for 2nd–8th Grade. Each assessment package provides a reading passage from the core unit text, along with a grade-band-specific fluency rubric, and suggestions for instruction, support, and interventions.
Even if a majority of students can read one unit’s text fluently, you shouldn’t stop including fluency instructions. The demands of every text are different, and just because students can read one text fluently doesn’t mean they don’t need continued practice.
We are not the only ones who are focused on the importance of fluency as a foundational skill.
Achieve the Core offers a resource for Small-Group Interventions for Middle School. Achieve the Core’s Priority Instructional Content guidance also suggests heavily emphasizing fluency next year, as it is the key to reading comprehension.
Timothy Shanahan offers excellent suggestions in a recent post on how parents can encourage fluency practice for students who will be learning remotely next year.
We hope that this guide and the Fishtank Plus features that target fluency development can help inform your planning and support you as you incorporate fluency instruction into the coming school year.
Anne Lyneis is the Managing Director of ELA Curriculum and the author of the Literature and Science and Social Studies curriculum for grades K-5. She began her career in education through Teach for America South Louisiana where she fell in love with teaching. She taught elementary school for 8 years in both public and charter schools in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts before joining the Fishtank team. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s degree in school leadership from Louisiana State University.