Too Fluent by Half

  • afterschool programs
  • 11 February, 2013

Teacher question:

I am a Reading Specialist at a parochial school.  I wonder if you can give me some advice regarding one of my 4th grade students. She reads very fluently, however, her comprehension is poor.  We have worked extensively on vocabulary and visualization skills.  Can you make any recommendations?

Shanahan response:

Let’s assume your description of the student is correct (that is not always the case: sometimes teachers tell me that a student is fluent, but what they mean is that the student reads the words accurately, though often too slowly and without it proper prosody or expression). 

If she is a fluent reader, but not understanding the text anyway, then try something I call intensive questioning. Have her read the first sentence of a text… and before allowing her to read any more, ask her a ton of questions;

Sentence 1: “We got back from the grocery store and found the house a mess.”
1.       Where were they?
2.       What do you think they were doing?
3.       Then what happened?
4.       What did they find?
5.       Do you think they were surprised? Why?
6.       Where were they first? And, then where were they?

Then she reads a second sentence.

Sentence 2: “I had neglected to close the bathroom door again, and our Saint Bernard, Bernie, had left chewed toilet paper all over the house.”
1.       Who had caused the mess?
2.       What allowed him to cause the mess?
3.       What did he make the mess with?
4.       How did he get the paper?
5.       What kind of paper was it?
6.       What was the Saint Bernard’s name?
7.       What kind of a dog was Bernie?
8.       What did Bernie do to the toilet paper?
9.       What was the person who is telling this doing while Bernie was making the mess?


As she gets better with that, start stretching her out to read  longer segments, but still with this thoroughness of attention to meaning. (You can also turn this around getting her to generate the questions about the sentences—then trying to answer her own questions). The idea is to keep her so focused on the meaning that you break the habit of simply calling the words.

Stay with silent reading with her too, not oral (except to show evidence)… and don’t have her spending any time at all practicing fluency. But for interactive sessions, limit the amount of text (1 sentence initially) and keep the emphasis as much on recalling and interpreting the ideas as you can. I would also encourage writing, but again, with a heavy emphasis on the content that she is writing about.

Good luck.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Amy Jun 19, 2017 11:24 PM


Great question. I also have the same issue. Thanks for the wonderful ideas to try.

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Too Fluent by Half


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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