Teaching Oral Reading Fluency to Older Students

  • 04 December, 2021
  • 27 Comments

Oh goodness, everybody’s least favorite topic (except maybe Tim Rasinski). What I’m talking about is fluency instruction/practice for older students… grades 4 and up, let’s say.

No one gets too bent out of shape if I talk about little kids working on their oral reading, but when those young’uns reach 9- or 10-years-old that presumably is baby stuff.

I get why that is.

First, the research on fluency instruction has focused heavily on two groups: kids in grades 1-4 and remedial readers in grades 1-12 (NICHD, 2001). I can’t tell a 6th grade teacher that there is research showing that if she devotes sufficient time to fluency her students will do better with reading comprehension. My own professional practice suggests that it can be powerful but that’s a different level of support.

Second, round robin reading has given oral reading a bad name. Most teachers have memories of hating round robin when they were kids, so being enlightened they avoid oral reading at much cost. Kids should be able to develop fluency from silent reading practice. Unfortunately, you can’t tell if kids are making progress unless you listen to them read and it is hard to intervene and help without that kind of monitoring. Practice can “make perfect” as the old saying claims but it often doesn’t. (Given this, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that research has found the amount of oral reading practice in high school is correlated with reading achievement gains more closely than the amount of in class silent reading practice (Stallings, 1980).

Third, older kids will often resist. One of my least favorite instructional activities (Popcorn) sometimes results in kids balking: “You can call on me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to read aloud to the class!”

Recently, I’ve astonished some teachers and district administrators by encouraging fluency teaching with older kids. They are getting a lot of pressure these days to emphasize phonics – yeah, phonics in regular high school English classes (which I think is lunatic) and they have no idea that oral reading fluency instruction has been found to improve kids’ word reading and decoding. Many of these kids have had a ton of phonics instruction and don’t know how to apply it. Fluency instruction began with the notion that such practice would enable the application of what the kids had already learned about letters, sounds, spelling patterns.

Don’t get me wrong. There definitely are a relatively small number of high school kids who would likely get some benefit from explicit phonics. That instruction, however, should be relegated to remedial reading or special education, not the English class. Likewise, the idea of English classes devoting some of their valuable minutes to morphological study – which can impact decoding – makes great sense, too. That should be a regular part of the vocabulary teaching that should be going on.

Nevertheless, fluency training can have a remarkable impact on kids’ reading comprehension in the upper grades – most likely by consolidating what those kids have already learned about decoding along the way.

Let me define and explain a few basic ideas about fluency and then the rest of this blog is aimed at providing instructional advice on fluency teaching with older students.

Fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and with proper expression (NICHD, 2001). 

Accuracy is about reading an author’s words. If you don’t do that, then miscomprehension may occur. Students must get into the habit of respecting authors. That means reading the words that the author put on the page, rather than replacing them with context-based guesses as to what may have been meant. Words matter and becoming an effective reader requires reading the author’s words; not substituting them with our own.

This word reading must be accomplished with automaticity. That means reading the words accurately without conscious attention. Automaticity is usually estimated by tracking reading speed. If a student reads text too slowly, comprehension deteriorates. Adult proficient readers read text aloud at about 166-178 words correct per minute (Baer, et al., 2009). Fourth graders who read at fewer than 100 words correct per minute tend to be “below basic” in reading comprehension. Reading so slowly makes it difficult to integrate information. By the time you get to the end of the sentence, you’ve likely lost the thread of the first part.

Proper expression is important because there are many aspects to translating text that are not on the page. Except for punctuation, authors do little to help readers to group words together, pause appropriately, or raise or lower pitch. If you don’t get those things right it can be difficult to understand.

Here are some activities that have been used successfully in upper elementary, middle, and high school.

Instructional Activities Aimed at Building Fluency

Paired reading: Pair students up. Have them take turns reading the text to each other. One student read a page or paragraph and the other gives feedback. Then the students switch roles. During this activity, the teacher circulates throughout the room, giving feedback as needed. Link some comprehension work to this. At the end of each section of reading, have the students determine the main point(s) of that section or compose a good test question about that part of the material.

Repeated Reading: Students read aloud a portion of text (perhaps a 100-word chunk, or the first couple of paragraphs). The teacher or another student gives feedback, and the student tries it again. This repetition continues three times or until the student can read it with 99% accuracy, at more than 100 words per minute, and with expression that suggests successful comprehension (White, et al., 2021). This can be combined with paired reading. Repeated reading is especially valuable with content materials. Understanding such texts often requires this kind of intensive rereading anyway, so the rereading is appropriate.   

