Although fluency is integral to comprehension and a critical component of successful reading, it is not commonly taught beyond the primary grades. Many students do not develop oral reading fluency on their own and need explicit instruction in order to become competent readers.
Fluency is a complex concept that encompasses rate, accuracy, automatically, phrasing, smoothness and expressiveness. It also increases students’ enjoyment of reading, thus motivating them to read more. Students tend to have negative associations with oral reading at school, which usually consists of round-robin reading. Most students are bored while waiting to read a small portion of a text that is often too easy or too difficult.
Practicing oral reading fluency in every classroom
Jo Worthy, University of Texas/Austin, and Karen Broaddus, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, assert that engaging, effective oral fluency practice can be incorporated into every classroom. Their approach includes explicit modeling by the teacher and teacher-guided time for group and independent oral and silent reading Fluent readers have a vocabulary of high-frequency words, and skills and strategies for accurately decoding new words. As skills become more automatic, the reader is able to focus on meaning.
However, it is possible to read with accuracy, speed and appropriate phrasing without fluency or understanding. To be truly fluent, a reader must comprehend and interpret text and read with appropriate timing, expressiveness, stress and intonation. Classrooms that foster fluent reading are filled with interesting, well-written materials on a large variety of topics, in a variety of formats and with a wide range of difficulty levels. Students must have many opportunities to read individually and with others. Teachers must read aloud with expression, introduce students to interesting materials, and share their enthusiasm for reading.
After the primary grades, students are expected to read independently. Those who lack fluency have a hard time understanding and keeping up with schoolwork, even if they have previously done well. These difficulties can lead to avoiding reading, which in turn leads to less exposure to ideas and vocabulary, further damaging the child’s chances for success.
Guided repeated reading has been shown in experimental studies to be effective at improving fluency. The teacher initially reads a text aloud, discusses it with students and provides support until students can read it independently. Students reread the text individually or with a partner until they reach a comfortable level of accuracy and speed. Attention to comprehension is important. Repeated reading has been shown to improve word recognition, fluency and comprehension across a variety of grade levels with both skilled and challenged readers.
Promoting fluency with Readers’ Theatre
Reading performance activities combine the proven benefits of repeated reading with inherently meaningful activities that are fun for students. Worthy and Broaddus state that when these performances become a regular part of the reading program, all students have an opportunity to practice and to perform successfully. Students engage in repeated reading with the purpose of performing a poem, joke, story, “Readers Theatre” script or speech for an audience.
As students are able to interpret and read texts with expression, their comprehension improves. Instruction and feedback from the teacher are natural components of rehearsing. Students listen to skilled reading and follow along in the text, either repeating the text (echo reading) or reading along (choral reading). This explicit modeling leads to gains in rate, accuracy, phrasing and expression.
Even in upper grades, shared reading can help all students improve the expressiveness of their oral reading.Modeled reading may be especially beneficial for struggling readers. When teachers read high-interest books aloud, they are familiarizing students with a new text that they can reread during group practice or in silent reading time. Using books on tape also allows less able readers or second-language learners an opportunity to hear the rhythm of a language. Taped books help students focus simultaneously on comprehension and improving fluency.
Readers Theatre is an activity that allows students to be grouped by interest rather than reading level. It is critical, however, that students take parts in which they can be successful. Struggling readers are able to read smoothly when they have had sufficient guidance and practice.
Since some proficient readers tend to read too quickly and with little expression or attention to punctuation, Readers Theatre is beneficial to them as well. Ample rehearsal time is essential for struggling readers, but each success increases confidence and motivation. Worthy and Broaddus stress the importance of having a regular sequence of activities leading to the performance.
This sequence should include choosing texts with students, practicing in small groups and at home, and teacher feedback and support during small-group practice. It is important to remember that students and teachers need time to plan and establish routines and appropriate behavior. It can take several weeks of explaining, role modeling and guided practice before these activities run smoothly. Texts chosen should not be above readers’ instructional levels. Straightforward plots in which characters talk through dilemmas adapt well to performance, as do speeches and poems.
Series books or books by the same author allow students to become comfortable with similar plot structures, language and characters. Worthy and Broaddus provide lists of performance-ready and easy-to-script resources for Readers Theatre that include poetry, fiction and folk tales, as well as mathematics, social studies and science texts that are appropriate for upper-elementary and middle-school students (see reference below).
They also recommend exposing students to gifted speakers through audio tapes. With initial support the teacher, students can and should write their own scripts, songs, raps and poetry for performance. Favorite scenes from novels can be turned into scripts and performed as book advertisements. Another self-motivating activity involves making a class library of books on tape. Students choose books, practice reading them, and then record them. To prepare a tape that is polished enough to be placed in the class library, students will naturally practice, edit and reread until they have a perfect final copy.
Buddy Reading to younger children
Buddy reading is a type of meaningful reading performance in which students read books to younger children. This practice encourages even the most reticent students to read aloud because younger students are usually nonthreatening. It is critical that students choose books they can read easily and that are interesting for the younger students. It is also essential for the older students to prepare carefully and for them to be paired with students with significantly less advanced reading skills.
To develop fluency, teachers must make a commitment to provide regular class time for students to practice reading with teacher coaching, modeling,and explicit instruction. This time allows teachers to assess all aspects of students’ reading, and to modify instruction and texts accordingly. Worthy and Broaddus suggest that teachers provide a wide variety of reading materials based on students’ interests and comfort levels, give students informal time to share their books with peers, provide at least 20 to 45 minutes each day for reading, and give students meaningful response activities rather than busywork.
It is most important that texts are available at all students’ reading levels. In a text that they intend to use for performance or buddy reading, students should be able to read 95 percent of the words and understand the story without difficulty.
“Fluency Beyond the Primary Grades: From Group Performance to Silent, Independent Reading” The Reading Teacher Volume 55, Number 4, January 2002 Pp. 334-343.
Published in ERN Februuary 2002 Volume 15 Number 2