Wake Up Reading Wars Combatants: Fluency Instruction is Part of the Science of Reading

  • 07 December, 2019

It’s been a bad week for fluency instruction.

I started getting emails questioning me on whether I supported the fluency ideas that my friend Tim Rasinski was advocating. These messages seemed to fall into two categories: those who were honestly horrified that Tim would offer something beyond what they believed to be part of the “science of reading” and those who hoped to bait me into publicly taking a rhetorical swing at Tim’s claims.

I found out Tim had been on Amplify’s Science of Reading podcast (probably why I was being contacted so much), and that he had argued for using techniques like “assisted reading” and “repeated reading” to support children’s fluency growth. Apparently, some listeners thought his recommendations to be contradictory of what Emily Hansford has labeled the “science of reading.”

Then, the International Literacy Association issued a position paper on “Children Experiencing Reading Difficulties” (Wixson, et al., 2019). This document seems to have emerged from the PBS kerfuffle from earlier this year, when some of the same scholars who produced it denied the existence of dyslexia and denigrated the concerns of parents whose kids weren’t receiving phonics instruction. This more conciliatory effort calls for a comprehensive approach to reading instruction that emphasizes phonemic awareness, phonics, reading comprehension, and writing—along with attention to language and the development of executive control. (The efforts to appease the science of reading community only go so far in this document—one can easily come away thinking that the major problem facing kids who experience reading difficulties is that they will receive too much phonics teaching or that some (unnamed) individual is promoting a “phonics only agenda.”)

Tone problems aside, I’m certainly sympathetic to efforts aimed at healing the great divides in our field, and I’ve long argued for comprehensive approaches to reading instruction myself—maintaining that such lists of instructional desiderata include approximate amounts of instruction that should be devoted to each (that way, one can more easily weed out those who seemingly support phonics, but who would spend no more than a few minutes a day on it; or those champions of writing, who may address it only two or three time per school year).

Nevertheless, I was surprised that given the substantial body of research around oral reading fluency instruction and its benefits, that it failed to the make the ILA cut in their notion of a comprehensive program of instruction. Especially given the recent research on its importance (O’Reilly, et al., 2019; Sabatini, et al., 2018), as well as the substantial case made for such teaching by the National Reading Panel (NRP) (NICHD, 2000) and in independent reviews (e.g., Kuhn & Stahl, 2002).  

Essentially, the phonics-firsters and those warning us of the potential toxicity of phonics teaching both seem to have written off explicit fluency instruction. Under the circumstances, I suspect proponents of fluency teaching would like a Thanksgiving do-over… they, perhaps, have less to be thankful for than they might have thought.

Why do I support oral reading fluency instruction?

I chaired the NRP sub-panel that reviewed the research on fluency teaching, and our summary of that research concluded that such teachhing was beneficial to their reading development by a wide range of measures. Kids who received fluency instruction simply read better than those who did not. These outcomes were obtained with children in regular classrooms (Grades 1-4) and with struggling readers (Grades 1-12). Later, as director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated that our kids get a substantial amount of fluency teaching (about 30 minutes per day), along with similar expenditures on decoding, comprehension, and writing. That recipe led to significantly higher reading achievement for our 437,000 students.

If you want to advocate for a science of reading, it seems that would require one to pay attention to the scientific research findings on various approaches to teaching reading. After all, those who promote explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction usually rely heavily on the research base provided by the NRP; why not use the whole report? And, likewise, for those who claim to take a comprehensive view of reading instruction, why leave out such a heavily researched element? Fluency instruction has been more thoroughly studied than the promising, but still speculative, “executive control” variables noted in the ILA document (and, those variables haven’t been shown to have as big an impact on reading progress either).

I think one of the problems with oral reading fluency is that it isn’t a pure variable. It is a mash up of decoding and comprehension—and it is developmental to boot, meaning that it’s nature changes over time.

As Professor Rasinski noted in the Amplify podcast, with the youngest children, say those in kindergarten, oral reading fluency is more about developing a concept of word—learning how speech maps onto print—than about anything that seems particularly fluency oriented. Children have to learn how print and language come together; that is, how phonemes, syllables, and words are represented on a page and what those punctuation points and white spaces are all about. Darrell Morris (e.g., 1993) has long argued that concept of word plays a critical role in early phonemic awareness development and the importance of early fingerpoint reading has clearly been demonstrated (Uhry, 2002).

Later, oral reading fluency instructions aids decoding development. Carol Chomsky (178) identified second graders who, despite high phonics knowledge, were struggling readers. She thought these kids needed some teaching that would show them how to apply their phonics skills. She engaged the kids in repeated reading activities, and they blossomed as readers. Later studies found that such teaching benefited kids without reading problems, too (NICHD, 2000).

These days we know a bit more about decoding development and what it entails. It appears that fluency instruction probably helps with those memory changes supported by decoding instruction.

As Chomsky posited, fluency work is likely most helpful at what Linnea Ehri has described as the consolidation or automaticity stages of decoding development (e.g., Ehri & Wilce, 1985). Kids aren’t memorizing sight words as much as they are developing an understanding how to use phonetic/orthographic cues in word reading. They are building the cognitive architecture that allows one to learn to respond appropriately to words on the basis of minimal exposure or experience (fast mapping), such as when kids get to the point where they appear to memorize words with no more than a single exposure (Carey & Bartlett, 1978)—or statistical learning (Seidenberg, 2018).

