Fun with Fluency: What Is It and Why Do We Need to Teach It?
What does fluency mean and why is it important to actively teach it to readers? If someone is a fluent dancer, he can move with grace and ease. If someone writes fluently, she can use her language easily and with accuracy. The same smooth flow of fluency is essential in reading, not only for equipping a student to read volumes of material as they move to advanced content, but for comprehension even at the most basic level. By shifting the focus to the whole rather than the minutia of letter sounds, suddenly the words sound more like the spoken language they know.
Once you have a beginning reader carefully trained with the tools of phonetic decoding, some may still struggle to make sense of a simple sentence, let alone a more complex story. It’s natural for beginning readers of any age to get hung up on alphabet sounds, dissecting words, phonetic exceptions, and recognizing inexplicable “sight words.” The brain can become consumed with phonetic decoding, leaving little bandwidth for focus on meaning. What is missing in this scenario is automaticity of word recognition—the end of which is fluency.
As a reading specialist for over thirty years, I recognize what a complicated process learning to read can be, more for some students than others. As you know, English is compiled of multiple languages. To tackle the task, we must teach phonetic decoding strategies as well as use of context for word recognition. There is even a time and place for the “see-and-say” method of sight word reading.
“Oh, no!” you may think. “Not sight word reading! Wrong, wrong, wrong!” Memorization of basic high frequency words is essential or the whole system can become a bottleneck. Most “sight words” don’t fit the phonetic rules if you’ve noticed. Some kids have an uncanny memory, and sight words are no problem for them. Others need some help, and practice makes perfect sense.
So how do we possibly have fun while increasing rate of reading, i.e. fluency? If your child is a stammering reader, how can you help and thus enhance their comprehension? How can repetition and rehearsal possibly be enjoyable, you may wonder. Here are some suggestions for different levels and stages of reading skill acquisition.
For the youngest learner, holiday traditions can make fluency instruction more engaging. To generate enthusiasm, discuss your chosen holiday first. No matter your cultural or faith traditions, your child’s familiarity with it makes it a useful springboard for learning. Read or retell a story about a tradition you choose to celebrate. Focus on organization by talking about the beginning, the middle, and then of course, the important ending or resolution.
Ask your child to verbally compose some sentences to retell the story you’ve read. If they are unable to write their own sentences, have them dictate the story and watch you write their spoken words. You can stop as you write and ask your child what letter/s you should use to start a word. Rehearse the sounds of the letters as you write. Reread the sentences together with the student. If they are beginning readers, point to each word as you read it aloud. Suggest your young reader illustrate each page of the story you have written, perhaps spreading the story development over a few days.
In each instructional session, your child will reread the pages they have already composed with you. Their own story will come alive with their illustrations which further helps them establish comprehension. (How can they illustrate what is happening if they don’t understand?)
Now move into the details of the text. Take a deeper dive and have your child identify some of their sight words in the sentences. They may circle or underline those important high frequency words. It’s useful to make flash cards of those words. As they improve their word recognition, use a timer to give kudos for increased fluency. Each day reread the story and practice rereading the sight words. Time the flash card reading and applaud as the time decreases with practice. Readers usually like to see their progress, so making a simple tracking chart will increase their confidence.
At the holidays especially, it can be fun to learn to read favorite passages together as a family. Take some lines from the traditional holiday story you have chosen and memorize a few favorite parts together. If your reader is just beginning, you could rewrite the story ideas into simple sentences as before.
Select sight words your reader has learned and use those words as often as possible when rewriting a challenging text. It’s okay that they are essentially memorizing now. When they approach the printed text, the memorization will guide their word reading and carry them along—with better fluency. Encourage your reader to keep their eyes on the words to reinforce word recognition not rote recitation. This activity won’t be helpful if they are gazing around the room while repeating the story. The memorization piece of this must connect to the word recognition to be useful here.
To enable children who have trouble with line sweep (moving to the next line prematurely or getting lost on the page), try this: use a piece of cardstock or a strip of construction paper under one line at a time. Contrasting paper color can help narrow the field of their attention. Have your student slide the paper guide down each line as the reading progresses.
For older readers, short plays and “Readers Theater” will enhance their fluency. Readers Theater is simply reading parts of a whole. It can be commercially published (check out Readers Theater online), or it can be from a favorite novel they have read. Divide the parts by characters and narrator and let your child choose who they want to be. Discuss who the narrator is. Ask who is telling the story—the main character (in first person)? Or is there an outside narrator telling the story?
It’s all about the repetition, matching verbal cues with written cues on the page. A short play reading, even if the students don’t act it out, requires practice to make sense and to sound fluent. Vocal expression is needed to carry off the meaning. Model the proper intonation if they are reading monotone. Practice reading it the way it should sound in the play. Remember, your student will encounter these same words in other texts. Next time, if enough rehearsal has taken place, your reader should have faster recognition when these words appear in the next story or book.
Readers Theater can be a family activity. Everyone can take turns reading through a script with the load of reading shared. The task of reading aloud becomes less daunting for the slow reader each time they rehearse as they become more familiar with the text. If someone needs more practice, he or she can take those lines to practice separately and then rejoin in the group reading. When all the parts come together, the previous struggler will feel more confident to read their script.
I hope some of these ideas have been starting places for you. Developing fluency can be loads of fun and can lead to creative family times. Enjoy these ideas and develop more of your own. Some kids need this kind of practice for building reading rate while others may simply enjoy it. Don’t be ashamed to use the old-fashioned tools of repetition and recitation to help move your child into faster word recognition. It’s one piece of the reading puzzle.
Joan C. Benson is a reading specialist, teacher trainer, educational publishing writer, and fiction author with more than thirty years of experience. She has a Master’s of Education from the University of Kansas.
Opinions expressed by individual writers in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Board of Directors of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers, nor do they represent an official position of VaHomeschoolers. Writers’ views are their own, and readers are encouraged to research and explore homeschooling issues to their own satisfaction.