First You Have to Teach Them to be Disfluent Readers

  • 20 June, 2020

Teacher question:

You say that one-quarter or one-fifth of the reading instruction time should be spent on oral reading fluency. But I teach kindergarten and most of my kids can’t read, so fluency instruction doesn’t make any sense. What should I do instead?

Shanahan responds:

When we talk about oral reading fluency – or what I prefer to call text reading fluency – we’re referring to the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and appropriate expression or prosody.

As such, text fluency is a mash up of a plethora of applied skills including decoding ability, knowledge of high frequency words, ability to multitask – processing one word while moving along to look at the next, and while this is going on, trying to construct meanings, and so on.

Often, text fluency instruction focuses on reading speed; trying to hurry kids along (since we use reading rate as an index of automaticity).

A better way to think about text fluency instruction, however, is as a coordination task that requires the reader to integrate and consolidate their abilities to orchestrate several skills and abilities simultaneously.

Unfortunately, we don’t talk much about the roots of text fluency.

I think the basic idea that many people have is that when students learn to read words fluently, then they’ll be able to read text fluency. If you can do the first, you will certainly be able to do the second. At least that’s what they claim.

Consequently, they recommend staying away from text fluency work altogether, or at best they suggest it is something for later (like the second half of first grade). Leaving kindergarten teachers, like you, off the hook.

If text reading is no different than fast individual word reading, then that would be an appropriate approach. 

But research suggests a more complicated picture… and, that’s where things get interesting. Of course, those skills that allow kids to read word lists fluently contribute to text reading fluency, too. But there’s more to it than that (Jenkins, Fuchs, van den Broek, Espin, & Deno, 2003).

At what point do children begin to integrate the various skills and abilities that become reading? Certainly, much earlier than when they can actually read text fluently.

That brings me to what constitutes fluency instruction in a kindergarten classroom: “fingerpoint reading.”

Fingerpoint reading refers to the ability to point at written or printed words as they are being said. Usually the way this plays out in classrooms and in the studies of fingerpoint reading, is that the children memorize a short piece of text, perhaps a nursery rhyme or song. Then they are given a printed version of that text and are asked to recite it while pointing to each word that they say.

There is a lot of variability in students’ ability to do fingerpoint reading accurately, since it requires some knowledge of words, phonology, syllabication, print awareness, and other skills. I myself did a study like that as part of my master’s degree almost 50 years ago. My first graders sometimes pointed at the individual letters, sometimes they thought the printed words corresponded to the pronounced syllables, and so on.

Ehri and Sweet (1991) did a neat study of this trying to figure out what skills were required to sustain fingerpoint reading and what it, consequently, contributed to reading development. They found that to be a proficient fingerpoint reader you needed develop some knowledge of phonemic segmentation, some beginning sounds and the letters they correspond to, as well as a knowledge of at least a few words. Kids who lacked these skills simply weren’t very good at fingerpoint reading.

However, studies also point out the difficulties in applying phonological knowledge to text without a clear understanding of the “concept of word,” the idea that those groups of letters that are separated by spaces and punctuation marks refer to words and not to syllables (Morris, 1983; Morris, 1989; Morris & Henderson, 1981). In other words, students have to coordinate what they are learning about segmenting phonemes with these ideas of the concept of a word and how print works.

Clearly, this complex early literacy task entails those things, but it also includes left-right and top-to-bottom orientation, familiarity with written language structures, realization that spoken language corresponds to written language along with those decoding and word reading skills already noted (Bowling & Cabell, 2018; Ehri & Sweet, 1991; Mesmer & Lake, 2010).

What does this mean instructionally?

It means that we should be spending time in kindergarten (preschool, and early Grade 1) intentionally teaching students to read disfluently initially.

That’s one way to look at it, since reading the words and pointing to their counterparts tends to be a bit choppy. However, until students develop those initial abilities to match speech and print, it is unlikely they’ll be able to develop fluency in its more traditional form.

There are studies showing that the same tasks that we use to evaluate fingerpoint fluency can be used to teach students to engage in it successfully (Shepherd, 2011). For instance, having students memorizing poems or songs or predictable texts and then having them trying to point to the words as they “read” them – but with teacher support and coaching.

Another popular fingerpoint reading task is when teachers read big books to the children, pointing to the words as they are read. Teachers often engage the students in helping with this activity either chorally or individually.

Additionally, I’d recommend things like working with language experience stories. In the language experience approach (LEA), teachers transcribe student dictations, typically reading and rereading these to the child – pointing at the words all the way. Then the children try to read them, too, both pointing at the words as they read, and trying to find words that the teacher says. Early on, I separate the words pretty far apart, but over time they get closer together.