Pause, Prompt, Praise: Not all students are great fluency partners. PPP provides some support in this area. Partners and teachers are encouraged to give students some slack if a mistake is made. Let the student read to the end of the clause or sentence and see what they do.  Better readers try to fix the mistake. That’s the pause. But if a student can’t remedy the error (or doesn’t notice it), then provide a Prompt. If the mistake doesn’t make sense, then give some feedback about meaning.  If the word read doesn’t look or sound like the word in the book, then direct the student to look more closely. If the student can’t fix the error after one prompt, tell them what the word is. Finally, for anything done well, provide praise.

Recorded Readings: Students can make progress without much individual feedback. Consider having students record oral reading for homework. Have them read an assigned portion of text (no more than 5–10 minutes worth). To complete the assignment successfully, the students will likely need to practice prior to recording. Teacher can spot check these to check on performance. Again, it is a good idea to link to some comprehension tasks.

Chunking:  Studies suggest that chunking can be helpful with older students. In this, the teacher initially provides text with phrasal boundaries marked. Students of all ability levels tend to get a boost from this material. After they have had some practice reading materials so marked, then give them unmarked texts and have them working in teams or individually to identify phrasal boundaries.

Here are some FAQs about Fluency Instruction

Do all high school students need work with fluency?

No, not all older students need fluency work.  Some students are particularly good at fluency. If students can read grade level text with a high degree of accuracy, speeds of about 150 wcpm, and with proper expression, then fluency instruction/practice is a time waster. As kids progress through the grades, the proportion who are sufficiently fluent increases. Fewer students should require fluency work as time goes on.

Our students are getting low test scores in reading comprehension.  Why no focusing on rather than fluency?

Low comprehension scores can result from many things. One of those things is fluency. For those kids, improving fluency has a direct positive impact on their reading comprehension.

How much fluency teaching should we provide?

I recommend up to 30 minutes a day of fluency instruction.  But remember, this is across all classes.  If every middle school or high school class provided 10 minutes of fluency work once or twice a week, that should do the trick.

Isn’t oral reading embarrassing for struggling readers?

Fluency work is a kind of practice activity, not much different from Lebron James shooting free throws to get ready for a big game. Practice isn’t embarrassing, as long as everyone recognizes it as practice. Most students enjoy the fluency work as it is involving, and they can see their own improvement. Avoid situations like round robin, in which a student is supposed to perform before the group or the whole class. But having everyone or half the class reading aloud at the same time does not get the same push back that more performance-oriented tasks do.

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 make sense in a content classes like science or math?

Yes. It is important that students learn how to read those books well. If students are to become independent learners in algebra or chemistry, they must read those texts fluently.  Technical subjects require that students read texts intensively, rereading some parts again and again. Unfortunately, many high school students read this material once for gist only.  Fluency work can become a powerful way for teaching students how to understand these materials.

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

Research on these techniques has found them to improve word reading, fluency, and reading comprehension. Whatever it is that students learn from fluency training with particular texts has been found to transfer to their performance with other texts.

References

Baer, J., Kutner, M., & Sabatini, J. (2009). Basic reading skills and the literacy of America’s least literate adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Stallings, J. A. (1980). Allocated academic learning time revisited, or beyond time on task." Educational Researcher 9 (11):11–16.

White, S., Sabatini, J., Park, B. J., Chen, J., Bernstein, J., and Li, M. (2021). The 2018 NAEP oral reading fluency study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 09, 2022 11:06 PM

Erin--

I know of no such research. The relationship between oral reading fluency as measured by words correct per minute is very closely related with reading comprehension in the early grades, and this correlation diminishes as students progress up the grades. For second graders, fluency explains more than 60% of the variation in reading comprehension and this falls to about 25% by grade 8. In other words, the relationship changes over time, so a statistic like the one you are asking for would certainly depend upon grade level. Reading faster doesn't improve reading comprehension, but increasing automaticity (in this case, the students' ability to decode the words easily enough that conscious attention can be directed to reading comprehension). If the student reads faster simply because he/she is hurrying, then I wouldn't expect it to improve comprehension. However, if the student is become particularly skilled in recognizing or decoding words with ease (which would likely be apparent in faster reading), then it would usually be expected to enhance reading comprehension. That would suggest the importance of decoding instruction.

tim

Judy Newman
Dec 04, 2021 06:25 PM

Hi Tim,

I happen to be in the middle of writing a literature review for Dr. Pamela Mason's class at HGSE on Readers Theater and I am curious why you don't include it as a strategy to improve fluency for older students in this post?

Any insight much appreciated.

