Clearing Up a Couple Important Misunderstandings about Fluency

  • 11 July, 2020

Teacher question:

Our school uses XXXXXXX [widely used commercial program] in the primary grades to teach fluency. I don’t like it because so many children can read fluently but don’t understand what they are reading. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on reading comprehension?

Shanahan responds:

Thanks for your question. I’ll answer it, but I suspect your premises may be wrong.

I don’t buy the idea that our instructional choice is fluency or comprehension. We need to teach both. The simple view of reading emphasizes the important role each plays (Gough & Tunmer, 1987), and there is a substantial body of evidence showing the value of instruction of each (NICHD, 2000). Both of these constellations of skills are necessary to successful reading, but neither is sufficient.

If students cannot decode text fluently, they won’t comprehend it – no matter how advanced their intellectual and linguistic abilities. (If you don’t believe me, try to read text written in the Cyrillic alphabet). Likewise, no matter how well students can decode, they won’t comprehend a text if they lack adequate language development (oral and written) and world knowledge.

We need to emphasize explicit daily teaching of comprehension and fluency (along with work on word knowledge—decoding and morphology, and writing). When I visit classrooms, one of the most frequent gaps that I see is the lack of explicit teaching of text reading fluency; there just isn’t much of that. Perhaps that’s why your district purchased that program.

These days many districts monitor children’s reading development, evaluating skills like letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, decoding, and oral reading fluency. If a child does poorly in one or another of these, then the youngster gets extra instruction (Tier 2) in the specific skill. Possibly that was the target of the purchase of that program—for use with kids who lag in oral reading fluency.

That’s not an unusual approach, but it often means that kids get a lot of skills work without comparable emphasis on language development and reading comprehension. That may be the source of your complaint: the disfluent kids get a dose (or an extra dose) of fluency instruction… but without instruction aimed at building up the other strand of abilities.

If the problem is the latter, then I cheer your school for doing what it can to enhance text reading fluency. I’m on their side; that is a smart move. Research shows that fluency instruction pretty consistently improves reading comprehension 

But, like you, I jeer them for only monitoring decoding, while neglecting the language side of the equation. Kids should be receiving daily classroom instruction focused on vocabulary, morphological knowledge, syntax, cohesion, text structure and the like. And, there should be Tier 2 and 3 interventions with that kind of focus, as well.

There was another premise in your letter, and let me express some doubts about that one, too.  You say a lot of primary grade students at your school can read fluently but without comprehension. I hear that claim often, usually from “experts” trying to denigrate fluency instruction. It’s fashionable.

The problem with the claim is that it doesn’t match well with large amounts of empirical data. Oral reading fluency tends to so closely correlated with reading comprehension, particularly in the primary grades, that there just can’t be large numbers of those children.

One possibility is that your criterion for determining that a child is “fluent” may not be sufficiently rigorous.

Some teachers consider a reader fluent if he/she can read many of the words right. But it also matters how easily the student is able to do that. If students must devote a lot of cognitive resources to figure out words, then there won’t be enough left over to think about the ideas.

Reading rate is used to estimate that ease, though the point isn’t fast reading as much as automatic reading. If students can easily and relatively quickly read the words, that won’t compete with comprehension.

Not long ago a second grade teacher was showing me a student who she thought to be adequately fluent; he was reading accurately (that is, he pronounced the author’s words correctly), but he did this at about 40 words correct per minute. That means he was as fluent as an average late year first-grader, not a mid-year second-grader (look at the Tindal & Hasbrouck norms on this site under Resources). She thought he was fluent, but the data said, “no.”

It also matters if the reading sounds like language. Are the students pausing in the right places—paying attention to punctuation and meaning? Or, are they just reading lists of words that are laid out horizontally?

Kids are reading fluently when they are easily decoding words accurately in a way that sounds like language. I’ll bet some of the kids you are judging to be fluent, really aren’t.