The point of all of these activities are multiple: they help the students to build memory for language; to track print; to coordinate oral and written language; to apply phonemic segmentation in a reading situation, and so on.

In the instructional scheme that you refer to, I argue that 25% of instructional time should be devoted to word learning (the decoding and meanings of words and parts of words), 25% to fluency, 25% to comprehension and learning from text, and 25% to writing. Or, in another version, I would divide that pie in 5 pieces and add oral language to the mix.

Clearly, fingerpoint reading is closely connected to the word work that kindergartners should be engaged in (phonological awareness, alphabet, letter sounds). Research also shows it to be closely tied to the invented spelling that would commonly be a part of beginning writing (Uhry, 1997). I suspect, because of its verbal memory demands, that it is also related to certain aspects of oral language development.

As I wrote above, fluency is about coordinating all of these systems. That is also true when these skills are first starting to develop. When students can read in a conventional manner, typical oral reading activities with feedback and repetition are likely to be the best route to increased coordination of decoding and meaning. But before we can get to that, activities like fingerpoint reading, that require the coordination of language and print belong in that fluency slot.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Alfe Jun 20, 2020 04:50 PM

Excellent, thought provoking advices.

Edith Dalla Fontana Jun 20, 2020 05:10 PM

Dear Dr Shanahan,
Should the distribution in the pie leave more time to oral language at present when distance learning leaves us less time in a face to face fashion ? Do we have to give more time to constrained abilities such as vocabulary , inference ? I cannot say “We” because Argentina has different remote access to Internet to no access at all.But at my school that’s the tendency in KG.Is it ok to leave for posts with videos and some minutes at face to face meetings, activities that aim at identifying phonemes, sound to letter correspondence and tracing of letters.Is that choice ok ? I would like to know what you think about it .I expect every Saturday your post.Thanx a million !!!!

andrea welter Jun 20, 2020 05:13 PM

thank you..very helpful. I have been teaching for over 30 years, and you continue to teach me something new and beneficial each time I read your posts.

Sam Bommarito Jun 20, 2020 05:28 PM

Excellent points. Too often students memorize whole books, espcecially the little books (F&P Level A-D). When shown new books they say "I don't know that book." translation I haven't memorized that book. Your way of teaching fluency avoids that kind of problem. They learn which word is which. To reenforce that they should "make it match not make it up" I sometimes go back to the book and point to random words- which word is this, which word is that. I also sometimes ask them to go through the book and find all the "the's" or all the "saws", pointing to the word. They start out with no real concept of word. They end up knowing which word is which and knowing that it is their job to figure out new words. Repeated reading, especially repeated reading of poems to perform them, is great practice for these very beginning readers. You know Tim Rasinski has done a lot of successful work along those lines. BTW- learning nursery rhymes, which seems to be out of vogue lately, is another source of materials for repeated reading with the intent to perform. There's plenty of fluency work to be done in Kg!

Anne Watt Jun 20, 2020 05:37 PM

Now that we are in the midst of virtual learning and tutoring, what is your suggestion as to finger reading. Using the OG method for tutoring, I have always used finger reading for my struggling beginners. This is a piece that I am trying to put in place now that we are working on a device, miles away from each other. Your suggestions would be so appreciated. Thank you
Anne Watt

Harriett Jun 20, 2020 05:55 PM

I use the term "tracking print", and it's very helpful to see it explained in the various contexts you've described and where it can break down. I especially appreciate the reference to invented spelling. "Fingerpoint reading is closely connected to the word work that kindergartners should be engaged in (phonological awareness, alphabet, letter sounds)" and "research also shows it to be closely tied to the invented spelling that would commonly be a part of beginning writing (Uhry, 1997)." I realize that I did indeed have my kindergartners do "fingerpoint reading" when they read their stories to me, and this was precisely how together we were able to catch something they had written where the graphemes didn't match the phonemes. "Mayk" is great; "mek", less so.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2020 05:58 PM

I don't think what needs to be learned to make kids literate will change because of the distance learning... though perhaps we'll find that particular ways of teaching change.... So, kids are still going to need oral language development, and teachers who are delivering such instruction are telling me that students are less verbal on Zoom than they were in the classroom... that might require some changes.



Paula Helberg Jun 20, 2020 07:22 PM

Thanks for the great article. I always had my kindergarten students finger-point until the text wasn't so predictable, or at around Level D, in F&P levels. I was pleased to see Language Experience mentioned as well. LEA isn't as well known, especially by younger teachers, but it's very useful for beginning readers.

Cecille Marie Improgo Jun 21, 2020 08:10 AM

Thank you so much for this. This is enlightening.

