What is reading fluency and why is it desirable?
Fluency is the ability to read “like you speak.” It’s being able to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. When fluent readers read aloud, they read in phrases and add appropriate intonation and expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking. Readers who have not yet developed fluency read slowly, word by word. Their oral reading sounds choppy and awkward.
In order to be able to understand what they read, children must be able to read fluently whether they’re reading aloud or silently. When fluent readers read silently, they recognize words automatically. They subconsciously group words, instead of reading them singly, to help them gain meaning from what they read.
Because fluent readers don’t have to concentrate on decoding the words, they can focus their attention on what the text means. They can connect the ideas in the text with their background knowledge. In other words, fluent readers both recognize words and understand them at the same time. Less fluent readers, however, must focus their attention on figuring out the words, leaving them little attention for understanding the meaning of the text.
When students reach higher levels of fluency, they’re able to utilize metacognitive (metacognitive means “thinking about thinking”) strategies. This means that they can visualize and interpret what they are reading, and they can think about their own opinions regarding the text while reading it. This is the highest level of reading comprehension.
The biggest reason reading fluency is important is because without fluency, reading is not enjoyable. Fluent readers will pick up a book and read on their own — just for fun. Fluent reading lead to more success with writing, better vocabulary skills and a greater understanding of what is being read.
Obviously, fluency is highly desirable. So let’s talk about how we can get your child to this point.
1. Develop Good Decoding Skills
First, your child must become proficient at decoding. Don’t even start worrying about fluency until your child can decode all the words in the text.
Does your child stumble over words? Substitute words? Need to sound out multiple words on the page? These are all signs that you need to work on your child’s decoding skills. The Ultimate Guide to Phonics is the best place to start.
2. Read Aloud to Model Fluent Reading
Another important factor in the development of fluency is the need for modeling. When your child hears fluent reading, it will be easier for him to mimic it.
As you read aloud to your child, you’re setting an example. Your child is mentally absorbing your tone, your speed, appropriate phrasing and inflections. That’s one of the reasons it’s so critical that parents read aloud daily to their children.
3. Use Audio Recordings
Audio recordings are created by professional voice actors who know just how to model perfect fluency. Not only are the phrasing and expressions perfect, but the tone and pace of the skilled readers/actors provide further attributes to emulate.
And if you give your child the book to read, to follow along with the recording, his sight word skills will improve immensely. For extra practice, ask your child to read out loud along with the recording, and practice the same passage multiple times.
Between music lessons, orchestra, homeschool co-op and sports, we spend hours each week in the car. I love that audio recordings are so mobile and flexible and enable us to use all of that otherwise wasted time wisely. We have listened to fantastic and interesting audiobooks — things that I enjoyed right along with the kids! I was amazed when my 5-year-old chose Hidden Figures and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did.
Audiobooks make ‘grown-up’ material more approachable to kids. And if you consistently choose material slightly above their reading ability and have them read along with it, it will drastically improve their reading skills.
You can check out audiobooks from your local library, or purchase audio copies online. They are very easy to find, as most books can be found in both printed and audio format. My favorite place to find great audiobooks is Audible. They are an Amazon company, and are always running deals for first-time users. If you have Amazon Prime, (not a member? Try Amazon Prime free for 30 days) you may not know that you already receive some of the audible benefits for free with your membership. Between the rotating list of free audible selections (free with my prime) and the library, I rarely have to purchase audiobooks.
If you want to sign up for a separate Audible membership, you ‘ll get your first month free. Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks.You will also receive access to all of the audible channels, filled with premium podcasts you can stream.
Another really helpful strategy is to help your child record himself. My kids absolutely love this strategy and would record themselves all day long.
After recording, let your child assess his own reading. How did it sound? Was it natural or choppy? How was his pace? Did he pay attention to punctuation? Encourage your child to evaluate himself and write down one thing he did well and one thing that needs improvement. Then he can re-record and try to improve. This is how professional speakers practice their speeches.
4. Use Games to Practice Sight Words.
Sight words are words that appear frequently but sometimes aren’t easy to sound out phonetically. They are also called high-frequency words. Learning them helps children become more confident readers. The first one hundred words on Fry’s Sight Word list account for nearly 50% of all printable material. Familiarity with these words will really build your child’s proficiency and confidence!
The games below will help your child memorize sight words in a fun way that doesn’t feel like work.
