This is my first in a series on the five components of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. All of these areas are complex and there are many books and workshops on these topics. My goal in this series of blogs is to break down each component explaining what it is and why it is important, give an overview of how each one will look at the various stages of reading development and give a few tips for parents and teachers to help the children in their lives. I want to start with fluency. It might seem like an odd one to begin with, but fluency needs to be developed from the beginning even as children are just beginning their journey as readers. Some students do not develop it until 4th grade or later, so it is important that teachers and parents work together to help students develop their reading fluency.
What is fluency?
Fluency is defined as the ability to read smoothly and easily with proper speed, accuracy, and phrasing. I always told my first grade students that they wanted to read as they talked, smoothly and without breaks. Of course, as children are just beginning to read there will be times when they need to stop and sound out a word. Fluency develops and grows as students’ reading improves. Fluency is NOT just speed in reading. Studies have shown that speed in reading does not help increase students’ comprehension.
Fluency and Comprehension
Fluency as an essential component of reading was neglected until about the 1980’s. Since then many studies have been done regarding fluency and other areas of reading. One of the most interesting findings in a study of fourth graders reading is that there is a significant relationship between students’ oral reading and their comprehension. The better a child’s fluency is, the more they will comprehend.
There are two components of fluency — automaticity and prosody. When a child can automatically recognize words then he or she can put more effort into comprehension. When a child lacks automaticity, they struggle with comprehension. But, that same child might understand a text if it was read to them so they are putting so much effort into decoding that they can’t put any effort into comprehension.
Prosody, or expressive reading, using proper intonation, speed, rhythm and phrasing, is more important then automaticity, knowing the words without having to sound them out. To help your child develop prosody modeling is key. Read aloud to your child.
Students who read orally with good prosody also tend to comprehend better when reading silently than those readers who have poor prosody (read in a word-by-word manner.)
To help your child learn phrasing you can take song lyrics, poems or passages of text and have children mark in where the phrases are. Punctuation can help children know when to stop at a comma or period, but they can also put slash marks into a passage of text chunking words together that make a phrase and put two slash marks to note the end of a sentence.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Acquiring fluency is similar to learning to play a musical instrument or learning a sport. They all require a lot of practice until they can be done seemingly without effort.
Fluency needs to be developed with familiar text. Reading and re-reading familiar poems and nursery rhymes, song lyrics, all help to develop fluency. I remember when my son was first learning to read and he had memorized familiar books. I knew he wasn’t reading the words of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle, but he was reading it fluently because he had heard it read so many times.
In addition to reading aloud and modeling — you can echo and choral read with your child. Echo reading is where the fluent reader reads a line and the child repeats it, while choral reading is where everyone reads the same text together.
Having your child read along with an book on CD or now with IPODS, etc. with a book from audible.com is another great way to help increase your child’s fluency.
Although practicing familiar text is important, recent studies have shown that it is not necessarily reading the same texts over and over again that help student’s gain fluency, but reading the same words in multiple texts. This is where the beginning readers by Dr. Seuss and others are great because they have the same words over and over again. If your child sees “dog” multiple times in Go, Dog, Go, then he or she may recognize it in Clifford books as well.
Some other fun ideas to practice fluency as a family are to try family karoake — maybe even putting the song lyrics up on the computer or TV. If you have future thespians creating plays, also called Reader’s Theater, where each person has a part and some lines are repeated. You can give beginning readers the easier lines or have two people be one character. There are lots of great readers theaters available in books or online or you can create your own from your child’s favorite books. Have your child practice poetry with repeated readings and then put on a performance for family and friends.
If your child knows that performance whether poetry, songs, or a will be the end result they will be more engaged in practicing the same text over and over again and the reading and performance will be authentic.
Prosody and automaticity both need to be developed by children reading a lot of texts and be focused on creating meaning.