Sam Bommarito Jun 21, 2020 03:07 PM

Anne Watt- I bought a document camera (about $100). It is hi def and gives instantaneous feed. I can now show the kids books and point for them on the screen as they read the book. The camera puts a full screen view out so I just share that screen with them on Zoom. I'm working with them one on one. Parents are often there making sure they are also point as the read books at their end. This also works for doing Elkonin boxes or Rasinski's' word ladders et all. Hope this helps.

Maria Jun 21, 2020 06:27 PM

Thanks Tim. Can you comment on the role of decodable texts in kindergarten fluency as well?

Timothy Rasinski Jun 21, 2020 08:12 PM

Thanks Tim. Another thoughtful piece.

This being Fathers Day, I thought I would share how my wife and I taught our children how to read before kindergarten. We did much the same as what you suggested -- we'd take a large print and short rhyme like Little Bo Peep. Then, over the course of 10 minutes or so for 3-4 days, we'd 1) read the rhyme to our child multiple times in different voices, while pointing to the words, 2) invite our child to read with us and sharing finger pointing, 3) once our child largely had the poem memorized, we invited her/him to read it to us (now the parents are the audience) while finger pointing. Of course this led to lots of praise. 4) We'd finish this with both our child and us choosing a few words to study -- for example,in Little Bo Peep we explored on a sheet of paper how the rime -eep in Peep can be expanded into other words such as sheep, jeep, keep, deep, etc. We'd then practice post those words on the fridge and practice them from time to time. Each "lesson" took about 10 minutes and we did a new rhyme every week. All our kids were early readers. This has evolved into a couple lesson formats - Fluency Development Lesson and Fast Start.

Bruce Stevenson and I wrote about teaching parents to use this approach in Rasinski & Stevenson. (2005) The Effects of Fast Start Reading: A Fluency-Based Home Involvement Reading Program, On the Reading Achievement of Beginning Readers, Reading Psychology, 26:2, 109-125, DOI: 10.1080/02702710590930483

Happy Father's Day to you, and thanks again for all you do.

Tim Shanahan Jun 22, 2020 02:36 AM


Decodable texts have a role to play as part of a phonics program (it provides practice with what the children are reading). However it should not be the only text that young readers read.



Jessica Jun 22, 2020 03:02 PM

As a teacher with a decade between Kindergarten and First Grade, and with a Masters in Reading, I completely agree with everything you are saying! In the earlier years of my career I had the freedom to do all of the things you are saying, and I saw so much reading growth with my students. Now, however, my district mandates Wit and Wisdom, and I honestly don't see any of the opportunities you are speaking about embedded in the curriculum. Why, if this is what the research says is best for emergent readers, is this not what is happening in Wit and Wisdom for our youngest learners?

Ellen Viau Jun 22, 2020 05:57 PM

I have been teaching Kindergarten for over 20 years and I feel like the old Nursery Rhymes are still awesome teaching tools for so many things from phonics, phonemic awareness and all the way to fluency. We need to bring what worked years ago back into the classroom. Perhaps, now it can be livened up with some new technology like Youtube videos of the nursery rhyme. Using the flipgrid to get the children interacting with the text. We still need to have Kindergarten and 1st grade struggling readers pointing to the words so they make that connection. Great article!

Richard Gentry Jun 22, 2020 08:15 PM

Thank you, Tim, for this excellent explanation demonstrating the importance of starting early to build text reading fluency. Another powerful strategy that my co-authors and I use in Kid Writing in the 21st Century (Hameray, 2017, by Feldgus, Cardonick & Gentry) is called “adult underwriting” or “teacher publishing.” Here are the steps: 1) The child draws a picture of his or her story or information to plan the piece. 2) The child writes his or her story or information using invented spelling. 3) The teacher “publishes” the child’s piece in conventional English using the same line order and word order the child used and 4) tapes the conventional piece below the child’s piece. 5) The child reads back and rereads his or her piece over and over using the voice to print match (finger point reading). Children are delighted to read their own writing back in conventional English and repeated readings help them build fluency. The procedure helps them connect the writing and reading processes and it’s generally easier for them to read back a piece that they composed themselves. This is an excellent way to have kindergartners “integrate and consolidate their abilities to orchestrate several skills and abilities simultaneously." This procedure can begin early in kindergarten as soon as kids write three or four word phrases (in invented spelling) to describe the story or information in their picture and often can be used with more elaborate stories as kids move into first grade.