- Printable sight word list
- 25 low-prep sight word activities
- Sight word action cards
- Roll & write sight words
- Sight words rhyming game
- Sight word Blackout
5. Turn on Subtitles as you Watch Movies
You can sneak learning into television-watching the same way you sneak raw spinach into your morning smoothies. Imagine the many additional hours of print exposure your children will get if captions are turned on every time they watch TV! In addition to print exposure, your children will hear fluency modeled perfectly, which will give them something to strive toward.
I still think in-person modeling by a parent reading aloud will be far superior to movies with subtitles, but we might as well use TV to the fullest since it’s going to happen anyway.
6. Work on Vocabulary
Does your child understand the meaning of all the words he’s reading?
If not, fluency will be an uphill battle for both of you. Even if he can decode the words properly, when he runs into a word he doesn’t understand, he will be so focused on the word itself that he’ll be unable to read smoothly and with expression.
Have you ever tried to read a book on a topic you were unfamiliar with? As you encountered words you weren’t familiar with, your fluency (and comprehension) probably faltered. You probably had to read and re-read each sentence multiple times in order to fully understand the gist.
I’ve found that the best way to improve vocabulary is by reading lots and lots of children’s books. Children’s books have 30% more rare words in them than a conversation between two college graduates.
Studies show that a child’s vocabulary upon entering school is the number one indicator of whether he’ll be a good reader. By the time a child is 5-years-old, he will know 90% of the words he will use for the rest of his life. The eventual strength of your child’s vocabulary depends on how many of these rare words he knows.
The child who has heard thousands of picture books before he reaches school will have a larger vocabulary than the child that experiences very few books during his early years.
I don’t provide vocabulary lists or dictionaries or anything like that. I just provide exposure. My kids figure out the meaning of the rare words from context, or sometimes from asking. They hear the pronunciation as I read to them. It’s really all they need, and it’s been a very successful method for my kids.
7. Use Buddy Reading to Encourage Expression
After years of listening to read-alouds, your child is probably familiar with how you interpret dialogue—reading text the way someone would say it. But it can still take some practice for novice readers to get the hang of adding expression to their own voices.
To help your child become more expressive, try buddy reading. There are several forms of buddy reading, but for encouraging expression, it is most helpful if you read a page and then have your child read the same page after you. Show how you pay attention to punctuation, and how you emphasize important words.
8. Repeated Reading
Another technique that research has shown significantly builds reading fluency is repeated reading, which is a form of mastery learning. In fact, the National Reading Panel says this is the most powerful way to improve reading fluency. This involves simply reading the same material repeatedly until it is accurate and expressive.
In the 1970s, LaBerge and Samuels studied what happens when students read passages over and over again. They found that when students reread passages, they got faster at reading the passages, understood them better, and were able to read subsequent passages better as a result of the repeated reading.
9. Practice ‘Scooping’ Phrases
While we encourage beginning readers to point to each word as they read, this is something we want our readers to grow out of.
To encourage fluency, we want them to subconsciously group words into small phrases. Let’s take this sentence for example: The fat pig got stuck in the tub. A beginning reader would sound out each word phonetically and would read it haltingly, one word at a time. As reading becomes fluent, a reader naturally groups the words like this in his mind, before he even reads the sentence:
The fat pig got stuck in the tub
To help your child cultivate this skill, simply write a short passage on paper. Then draw curved ‘scooping’ lines under each sentence, grouping the words like shown. After showing your child how, let him ‘scoop’ his own sentences.
10. Practice, practice, practice
Make sure your child is practicing at a level that he can read independently. And have him read aloud, rather than silently. Silent reading certainly has its place, but oral reading practice is necessary for developing fluency.
Have your child read for grandma and grandpa, and to his siblings. Having an audience will motivate him to do his very best reading, which will also help develop fluency.
The last (and best!) bit of advice I can give you is to relax and have fun. It doesn’t matter whether your child reads fluently at age 5 or at age 7. A 4-year-old reader will not necessarily be further ahead beyond elementary school. Nor will a 7-year-old reader be further behind.
The one thing that does matter all the way through life is how your child feels about his ability to learn. If he feels normal and succesful and confident, he will excel. But if he feels dumb, he’ll stop trying. So keep it all lighthearted, fun and low-pressure. Let your child know how much you admire his hard work and celebrate all of the little victories.
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In addition to the tips, encouragement and resources that I’ve shared to help your teach your child to read, I’ve joined an amazing group of talented bloggers who have each created their own 10-day helpful homeschooling series for you to enjoy! Be sure to visit them all below!