Judy Newman
(Still at Scholastic and still on the Reach Out and Read Board)

Melissa Loftus
Dec 04, 2021 06:46 PM

Add me to the list of people who enjoy this topic! I really appreciate the focus on older students and how weak fluency can impact students’ comprehension. So often overlooked and not talked about at all at the secondary level. Thank you!

Beata Beigman Klebanov
Dec 04, 2021 07:34 PM

The Relay Reader app (relayreader.org) has a library of books where readers can take turns reading aloud with a professional narrator. There are books for younger readers and for older readers, from The Wizard of Oz all the way to Pride and Prejudice. Novels exhibit a large variety of textual features that express a variety of moods and attitudes -- oral reading is a great way to hone one's skills in discerning and performing those. If you can tease out Jane Austin's irony when reading aloud P&P, you are in a very good shape in terms of both comprehension and control of the nuance of oral expression. The model narrations of Pinocchio and P&P are particularly exquisite, though there are many good narrations in the Relay Reader library.

Kristin Bellinger
Dec 04, 2021 08:46 PM

Hi Tim,
What are your thoughts on middle school students who, based on screeners, comprehend text and read accurately but don’t meet fluency benchmarks specifically for rate? Thank you for the information!

Andrew Biemiller
Dec 04, 2021 06:55 PM

Hello Tim,
I'm interested in your discussion of children's oral reading in the upper elementary grades.
Seems to me that there are at least two quite different functions for oral reading.

(1) Diagnostic oral reading--as you point out--allows teachers to detect reading problems. Also--as you point out--when students can read "grade-level" texts at 150 wpm or more, further use of this diagnostic reading may no longer be needed.

(2) Performative oral reading--oral reading as might be done for an audience. A different kind of diagnostic reading--for showing a deeper understanding of a text. Note that teachers (and parents?) are advised to read a text to themselves prior to reading aloud to an audience. You really should have a good understanding of a text before reading it to an audience--reading with effective "feeling", emphasis, etc.

Performative oral reading may also be a good "consolidation" activity--in some cases reading for younger audiences. But it's quite a different instructional activity than diagnostic reading in a classroom.

Cheers, Andy Biemiller

Anne Rowell
Dec 04, 2021 06:59 PM

I teach 4/5 and I used to have a schedule to meet with students as they practiced their fluency passages. I notice huge gains, but - Exhausting. Hard to get to everyone. Then Covid hit. We started using Classkick (I am sure there are other options) - and it was miraculous. I recorded their passage so they could listen first, then they read and recorded it, then they listened to themselves and commented. That gave me time to listen to everyone when I was free, and I could leave a comment and a goal back. Repeat! Also - just read, “Know Better, Do Better,” and that helped me tweak it even more. The kids really enjoy it!

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 04, 2021 06:59 PM

Andy--

Both diagnostic and performative oral reading have a place in middle and high school. However, so does the pedagogical. Research has found that such practice improves reading comprehension (and at least with younger students and poor readers it has a positive impact on word reading ability). The point isn't to make kids great performative readers but to provide supported practice in reading text in which all the words are articulated (rather than skipped if they pose some kind of problem which can be the case with silent reading). S.J. Samuels also emphasized the importance of repetition in such practice -- improving performance with a particular text with the idea that what is being learned will generalize to other text.

thanks.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 04, 2021 07:01 PM

Anne-
Great suggestions... smart people read my blog -- the even smarter ones read the comments on my blog!

thanks.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 04, 2021 09:10 PM

Kristin--

I'd first take a careful listen to how the student was reading. I would like to be sure of what was going on since it is hard to read well (with comprehension) if you are not fluent. I'd be real curious as to what was going on with the fluency part of that equation. For instance, some kids just get real nervous when their reading is being evaluated and their disfluency is more due to being observed to any reading problem. Likewise, some kids read very well in terms of accuracy and phrasing but they are very slow. Speed is important as an indicator of automaticity, but it isn't automaticity itself. That means that it could be possible that a youngster is just reading very thoughtfully and carefully ensuring high comprehension but is reading slowly to do that (that isn't really a problem). Likewise, I'd take a real careful look at the student's reading comprehension. Perhaps the fluency measure is accurate while the reading comprehension measure is superficial (all kinds of ways that can play out-- such as the bright poor reader who can pick up enough from the teacher's statements and the discussion to make it seem like he/she comprehended the text). Maybe I'd assign a challenging grade level text and would ask the student to read it and write a somewhat detailed summary of the text.

