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Handout: Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and quickly. It may develop slowly—on average, by the time a student reaches third grade—and it requires considerable practice. Fluent readers recognize words automatically and are able to group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read (CIERA 2003). Readers who lack fluency struggle—they spend so much time figuring out individual words that they fail to understand what they’re reading.

Yet it is important to recognize that fluency is correlated with the text involved—that is, fluency can change, depending on the text, the reader’s familiarity with the words, and how much practice the reader has had with reading text. Even a highly skilled reader can get bogged down by a text that has many unfamiliar words or topics.

Recommendations for effective instruction: One of the best ways to improve fluency is to read a text repeatedly, under the guidance of a teacher, specialist, volunteer or even a peer. The National Reading Panel (2000) notes that repeated oral reading substantially improves fluency by enhancing word recognition, speed, and accuracy; to a lesser extent, it aids reading comprehension. Repeated oral reading should involve a text that is fairly short (50–200 words) and contains words students know or can decode easily so they can focus on fluency without spending time on word recognition.

Repeated oral reading, CIERA (2003) suggests, is one of the few instructional strategies that works to improve the reading ability of students in the elementary school years and struggling readers in higher grades.

Oral reading can take many forms. CIERA describes the following approaches:

  • Student-adult reading: Students read one-on-one with an adult (a teacher, parent, classroom aide, or tutor). The adult reads a passage first, serving as a model of fluent reading. The student then reads the same passage to the adult, receiving guidance and support from the adult. The student rereads the passage until the reading is quite fluent, usually after three or four rereadings.
  • Choral reading: In choral, or unison, reading, students read along as a group with a teacher or another fluent adult reader. This requires sharing a book, using a “big book” that the whole group can see, or supplying copies to every student in the group. Again, modeling is important here, with the teacher or other adult reading aloud and students invited to join in where they know the words. “Students should read the book with you three to five times total (though not necessarily on the same day),” according to CIERA. “At this time, students should be able to read the text independently.”
  • Tape-assisted reading: In this approach, students read along in their books as they hear a fluent reader read the book on an audiotape. Books should be at student’s independent reading level, and teachers should have students follow along the first time they listen, then read along on the second and subsequent readings. “Reading along with the tape should continue until the student is able to read the book independently, without the support of the tape,” notes CIERA.
  • Partner reading: Students are paired—typically with more fluent readers partnered with less fluent readers—and take turns reading aloud to each other. Again, the stronger reader models by reading a paragraph or page first, and the less-fluent reader follows. Alternatively, children who read at the same level can be paired to reread a story after learning about it during a teacher-guided part of the lesson. In either case, the partners help each other read.
  • Round robin reading: Students take turns reading parts of a text aloud, though not necessarily repeatedly. Both CIERA and the National Reading Panel found this approach ineffective in increasing fluency, because students read only small portions of text and spend too much time waiting for others to read.


This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: October 17, 2008

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