Fluency, the neglected reading skill

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.Reading teachers and researchers report that too little attention has been devoted to reading fluency. Increasingly, fluency is being regarded as a critical factor in developing expertise in reading. Fluency, these advocates say, increases reading comprehension as well as motivation to read. When students are able to read fluently, their comprehension improves and their enjoyment of reading increases. Recent articles published in Theory Into Practice explore ways to expand fluency practice in reading programs.

Irene H. Blum, Reading Specialist, Fairfax, Virginia, and Patricia S. Koskinen, University of Maryland Reading Center, believe that repeated reading is an effetive strategy for developing reading expertise in beginners and poor readers. This simple rehearsal strategy involves multiple readings and provides substantial practice with connected text. They say it enables novices to feel like experts while they acquire fluency in reading.

Blum and Koskinen, in identifying characteristics common in proficient readers, point to their automaticity in decoding which allows them to focus on comprehension. Sustained practice is necessary to develop decoding skill.

However, the question has been how to motivate beginners and poor readers to practice sufficiently at a task they find difficult. Recent research with people who are recognized as experts in their field has made clear the relationship between motivation and practice. In addition to extensive knowledge in their field, experts exhibit a variety of strategies to monitor their comprehension, and high motivation to practice what they learn.

Comfortable level of difficulty

Importantly, researchers have discovered that the most capable students exhibit similar characteristics but only in certain settings, settings in which the child’s ability is matched with an appropriate level of task difficulty. Significantly, it was found that when these able students work independently, they tend to select tasks of only moderate difficulty.

Research suggests that in order to encourage the development of confidence and motivation to practice, which is characteristic of competent students, it is important that classroom environments offer all children activities of a comfortable level of difficulty.

Blum and Koskinen report that repeated reading is an activity that enables students to develop expertise in reading because it allows students to practice repeatedly at a comfortable level of difficulty while increasing their knowledge of both content and strategy.

The increased knowledge that comes with repeated reading, combined with the awareness of their increasing fluency, provides the motivation for continued practice. Most importantly, repeated reading allows an entire class to participate in the same activity while working at their individual pace and ability levels.

To demonstrate how this is accomplished, Blum and Koskinen describe typical repeated reading activities in a second grade class. The teacher begins by reading a story book aloud as the children follow along in their own texts. During independent reading time, students are asked to work in pairs, each student selecting a short passage and reading it three times to a partner.

After each reading, the student’s improvement is rated by his/her partner on a scale from “fantastic” to “terrible”. Partners work as a team, supporting and helping one another. An audiotape of the story is also made available to students.

In addition to helping students become fluent with their passage, paired repeated readings, according to Blum and Koskinen, also help students learn to identify, through listening to their partner, critical features of reading fluency. This, in turn, improves the student’s ability to monitor his/her own performance.

The teacher enhances student motivation through the choice of interesting material and through expressive oral reading. The teacher also provides background information and word identification help so that students can confidently begin reading the text on their own.

Increasing flueny in basal reading programs

In another study on fluency, which aimed at improving reading instruction, James V. Hoffman and Mary Ellen Isaacs, University of Texas-Austin, attempted to increase fluency practice by restructuring guided oral reading in basal reader programs. Their study, however, was not as successful as they would have wished. In their study, teachers using basal reading programs were trained to substitute the following activities for those suggested in the teacher’s manual:

1. Read the basal reader story aloud to the students as you would any trade book.

2. Encourage student response and personal anecdotes.

3. Guide the students in an analysis of the story, focusing on new vocabulary as needed.

4. Guide oral reading practice either directly by modeling or indirectly by independent or paired reading time.

5. Give the students an opportunity to orally interpret a portion of the story for the group.

Hoffman and Isaacs report that the rationale for this procedure was explained, and the activities were carefully modeled and practiced. However, implementation proved difficult.

They suggest that this may have been due to the fact that these activities demand more than a change in practice – they demand an underlying change in philosophy of reading instruction as well. The focus in many basal reading programs is on individual words, whereas efforts to increase fluency demand an emphasis on the connected text of the whole story. Hoffman and Isaacs conclude that simply grafting fluency instruction onto traditional basal programs may not be practical and they recommend more research.

While only a limited amount of controlled research on integrating repeated reading and other fluency training into reading instruction has been completed, these researchers believe that the conceptual basis for such integration is sound. In order to determine the effectiveness of these strategies with different materials in both direct instruction and independent practice, more studies are needed.

“Repeated Reading: A Strategy for Enhancing Fluency and Fostering Expertise” “Developing Fluency Through Restructuring the Task of Guided Oral Reading” Theory Into Practice Volume 30, Number 3, pp. 195-200.

Published in ERN January/February 1992 Volume 5 Number 1

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