The research on this is clear: (1) we should teach text reading fluency – in the classroom, in interventions, and in special education programs; (2) the teaching of fluency doesn’t take the place of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, or writing instruction – it is just one, along with those others, of the important things that needs to be taught; and (3) students’ text reading fluency needs to be accurately estimated – considering accuracy, automaticity, and expression simultaneously.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lisa D. Jul 11, 2020 05:36 PM

Thank you for another excellent synopsis of the connections between fluency and comprehension.

Sam Bommarito Jul 11, 2020 05:37 PM

I like Tim Rasinski's approach to fluency. He sees fluency as more than simple reading rate and has developed a fairly sophisticated rubric toward that end. I think his rubric measures exactly what you said was important "accuracy, automaticity and expression" His work in repeated readings and "reading to perform" is well-grounded in research. In the area of improving fluency unforturnately some adminstrators who focus on "test" scores misuse the data trying to force teachers to get students to simply read faster paying no attention the other components of fluency. I see the problem as much more in how the test data is being used (misused) than in the actual data itself. I also think that using rubrics like the ones Rasinski has created (and you know there are others) would lessen the odds that adminstrators would fall into that speed trap (play on words was intended!). Thanks for bringing up the whole issue of fluency- it is an area that requires more attention and I think the points you've made around the importance of accuracy, automaticity and expression are ones that everyone should be thinking more about.

Karen F. Jul 11, 2020 06:52 PM

I feel like there are many easy to find examples of materials and program that focus on Tier 2 and 3 levels for instruction and extra intervention in the areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, and for practice in developing fluency as it relates to how quickly a child can read, as you describe, that horizontal list of words. What would you recommend as good solid examples of Tier 2 and 3 materials that really help to drill down the skills on the language side of the equation- the 'vocabulary, morphological knowledge, syntax, cohesion, text structure and the like.' I have found that many of the children who are NOT language rich benefit greatly by some extra speaking and listening skills work- they are often not fluent thought to speech kiddos either- but in RTII/MTSS land it seems like we always need to be using 'research based' programs to intervene.....and conversation is hard to progress monitor as we look to measure growth. I would love your thoughts on what we might best do in Tiers 2 and 3 for children who struggle with comprehension, and how to best screen for what kinds of skills are the children missing?

Karen F. Jul 11, 2020 06:54 PM

I am going to go read up and look for the rubrics the other commenter Sam mentioned in his note- perhaps my answer lies in those!

Lynne Raiser, Ed.D. retired Jul 11, 2020 08:15 PM

Teachers who model fluency will find their students reading not only accurately but "with expression." Teach kids to "read it like you talk" will often open the door to fluency. Actually, I have modeled that for adults who don't read like they talk. There is a stilted "teacher read" that isn't the best model for children. If adults would practice fluent reading and then model it, children will get it quickly. One child I knew was reading with NO expression so there was no clue about his comprehension. Once he understood what was expected of him he said, "Oh, I can do that!" and now he reads like an actor. Actually, one of the best ways to practice fluency is to read plays. We don't read plays enough with K-5 kids. And don't forget writing fluency! Start with expressive writing and encourage them to "write like you talk." "Talk to your paper." In a tutorly project with 2nd graders we had them do free writes for 5 minutes and fluency got better and better. Again, model free writes and talk as you write to demystify writing.

Tim Shanahan Jul 12, 2020 12:54 AM


Generally the books/tests that you want kids to work with are the books that you want them to the classroom this means the books from the core reading program, social studies, science, etc.

However with kids who are early in the reading process (Reading like 1, 2, 3 grade levels) word repetition is important. Thus, you want vocabulary repetition from book to book since at that point they are learning words and how to apply phonics, etc.



