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Reading Fluency: The Neglected Key to Reading Success (Opinion)

The first post-pandemic National Assessment of Educational Progress results for reading achievement came out last year, and the results were dismal. The average reading achievement score for 13-year-olds is at the lowest level in the past 40 years! How can that be?

With the strong focus in recent years on teaching the code (i.e., phonics), it seems that reading achievement among students should be improving. However, that is not the case. Yes, the pandemic brought massive disruption to education, and that is probably part of it. But reading and teaching reading are complex, and when we focus primarily on one part of the reading-instruction puzzle, other important reading competencies (such as vocabulary, comprehension, motivation) are largely relegated to second-tier status.

One cliche I often hear is “readers can’t comprehend if they can’t decode the words.” While not denying the essential role of phonics, it is also critical that we not neglect those other important competencies. Reading fluency is one of them, one that I have been exploring, researching, and writing about for close to 50 years.

My own initiation with fluency began as an intervention teacher in Elkhorn, Neb., in 1979 (I know, I’m old), where I worked with elementary students struggling with reading. I was able to help most students by focusing on words—phonics, spelling, and vocabulary. However, there was a significant number of students who did not seem to benefit much from such instruction. They could already decode words, though they did so at a remarkably slow pace with little expression or enthusiasm. It was clear in their reading that they simply did not enjoy or value reading because it was so painful for them. I clearly was not helping these children. What to do?

Fortunately for me, I was also working on my master’s degree in reading education, and one of my professors had me read some recent articles on fluency, in particular “The Method of Repeated Readings” by Jay Samuels. Samuels reported that when students were asked to read a text more than once, not only did they improve their reading on the piece practiced, but there was also improvement that generalized to new texts never before read.

Since what I had been doing with these students was not working, I gave repeated readings a try. Lo and behold, these students who previously were making next-to-zero progress began to take off. In some cases, the improvement was close to spectacular. Best of all, these young students who previously did not see themselves as readers, now discovered that they could read as well as their more proficient classmates. They only needed to develop fluency through intentional practice.

Why does fluency matter? Since the report of the National Reading Panel in 2000, reading fluency—the ability to read the words in text accurately, effortlessly, and with appropriate expression and phrasing—has been identified as essential for reading success. As readers become automatic in their word recognition, they can devote their cognitive resources from word decoding to comprehension. Additionally, the meaningful expression readers embed in their reading (oral or silent) is evidence of reading for meaning. Scientific research has demonstrated that fluency is highly correlated with reading comprehension and overall reading achievement and that fluency-focused instruction leads to improvements in comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading. Moreover, research has also shown that significant numbers of students who struggle in reading are not sufficiently fluent.

In their 2021 and 2023 active view of reading, Nell Duke, Kelly Cartwright, and Matt Burns identify fluency as a bridging process to comprehension. Researchers have estimated that the effect size of the bridging processes, including vocabulary and morphology (understanding of meaningful word parts) as well as fluency, are substantially larger than the effect size for word decoding.

Yet, fluency continues to be neglected. Why?

First, and perhaps foremost, the obsessive focus on phonics leaves little room for fluency to be given consideration. But there are other reasons for the neglect as well. Fluency, largely associated with oral reading, is often wrongly seen as a reading competency important only in the primary grades. Unfortunately, we see fluency difficulties in middle and high school, too, yet, by then, there are often few teachers adequately versed in fluency instruction to provide effective intervention. Finally, reading fluency is often viewed as a competency that is taught after decoding is mastered. Research has shown that fluency instruction can be implemented simultaneously with phonics as early as 1st grade and that fluency and phonics instruction can support each other. For struggling readers in particular, we cannot wait for them to master word decoding before moving on to fluency.

Given the current state of reading achievement in the United States, it seems to me that now is the time to make fluency an instructional priority in our reading curriculum. The great thing is that fluency can be nurtured in a number of authentic and relatively easy-to-implement ways.

Repeated reading is one approach. Rehearsing and performing texts, such as readers-theater scripts, poetry, song lyrics, speeches, and the like have been found to improve fluency, word recognition, and even comprehension. Those texts can easily draw on content students are already exploring in their disciplinary studies.

Another approach, assisted reading, also works. Students read a text while simultaneously hearing a fluent rendering of the same text, which can be a prerecorded version of the same text on a digital tablet, the reading of an adult classroom volunteer, or a group rendition in speech or song of a poem or other short text at the beginning of every school day.

With colleagues, I have developed two instructional protocols for increasing fluency (Fluency Development Lesson and Read Two Impress) that have been shown to improve reading outcomes. When students engage in repeated and assisted reading, they succeed.

In 1983, Richard Allington wrote that reading fluency, although critical for reading success, was a “neglected goal of the reading curriculum.” Forty-plus years later, I fear that fluency continues to be neglected. If we really want to see significant improvements in reading outcomes for our students, we must embrace a more complete, complex, and scientific view of reading and reading instruction—including the competency of fluency.

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