How to Improve Text Fluency in the Middle Schools and High Schools

  • 11 April, 2020

How to Improve Text Fluency in the Middle Schools and High Schools


Teacher question:

I teach high school students with reading disabilities, and I use your blog regularly as a source and inspiration. How can I help high school students develop oral fluency? Can you give me specific ways in my classroom to do this with reluctant readers? 

Shanahan responds:

This is an important question. Too few teachers ask it.

Many teachers think fluency teaching is just for the primary or the elementary grades. Of course, most state standards talk about fluency in those grades, but that’s a mistake that even the authors of many of those state standards would acknowledge. (If you have doubts about this, I would recommend that you read Tim Rasinski’s studies of high school and community college fluency levels; we definitely have a problem at those levels, a problem that instruction can successfully address).

Likewise, there are experts who claim that fluency is just a product of decoding skills, so teachers can safely ignore such teaching. That ignores the fact that studies show that students can often read words lists markedly better than they can texts; there shouldn’t be any difference in those scores if fluency is just the end result of proficient word reading.

I’ve used the “Frequently Asked Questions” below for a long time with secondary teachers, and I think it should give you some helpful guidance about how to improve the fluency.

FAQ’s about Fluency

Do all high school students need work with fluency?

No, not all high school students will need work with fluency.  Some students are particularly good at fluency, so good that they apparently can read almost any book so well that it sounds like they can understand it.  When students are this fluent, there is very little that fluency instruction can do for them.  As a population of students goes through school, an increasingly large proportion of them will be fluent at the highest levels.  This means that fewer students will need fluency work as time goes on.

Our students are getting low test scores in reading comprehension.  Why aren’t we focusing on that instead of fluency?

Low comprehension scores can mean many things.  They might mean that your students have poor knowledge of word meanings, or that their fluency is limited, or that they lack strategies for making sense of a text.  We need to address all areas of reading progress; fluency is just one of them.    

How much fluency teaching are we expected to provide?

 Schools should provide students with up to 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction.  But remember, this is across all classes.  If every class did 10 minutes of fluency work once or twice each week, that would be sufficient.

What do you mean “up to 30 minutes a day?”

If a student is fluent with the course materials and the teacher checks on this regularly, then there is nothing more to do with fluency.  However, if a student is not fluent, then the school should find ways to provide 30 minutes per day of this kind of instruction.  That could mean that students in an honors track do a minimal amount of fluency work, or only do so with particularly difficult texts, while most lower track students might need the full 30 minutes a day.

How do I keep from embarrassing my low readers if I have the students them doing oral reading?

Fluency work is a kind of practice activity, not much different from a basketball player shooting free throws to get ready for the big game. Practice usually isn’t  embarras-sing, as long as everyone sees it as practice. Most students actually enjoy the fluency work as it is involving and they can see their own improvement.  Don’t encourage round robin reading, where one student reads and everyone else follows along; paired situations are much better as they don’t single out anyone.  Talk to the class at the very beginning to make sure that they understand the purpose of this practice, and what to expect.  

How do I pair the kids?

 Don’t make a big deal out of pairing up, as that can be a real time waster.  One rule is to make sure that the students who are working together on a given day are using the same book.  That’s easy to do in most classrooms.  A second rule is don’t pair up the same kids all the time; kids differ in their ability to give feedback, so share the wealth.

Does fluency work actually make sense in a content class like science or math?

Yes, it does.  It is important that students learn how to read those kinds of materials as they often pose unique challenges (such as the inclusion of formulas in an Algebra book).  If students are to become independent learners in algebra or chemistry, they need to be able to read those texts fluently.  Technical subjects require that students read texts intensively, rereading some parts again and again.  Unfortunately, many high school students read such material once for gist only.  Fluency work can become a powerful way for teaching students how to understand these materials.

Doesn’t silent reading improve fluency?

Of course, silent reading can help with fluency.  Kids who read a lot will usually be pretty fluent.  Unfortunately, teachers can only be sure if their students are fluent if they listen to them read.  Paired reading becomes a great opportunity for this.  It is also important to remember that many high school students simply do not read when they are directed to read silently.  That is why having teenagers read a text aloud rather than silently can actually improve their reading comprehension. (Of course, beyond fluency, I also encourage a substantial amount of silent reading each day, too.)

Paired reading, repeated reading, and the other recommended activities don’t look very hard, but how do I know that they will work?

Research on these various techniques shows that for many students they do lead to improved fluency and higher reading comprehension scores.  Whatever it is that students learn while becoming fluent with particular texts transfers to their performance with other materials. With younger kids and especially low readers, research suggests that students are improving their ability to decode the words, but as students progress the benefits are likely more linked to their pausing patterns (how they parse the sentences to make sense of the text).

I tried repeated reading, but some kids need to reread the text too many times.  What should I do?

The number of readings that it takes before fluency is evident is a good indicator of how well the student can read that particular text.  Professional readers, like news anchors, usually can read anything fluently after a single reading.  Some students might need to reread a particular text several times before they can read it fluently.  As their reading abilities improve you should find that the number of these repetitions declines.  Until then, have the student focus on shorter sections (50 words), and stay positive.  (If things don’t get better, seek some help with this student from the school reading specialist; you are not alone in this endeavor.) Studies with younger kids suggest that most or all of the learning takes place in the first three readings of a text and that there is little benefit from more than that; you might use that as a benchmark.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Frank Apr 11, 2020 05:03 PM

Fantastic. Could you provide us with the citations mentioned at the beginning?