Tasha Runyan Jul 12, 2020 02:12 AM

Dr. Shanahan, I enjoyed your article "Clearing Up a Couple Important Misunderstandings about Fluency," and it made me wonder what your thoughts are on how to fit Tier 2 and 3 intervention into the day for the students. I am a reading intervention teacher and the discussion with core teachers is always about what subject or portion of a subject should be missed when they come to me for intervention. Some teachers have chosen to keep students for various activities, such as the whole class practicing for a play, learning recorders, or a science experiment. I want to keep my job of course, but sometimes I wonder if they should be served in the classroom instead. We have discussed push-in models for intervention, and for special ed as well, and I do not see how these would work either because intervention and special ed teachers would not have enough time in the week to see all the kids who need service when they are spread across several classrooms. So that is probably a whole other question, but what model do you think works better-push-in or pull-out for intervention and special education in the elementary setting?
Thank you, Tasha R.

Timothy E Shanahan Jul 12, 2020 02:31 PM


Tier 2 instruction needs to be organized in a way that supplements rather than replaces classroom reading instruction. That definitely means that kids will miss something, so other efforts are needed to supplement that (if a youngster is going to miss his daily science class because he needs help reading, then what efforts are going to be made for that youngster to gain that science knowledge (parent involvement, homework, after school opportunities, online opportunities, use of science text during reading and reading intervention).

If a student is struggling to the point of needing a Tier 3 intervention (which would mean being substantially below grade level and/or particularly non-responsive to teaching), then it needs to be an alternative to the reading instruction the child was receiving in class.


Sam Bommarito Jul 12, 2020 06:21 PM

Karen F- Rasinski's newest rubric can be found in his Megabook of Fluency. Earlier (free) versions can be found on his website.

Deirdre Savarese Jul 30, 2020 12:49 PM

I have enjoyed your posts on using complex text with all students. If a part of my reading instruction is fluency related, should I provide my students with the same complex text or reduce the cognitive load so that fluency—automaticity and prosody—can be practiced?

Toni Dec 22, 2020 10:37 PM

Thank you for a clear and consice understanding of the importance of fluency to score a child "independent" at a reading level and or grade level. Fluency is a very contentious subject at the school I work at. When I was hired for the 2018-2019 school year as a Title 1 Reading Teacher, I discovered that the primary teachers used a "Whole Language" approach utilizing Lucy Calkins to benchmark their students for independent reading levels. I noticed that Lucy explains that fluency should be taught around level D or E, but it wasn't a part of the score until level J. My background and experience is F&P Classroom, BAS, LLI, Literacy Collaborative, Daily 5, and Wilson Languag Fundations PK-3, and the Science of Reading. When I realised that teachers were not listening to their students read, just having them read silently and benchmarking them 3 times a year, I was shocked. No guided reading, conferencing, etc.. My second year as a part of the Curriculum team, I was asked to be the Instructional Reading Coach PK-2, after it was decided that we would change our Reading Block to a workshop model. Fluency and explicit teaching of foundational skills, comprehension, and language been extremely contentious. How can I show my principal and Reading Specialist the importance of fluency and it's direct effect on independentd reading levels?

Patty Jan 06, 2021 03:23 AM

Thoughts on Read Naturally for kids with dyslexia or decoding struggles

Kristine Waddell Mar 13, 2022 03:35 AM


Your clarification regarding whether we think students are fluent or not really had me thinking. I teach middle school, and while I know what fluent reading sounds like, I'm now wondering about my ability to differentiate between the levels of fluency. For example, what does Grade 7 fluency versus Grade 6 or 8 sound like. Thanks, I'll be examining my understanding of fluency more carefully.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 13, 2022 04:35 AM


The words correct per minute norms can be useful for helping you to make such judgments (along with making the text sound like text). Those norms are included in the resources section of this website.


APRIL Apr 12, 2024 12:57 AM

I am currently learning how to read Russian, and I can firmly attest to the analogy made that compares a lack of reading fluency to trying to read using the Cyrillic, or my case Slavic alphabet! It is brutal and painfully slow, and then so much is lost in the translation that you just can't get to the good stuff of understanding.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Clearing Up a Couple Important Misunderstandings about Fluency


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.