If the student is actually more fluent than the oral reading test indicated or the student didn't comprehend as well as the comprehension estimate suggested, then the mismatch in performance is a measurement problem. On the other hand, if after this kind of careful reanalysis, it turns out the discrepancy is real then I would treat/teach this student the same way that I would students who were meeting my fluency goals (remember, the purpose for teaching fluency is to enable comprehension). The correlation between fluency and comprehension is quite high -- but it is not perfect.

tim

Shamyra Henderson
Dec 05, 2021 12:48 PM

This is a great encouragement to teachers who are currently doing fluency practice. I work with students with dyslexia; would fluency practice be as beneficial for these students if they are in the early beginnings of receiving explicit phonics instruction?

MM
Dec 05, 2021 02:56 PM

Thank your for your insights, Mr. Shanahan.

Working with sixth and seventh grade remedial students, I've seen some fluency growth through Readers Theater. There are some inviting scripts out there, but I've also found that writing ones specific to the students often engages the most reluctant reader. Though time consuming, teaching the students to write their own scripts has also been productive.

Another tool some may want to investigate is the Reading Progress function on Microsoft Teams. Many students ask for a "do over" on their reading recording. Exactly what they need, repeated readings, yet they are ASKING to do it.

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 05, 2021 04:23 PM

Shamyra--

The honest answer to your question is, I don't know. I know of no research done with kids early in the phonics sequence. Theoretically, such fluency training would NOT be expected to have much payoff. I think one of the reasons that fluency training has a positive influence on decoding ability is that it gives kids practice applying their phonics (in fact, that was why Carol Chomsky first proposed this kind of teaching back in the 1970s-- it was to help the kids with phonics knowledge to learn to use that knowledge when reading text).

Fluency work MIGHT help kids early in the phonics learning process, but not necessarily (or not in the same way that it does later).

thanks.

tim

Timothy Rasinski
Dec 05, 2021 04:51 PM

Tim -- Very good blog. Juding from the comments I (and you also) am not the only folks interested in fluency.

In a perfect world fluency should not be a concern at the middle and secondary levels - however, as you point out, it definitely is for many older students. Our own work (with David Paige) has shown that a significant and substantial number of secondary students who are identified as struggling in reading in general exhibit difficulties in fluency. You are spot one when you suggest it is something that middle and secondary teachers need to be aware of.

I appreciate also your (and Andy's) distinction betwee diagnostic, performative, and pedagogical oral reading. Again, our own work, especially by Chase Young, on performative reading (e.g. readers theater, poetry) has found that it can can be used pedagogically - demonstrating not improvements in oral reading fluency, but also in comprehension.

I just posted a paper on my own blog - www.timrasinski.com by Paula Williams, a psychologist in the UK, who found that pedagogial fluency instruction resulted in improvements in word recognition accuracy, rate (automaticity), and comprehension when compared with students not receiving such instruction.

Thanks for keeping the spotlight on reading fluency! I appreciate all you do to inform all of us with you timely blog.

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 05, 2021 04:15 PM

MM--
I should have mentioned Readers Theatre... I guess I didn't from force of habit. For years, reading educators promoted that activity, but with no research support. That has changed in the past few years as there have been some studies of Grade 2 kids. It definitely can provide the same kind of payoff as the activities noted above and kids do like it. However, it also has some drawbacks that makes it an occasional activity for me, rather than one for daily use. For instance, the more characters or parts in an RT script, the more this becomes like round robin reading, with kids listening to others read and waiting for long amounts of time. The best scripts for this have two roles, and teachers have partners taking turns with each role (so that everyone gets a lot of practice).

thanks.

tim

Dr. Lynne S. Kulich
Dec 05, 2021 05:44 PM

Hi Tim,
Thank you for addressing this critical topic! Yes, Tim Rasinski and I are huge proponents of intentional fluency instruction, especially for struggling readers in middle school and beyond. I would also add that my doctoral research highlighted the utility of explicit, systematic fluency instruction for Emergent Bilinguals.

Laurie A Nordby-Heath
Dec 05, 2021 09:09 PM

What are your thoughts about having English Language students listen to a three or four paragraph text that they are working on in their native language as part of a fluency/comprehension lesson sequence which they are working on in English?

Judy Fields
Dec 06, 2021 01:38 AM

I am about to wrap up my dissertation on prosodic reading instruction for adolescent readers. You mentioned that for students who can already read fluently and with proper expression do not need to waste their time with prosodic reading instruction. I am wondering, though, have you considered text complexity in this statement? As I have done my research (unrelated to my research question), I have found that students, even of high ability, struggle to read and understand complex and/or archaic texts. Would it not be beneficial for an instructor to spend a few minutes of prosodic reading instruction with a highly complex text?