Scott Baird Apr 11, 2020 06:12 PM

Most of my students I teach have markers for dyslexia. Half the class time is spent on Phonics instruction. In addition, working on comprehension instruction. However, I have found a program that works on silent reading fluency with comprehension. I have had tremendous results with this program. The program is called Reading Plus. It is the only program in my 15 Years of teaching that works on silent reading fluency with comprehension accountability.

Ann Denoyer Apr 11, 2020 06:22 PM

Tim thank you!

MEREDITH LIBEN Apr 12, 2020 12:50 AM

This is lucid and sound advice. Thanks, Tim! I love the cross-disciplinary sharing the load advice (would also help subject area teachers lean into their subjects' specific literacies and explicate them). I like the 30 minutes a day. I aimed for 15 minutes for 6 weeks - asked the kids to 'sign up' for that much - and we all saw results, but 30 across subjects is way better.
I've done fluency work with secondary students in lots of settings (urban middle schools, rural Career and Technical Centers), and would dispute only this: "Most students actually enjoy the fluency work as it is involving and they can see their own improvement." Maybe at the end of the oral work where they see they are stronger readers and it's over. During? They'd far rather be watching paint dry. Stay safe and keep educating us all!

Gail Brown Apr 12, 2020 03:45 AM

Thanks Tim, I've had a lot of success myself, and with Masters Students with Repeated Reading, like you suggest with pairing students, both in primary/elementary, and secondary classrooms. Some early research suggested that 83% of the improvement happens with 4 reads - so we used same text for a week, and if the student was absent or the class couldn't do it one day, it didn't matter too much. We also put pairs of students together with similar reading rates at pretest - and made sure the texts were at independent reading level. We didn't want students "practising errors", so we always used lower levels, if not sure. Also, we graphed their reads each day, and each student's goal was a "personal daily best" read - so their partner showed them where they read up to yesterday, this is like Hattie's goal setting / learning intention. This took 10-15 mins in most classrooms. We found it worked well for improvement and students really liked their graph going up! We THEN changed purpose, and focussed on expression (prosody) to keep a balance and ensure students understood that "fast reading" was NOT always required - it depended on their purpose! Thanks for your post, really confirms for us what we did, and continue to do!

Timothy Shanahan Apr 12, 2020 03:23 PM


Paige, D.D., Rasinski, T.V., Magpuri-Lavell, T., & Smith, G.S. (2014). Interpreting the relationship among prosody, automaticity, accuracy, and silent reading comprehension in secondary students. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(2), 123-156.

Paige, D.D., Raskinski, T.V., & Magpuri-Lavell, T. (2012). Is fluent, expressive reading important for high school readers? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(1), 67-76.

Rasinski, T. V. (1989). Adult readers' sensitivity to phrase boundaries in texts. Journal of Experimental Education, 58(1), 29-40.

Rasinski, T.V., Chang, S., Edmondson, E., Nageldinger, J., et al. (2017). Reading fluency and college readiness Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(4), 453-460.


Anna Gill Apr 12, 2020 10:50 PM

Have you heard about how Kinephonics achieves fluency and comprehension - for every age, every subject, every language and context? Tim, I would be very interested in speaking with you about this technology. This is a totally new opportunity that provides certainty for education. [optimised for Chrome; iOS and Android]

Cindy Jiban Apr 13, 2020 04:23 PM

Thank you for this. I especially appreciate the reminder about how the emphasis within "fluency" shifts, appropriately, over time and development. We focus on growth in Words Correct Per Minute in the early grades, which serves as a good gauge of increases in accuracy and automaticity. But we don't want to see increases in rate, forever; instead, we want to shift focus to prosody, to support comprehension. This is a place where assessment needs to catch up.

Timothy Rasinski Apr 12, 2020 02:45 PM

Thanks for the mention Tim. If anyone is interested in the studies that you mention by Rasinski, they can email me directly at

We found that fluency was remarkably correlated with overall reading achievement/comprehension among high school and even college students. Moreover, significant numbers of students' manifested fluency levels well below the expected norms.

So I agree with you wholeheartedly that fluency is a concern for many older students. If they don't achieve fluency in the elementary grades, why would be expect them to suddenly become fluency in middle, high school and beyond?

I think the same instructional principles apply for developing fluency in older students as among younger students- modeling fluent reading, assisted reading, repeated reading. The main difference is that we would ask our older students to engage in repeated and assisted reading of more age-appropriate texts. Can you image middle or high school students rehearsing and the performing the poetry of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Robert Service, etc. Powerful and authentic fluency building.

Thanks for your continued sharing of expert advice on reading instruction, my friend.

Hanora Broderick Apr 17, 2020 06:20 PM

Do you have recent data on the efficacy of fluency practice in improving comprehension and test outcomes?

Hanora Broderick Apr 17, 2020 08:06 PM

Amplify Reading has listed you as a supporter of their reading program. Is there independent research on the effectiveness of the digital Amplify Reading program?

Dr. Anita L. Archer Apr 20, 2020 12:21 AM

Thank you for this blog on fluency. It came at a perfect time as I prepared a webinar that included this topic. Practice rereading short selections from content-area text ... excellent suggestion. Be well. Be safe.

Vicky Thaete Jan 24, 2021 06:52 PM

I am a new teacher and I am learning that reading fluency goes hand in hand with comprehension, but if a student is an ELL, then vocabulary is just as important to comprehension. For example, the article mentions, "research suggests that students are improving their ability to decode the words, but as students progress the benefits are likely more linked to their pausing patterns (how they parse the sentences to make sense of the text)." this makes sense, since reading fluently helps understanding the text by reading and using words in the text to make connections in the minds as they read not only each word one at a time, but rather pacing words in sentences. I'm not sure if I am making sense.

What Are your thoughts?

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

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How to Improve Text Fluency in the Middle Schools and High Schools


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