Fluency Instruction for Older Kids, Really?

  • afterschool programs
  • 25 October, 2015
School Administrator Question:  Dr. Shanahan...for grades 3-5 does it make sense to use classroom time to have students partner read? If our ultimate goal is improving silent reading comprehension, I wonder at this age level if we are not using time efficiently.
Shanahan's response.:
I get this question a lot. Since our kids are going to be tested on their silent reading comprehension, why should we bother to have them practice oral reading? The purpose quite simply is that oral reading practice has been found to have a positive impact on students’ silent reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel reviewed 16 experimental studies in which students practiced their oral reading with a partner (e.g., parents, teachers, other students, and in one case, a computer), with rereading (they should be reading texts that are relatively hard, not ones they can read fluently on a first attempt), and with feedback (someone who helps them when they make mistakes). In 15 or the 16 studies, the kids who were engaged in this kind of activity ended up outperforming the control students in silent reading comprehension. There have been many additional studies since that time—across a variety of ages, with similar results.
Although oral reading practice improves oral reading that isn’t the reason we do it. We want students to practice making the text sound meaningful—which means reading the authors’ words accurately, reading with sufficient speed (the speed of language—not hurrying or racing through a text), and with proper expression or prosody (putting the pauses in the right places, making the text understandable to English speakers). As they learn to do that with increasingly complex texts, their ability to do that with silent reading improves.
Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8thgrade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%.
It’s not an either/or, of course, I prescribe both fluency instruction and comprehension instruction and the latter would definitely include silent reading of the texts. You could also argue for additional silent reading comprehension practice in social studies and science reading. However, if you only have kids practicing their silent reading, then you are slowing kids’ progress and sacrificing achievement points.

Do as you please, but as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated fluency instruction at those grade levels and would do so again if I still had that responsibility.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Karen Burrows Apr 06, 2017 09:29 PM

Thank you for this post. I teach 5th graders, and I'm really emphasizing fluency this year. I'm glad to hear that I'm doing the right thing. A couple of questions: When 5th graders are already fluent (as measured by something like DIBELS), should I continue to emphasize fluency with them, or just with the students who are not fluent? A number of my 5th graders seem to be struggling with fluency as a result of weak phonics skills, so I am also emphasizing awareness of word parts, and I'm using the Anita Archer REWARDS phonics program with some of my students. However, other teachers have suggested to me that if students don't have phonics skills by 3rd grade, they will never get them. Is this true? Does it matter whether or not they received quality phonics instruction when they were younger? Thank you! 10/26/15

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 09:30 PM

1. If you have students who are comfortably hitting your benchmarks, (for fifth grade, you'd like kids to be reading grade level materials at about 140 words correct per minute, and it should sound good, it should sound like English, with proper pausing, etc.), then they don't need daily fluency practice, but I would still listen to them read aloud at least once every week or two to make sure that things are still progressing well. Another possibility, if you want to continue with fluency work, then I'd start shifting them to even harder texts for this practice (and students usually love the chance to work with 6th or 7th grade texts).

2. Teachers who say that kids won't get phonics after third grade are spreading an "old wive's tale." The research shows that, in fact, decoding instruction for older, remedial students can be effective, but--in line with your colleague's claims--it is not as effective as it would have been early on. Effective phonics instruction in grades K-2 is associated with improvements in decoding, spelling, fluency, and reading comprehension. Effective phonics instruction with kids in grades 3 and up is associated with improved decoding and fluency--you have to do other and additional things beyond phonics to get boosts in comprehension or spelling in those grades (and the size of positive impacts aren't as big either). However, the kind of fluency practice that your students are engaging in has been found to improve decoding skills, too. Thus, some direct phonics instruction can help your poor decoders to read better even in grade 5, but practicing their oral reading with repetition can improve their decoding as well; for those kids, I'd definitely provide both.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 09:34 PM

I received the following from Malbert Smith, one of the creators of Lexiles. He points out a study recently conducted by he and his colleagues showing what I claimed in the above blog entry: Lexiles for a chapter can be quite different from Lexiles from an entire book.

"Enjoyed reading your post today (as I always do) on “To Lexile or Not to Lexile”. I have written a piece (attached) that very much supports your claim. If you feel it is appropriate please feel free to post or publish. We have a new section on our web site that contains many of the canonical classics that everyone has to read.

Malbert Smith Study of To Kill a Mockingbird http://blog.lexile.com/2015/11/unpacking-the-complexity-within-the-text-complexity-measure/


Mark Heifner Apr 06, 2017 09:34 PM

Thanks for the posting and comments. I am a principal of a 3-5 building and we do conduct Dibels NEXT to check and benchmark kids. We work with fluency with a six minute solution and Reading A-Z in most classrooms. We also use Reading Naturally SE in Tier 2/3 support. None of my fifth grade teachers are tapping into that resort. I will speak to them about this consideration for our next round of interventions/extensions in our MTSS. Thanks!


Andrea Nov 20, 2022 07:19 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan, could you please tell me the reference for the this fact (Specifically, the 25% part)?

"Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8thgrade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%."

I am working on a literature review and research proposal about fluency and repeated reading in middle school and would like to read about this). I am still making my way through the National Reading Panel's report so if it is in there, no need to respond. Thank you.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 20, 2022 06:57 PM


I wasn't referring to any specific study. There a several correlational studies at various grade levels that correlate measures of oral reading fluency with reading comprehension. The pattern of results is pretty consistent that ORF is closely related to comprehension in Grade 2 but much less related to by the time students are in Grade 8 (the decline looks pretty steady to me). Basically, by Grade 8 the correlations are about .50 which means that fluency explains about .25 (the .50 squared) of reading comprehension. That means that if you could make all the 8th graders equal in fluency (by pulling up the lower performing students) you would reduce the amount of variation in reading comprehension by 25%. Here is the citation of an article that discusses it specifically, but again, there are any number of studies that report the same pattern. Clearly, oral reading fluency instruction is more important and has greater value in the primary grades -- but it is not unimportant in the upper grades -- at least for those older students who have not achieved average or near average levels of performance in fluency.

Denton, C. A., Barth, A. E., Fletcher, J. M., Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., Cirino, P. T., . . . Francis, D. J. (2011). The relations among oral and silent reading fluency and comprehension in middle school: Implications for identification and instruction of students with reading difficulties. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15(2), 109-135. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/10888431003623546


Andrea Nov 27, 2022 09:21 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan, I appreciate the clarification and explanation!

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Fluency Instruction for Older Kids, Really?


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