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 06, 2021 03:48 PM

Judy--
It would depend on the students' reading abilities but generally the answer to your question is, YES. Indeed, working on the prosody of reading could improve students' ability to read complex text. A big part of making sense of such text is figuring out how to read the sentences.
good luck.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 06, 2021 06:14 PM

Laurie-

What a complicated question. I know of no research on that but as someone who is learning a foreign language I can tell you that plan would not help me at all. I can read reasonably well in French, but hearing the language is a real problem for me (even worse than speaking it). If you have an English learner who is still struggling to hear the language, I doubt that would help.

If the kids are further along with English, then what you are suggesting could be beneficial, but again will depend greatly on proficiency. Many ELs and first language English users, struggle with decoding. In such cases, that kind of oral model can be useful, but a sentence at a time (3-4 paragraphs would overwhelm memory and make the model useless). The oral rendition of a sentence is not usually enough to give kids perfect memory for the sentence, but that information along with the print can allow kids to recognize the words sufficiently well and then through rereading to get better at that.

If the kids are further along than that, some oral modeling can be useful but don't over do that... especially if the kids are much better with oral language than reading (in such cases, they start to ignore the text/reading and just rely on the information provided in the model).

thanks.

tim

Debra Boggs
Dec 06, 2021 07:54 PM

Achieve the Core has texts and protocols for fluency practice for each grade level that I have found very helpful.

Debbie Meyer
Dec 06, 2021 09:45 PM

My dyslexic kid was always to nervous to read in class round robins. I got the teacher to ask him and other struggling readers to talk about what was going on in the picture, or summarize in their own words what other had read. It didn't drain his self esteem.

He also had a stomach ache every time his class would participate in Reading Buddies. The first graders could read better then him. Soon the teacher let him and another struggling reader act out some of the Moe Willems books.

Then we pulled him out of public school and put him in a private dyslexia school. He doesn't mind reading out loud anymore.

Harriett Janetos
Dec 06, 2021 10:24 PM

With regard to teaching prosody to assist in comprehending complex text, I appreciate your recommendation in your blog about the simple view of reading where you state:

"Given all of this, I would definitely encourage you to have both a strong decoding intervention (and I would include some text fluency for that), but another intervention that teaches students how to make sense of written language. NICHD reported many years ago the insufficiency of decoding instruction to meet the needs of a large percentage of struggling readers, and recently Rick Wanger and his colleagues have shown the great numbers of students who struggle with reading but who have sufficient decoding skills.

The instruction in that kind of language or comprehension oriented intervention should focus on teaching students some of the intentional reading strategies that have been found to improve reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000) as well as how to deal with various features of written language including syntax, cohesion, text structure, depth of information, tone, and other features of text and content."

https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/why-following-the-simple-view-may-not-be-such-a-good-idea

Mat
Dec 14, 2021 09:25 PM

Great post. Can I ask how hard the texts should be for fluency work? I’ve read that they should be at instructional level but also read they should be ‘easy’ as well as having read they should be hard! I’m confused!

Timothy Shanahan
Dec 15, 2021 02:09 PM

Mat-
I've read that claim too, always made without research. However, when Steve Stahl and Melanie Kuhn reviewed that research they found that fluency practice required frustration level text--text the students couldn't already read well. By practicing a text you can't read well yet, you work on things that you don't yet know... go a bit harder, not easier.

tim

Erin
Jan 04, 2022 12:32 AM

Would you be able to point me in the direction of some recent research that supports the fact that student who is able to read a grade level passage at the 50%ile according to the Hasbrouck & Tindal Oral Reading Fluency Data would have the same level of comprehension than a student who is able to read the passage at a faster rate? I am trying to convey a point to a parent of a 5th grade dyslexic student who wants their child to read faster to improve their comprehension.
Thanks so much in advance. I am anxious to try out some of the activities you suggest with my tier two and tier three reading intervention groups.

Donna Michel
Jan 27, 2022 06:42 PM

Tim,
One of your best columns! Yes, there is a need for phonics, but eventually all those sounds need to become words, sentences, passages, books! I've used a recorded reading technique, repeated reading, readers theater, any of the above with my needy readers and it is effective. No, I don't drop the phonics and decoding, but they need to be learning to decode for some reason. If they stumble when they read passages, they need to practice connected text. Why do so many children who struggle with reading become actors and as a result become fluent readers? Because, they reread their scripts multiple times, and even begin to add expression and phrasing. And, glad to hear you sing the praises of Tim Rasinski!

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Teaching Oral Reading Fluency to Older Students

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