Reading Fluency: It's Not Just Kid Stuff
Fluency, along with decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension,
is one of the basic components of reading. Research has shown
that fluency can and should be explicitly taught to adult learners,
and that fluency practice may lead to increases in reading
achievement (Kruidenier, 2002). Despite this, it is frequently overlooked
in adult reading instruction.
Fluency is defined as the ability to read rapidly and efficiently
(also described using the term automaticity), in a manner largely
error-free (accuracy), and with appropriate phrasing, rhythm, and
expression (prosody). In other words, fluent reading sounds like
actual speech, where someone groups words into phrases, pauses
or slows down at certain points, and emphasizes key words.
Why is fluency important? Most notably, fluency is a necessary
skill for comprehension, the ultimate goal of all reading. To understand
a text, readers must be able to read without focusing all
their cognitive resources on recognizing or sounding out individual
words. Going through a text slowly, word-for-word, taxes shortterm
memory so that the substance of the entire text is lost. Even
good readers have experienced this when they read through a
dense, highly technical text; they may read or sound out each
word correctly—albeit laboriously—but at the end they have no
idea of what they have read.
Oral reading is a necessary component of fluency practice. Hearing
an adult student read aloud allows a teacher to monitor the
learner's progress; it also builds the reader's confidence, lets
him or her practice their skills, and creates a connection between
spoken and written language. A teacher can employ a variety of
strategies for students who are reluctant to read aloud. Among
these are modeling, in which the teacher reads with appropriate
expression and phrasing as the student follows along; echo reading,
where the teacher reads a sentence or phrase, followed by
the learner imitating the teacher's phrasing and flow; and paired
reading, where two students read in unison or take turns reading
and re-reading the same passage to each other. A teacher may
also employ shared reading: reading in unison with the student but gradually fading out until the student is reading on his or her
own. Regardless of the strategy used, teachers and tutors must
keep in mind that practice is a major key to success; indeed,
repeated reading has been called "the most effective instructional
technique for increasing adult reading fluency" (Curtis & Kruidenier,
Another effective method for fluency instruction is Cloze reading,
in which words or parts of words are deleted from a text. Adult
learners frequently hit a brick wall when they pause to struggle
over unfamiliar words, slowing their reading—and comprehension—
rates. Often, however, they are skilled enough to gain
meaning from context if they can get to the end of a sentence or
paragraph. Sometimes humming or saying "blank" in place of an
unfamiliar word is enough to allow the reader to deduce the word
in context. The teacher may then isolate the unfamiliar word or
phrase for decoding or vocabulary instruction.
"Chunking" of text can also be used to demonstrate that reading
and comprehension occur in phrases, not necessarily in individual
words. The teacher can start with a familiar text to illustrate
how words are grouped into phrases, for example: "I pledge
allegiance//to the flag//of the United States//of America." After
demonstrating this method with a few texts, the teacher can assist
students in chunking sentences by themselves.
Matching readers to texts is an important component of fluency
practice. Johns and Berglund (2006) analogize building fluency
to building a bridge, one that spans the gap between word-calling
and comprehension. Among other critical requirements, a bridge
has to be "right-sized" for what will pass above and below its
span. So it is critical that teachers "right-size" the texts that they
present to their students.
In this process, teachers can do simple assessments of students'
fluency levels using one-minute timed readings and then determine
reading levels as well as gains in fluency using a rubric
such as the NAEP Oral Reading Fluency Scale. To be certain
that texts are appropriate for the reader, the teacher can apply
formulas for measuring reading levels (Fry, Flesch-Kincaid, etc.),
which are available on the web.
In reflecting upon the benefits of fluency practice, educator Susan
McShane (2004) has said, "Improvements in reading speed,
accuracy, and expression are concrete outcomes of instruction,
and improved fluency may lead to improved comprehension."
Curtis, M.E., and Kruidenier, J. (2005). Teaching adults to read.
Retrieved November 1, 2011, from [here].
Johns, J. and Berglund, R. (2006). Fluency: Strategies and
Assessments (3rd ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading
Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based Principles for Adult Basic
Reading Instruction. Washington, D.C.: The Partnership for
McShane, S. (2004). Fluency development: Practice means
progress. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from [here].
About the Authors
Joan Grigsby, M.Ed. is Director, and Lynda Bertram, J.D., M.Ed. is Program Resource Specialist for The Learning Center of North Texas' Adult Services Division, which provides training, assessment, and direct services to adult literacy programs and providers. This article is excerpted from one of their professional development workshops.