Jessica Crosby-Pitchamootoo Jun 24, 2020 02:40 PM

I have always loved and used LEA. I have a preK child and when Covid-19 caused the school building to close I began doing LEA with him as his school work. He loves construction so almost every day he dictated a sentence about construction. I asked him to write cvc words and "power words" he had already learned in school. I wrote the rest. When he read it back to me I worked on 1-1 match. Teaching him left to right orientation, return sweep, word boundaries, etc. However, I became a little nervous about doing this since I have been reading the criticism of using leveled texts and the 3 cueing system. I do not always understand the criticism. For me when I use it I always have students use the visual information and what they know about letter sound correspondence to figure out a word and check to see if they are right. They have to use ALL three. Isn't coordinating all that information what supports reading and reading fluency? If students say 'horse' for 'pony' that would NOT be acceptable. I would remind them to check the letter sounds to be suer they match. Accurate reading is necessary. Anyway....I am getting a little side tracked. I began to worry that by having him read his daily sentence I was teaching him to just look at the picture to figure out "bulldozer." However, if he struggled I would guide him to look at the letters and also think about what made sense. Does the first letter match? Do you see other letters that match other sounds in that word? He was beginning to show some resistance to this work. So I followed his lead thinking maybe I was pushing too hard for his PreK self. I then began to just do activities in phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading aloud.
This article also reminds me of the guidance I learned in Reading Recovery training. Students point and read word by word until they have mastered that skill. Only then do you begin to work on phrased fluent reading.
I know that LEA is different from reading leveled texts because it is from their words, thoughts, and interests. Also they work on encoding first and then decoding what they have just written.
I guess my question is about when is it acceptable to have them read texts that have words in them that they can not figure out solely by using their knowledge of phonics?

Jessica Crosby-Pitchamootoo Jun 24, 2020 02:46 PM

I too am interested in how this type of work fits into a reading block that uses Wit and Wisdom and Wilson Fundations?

Kathleen Hartnedy Jun 29, 2020 09:12 PM

I recently went back to college after 30 years to get a masters in reading. In my current course we had to follow a literacy blog and I have been learning so many things. This specific blog really spoke to me as I have always taught in early childhood.
I am very interested in the 5 piece pie you wrote about. Teaching reading has changed so much since I first began. Is there more information about teaching kindergarteners to read using this method? Or is there a good book that would be a good starting place for current teaching practices and strategies for teaching kindergarteners to read?
Thank you for any help you can offer. I will continue to read your blog even when the course is over. You are very knowledgeable and you are kind to share it.

Lourdes Orozco Jul 07, 2020 01:49 AM

I learn something new each time I read articles on reading fluency and teachers point of view.

RONETTA THORPE Jul 24, 2020 01:51 PM

Thank you for providing an example of teaching fluency in Kindergarten. All of the components of literacy learning must be provided for beginning readers.

Christopher Such Jul 27, 2020 05:23 PM

Hi. Today I've read and tried to understand Morris (1983), Morris (1993), Flanigan (2007) and Bowling and Cabell (2018). I'm not sure I agree about the basis for fingerpoint reading as an instructional practice. Clearly, you understand this research to a far greater extent than I do, so I am prepared for the likelihood that my understanding of this is incorrect. Anyway here goes...

The research on 'concept of word' seems to involve testing whether there appears to be a developmental progression from beginning consonant awareness (BCA) to word concept (WC) to full phoneme segmentation (FPS). The evidence being brought to bear seems to be that BCA always develops before WC which always develops before FPS; thus, directly teaching WC through something like fingerpoint reading may be justified as a means to develop WC. However, WC - as it is tested - almost certainly *relies* on BCA; in fact, it seems to be a mere application of BCA. (Once children can recognise the first sound in a word, they can recognise when a word begins by using this initial sound and connecting it to a given grapheme, as implied by Ehri's description of children entering the 'partial alphabetic phase' word reading.) Thus, BCA preceding WC makes sense, but tells us little. FPS is a measure of whether the child can orally identify *all* of the phonemes in a given word. This being the case, as far as I can tell the developmental progression hypothesised by Morris and supported by Flanigan is merely consistent with the idea that the ability to recognise the first phoneme in a word develops before the ability to recognise all the phonemes in a word. Naturally, this seems to be a trivial finding (which is why I am convinced I must have missed something). Beyond this, the evidence I can find relating to fingerpoint reading effectively sees it as correlated with concept of word, which makes sense, but implies nothing, as far as I can tell, about the efficacy of fingerpoint reading as an instructional practice. One might even argue that the dangers of implying a whole-word memorisation method of reading - which fingerpoint reading arguably does - outweigh the potential gains, which - from what I've read - seem to not have much evidence.

As I said at the start, I'm almost certainly wrong about this, so any guidance relating to my misconceptions here would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your time.

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First You Have to Teach Them to be Disfluent Readers


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