Joe Torgesen and colleagues decided that the major impact of repeated reading on struggling readers is that they were mastering specific words from the activity (Rashotte, 1985)—which seems reasonable, no one really knows what specifically is being stored in memory when children learn to decode.

Not surprisingly, there is a particularly strong relationship between oral reading fluency and reading comprehension during the primary grades (Sabatini, et al., 2018). However, for many students oral reading fluency practice continues to help in the consolidation of decoding skills beyond that point (O’Reilly, et al., 2019), and it also starts to morph into an activity that helps to support prosody development which is more directly implicated in reading comprehension (Breznitz, 2006). No wonder the latest ETS policy guide recommends attention to fluency as a foundational reading skill well beyond the primary grades (O’Reilly, et al., 2019).

Why teach fluency? Because at different points in a reader’s development it makes important contributions to understanding how print works, to consolidating and automizing decoding skills, and to helping readers to figure out how to go from print to prosody. But, basically, the reason I support it is because there are a substantial number of reasonably persuasive studies showing that such instruction enhances reading achievement—the only reason any instructional routine should be adopted.

One last point. I know some teachers are concerned about this emphasis on oral reading. A small bit of research shows that silent reading – when sufficiently scaffolded – can also support fluency. That makes sense, but I make sure kids get do a lot of silent reading, too, during comprehension instruction, in work with texts throughout the curriculum, and during authentic independent reading (when kids choose to read, not when teachers require such practice). Studies show oral reading fluency instruction translates to improved silent reading ability (Kuhn & Schwanenflugel, 2018). (I usually recommend 30 minutes of scaffolded partner reading, which means each student gets about 15 minutes of daily oral reading practice).  

Serious efforts to improve reading achievement will, indeed, be comprehensive and based on the science of reading. Given that, oral reading fluency instruction deserves greater respect than was manifest this week. Reading war combatants: a pox on both your houses.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kathleen Leos Dec 07, 2019 07:31 PM


Suzanne Petree Dec 07, 2019 07:33 PM

Yes, Tim Shanahan-no discussion. Completely support your words.

Kausalai Wijekumar Dec 07, 2019 07:42 PM

Tim - another thoughtful and pragmatic piece. I wish more school leaders will read this type of dialog and not just buy into the hype.

Thera Pearce Dec 07, 2019 07:49 PM

Thanks for bringing sanity to this debate! bravo!

Bruce Howlett Dec 07, 2019 08:02 PM

Thank you for presenting a post-Reading wars discussion of fluency and continually pointing out that the field is ever-evolving.
Thanks for discussing Ehri's working and the mapping / memory / fluency connection. Reading her work and others (Share, Kilpatrick) points to phonics and PA ultimately serving to help readers shift from sounding out to mapping -- from decoding words off the page to recognizing words from memory.
When I observe my students making this shift, with its boost in fluency and comprehension, it makes me smile, knowing that they are well along the road to literacy.
However, after reading this article I promise to continue to working on fluency well after they instantaneously recognize words after a few exposures.
So much to learn. Never stop learning.

Jeannette Dec 07, 2019 08:47 PM

This is great! The work of Tom Rasinski has greatly influenced my teaching for years! I read the article you referenced. I get very concerned when there is a push to teach decoding skills with older kids. I find that older kids read accurately but because a kids rate is slow and lacks prosody, professionals are quick to label it a decoding problem and prescribe Wilson. I found there is a lack of understanding of fluency instruction.

Marilyn Zecher Dec 07, 2019 08:50 PM

I am one of those "science of reading" folks but I am also one who has been advocating for fluency instruction, multisensory grammar and an emphasis on how oral language and written language support comprehension... for years. I believe very strongly that for struggling learners, we should support explicit instruction in writing not only complete sentences, but phrases and clauses. Oral language has an incredibly strong influence on prosody and comprehension. The NRP advocated for language comprehension and sound symbol correspondence and instruction in structure and phonology, for rich literary experiences and exposure to high level vocabulary. It is not either/or, it is both. And you are absolutely correct, fluency instruction, oral reading and ample practice in written language are crucial. I am one dyslexia language therapist who totally agrees with you.

Michele Woloszyk Dec 07, 2019 09:18 PM

I will need to dig deeper into the fluency research. As a school psychologist and a parent of a child with a reading-related IEP, it's been my impression that oral reading fluency problems are related to retrieval problems in many children. While the sound-symbol correspondence information the child needs is stored in their memory, they can't find it efficiently...kind of like a messy mental file cabinet. In many cases over the years (including that of my daughter), I have observed that explicit phonics instruction over repeated reading techniques have helped to remediate fluency difficulties best. It's as though the overlearning of phonics rules tidies up that file cabinet, making sound-symbol information more readily available, thus improving reading fluency.

Delisa Alsup Dec 07, 2019 09:28 PM

Yes !!!

Amanda Dec 07, 2019 10:13 PM

I love your last sentence! The rest is on point, too, but the last sentence is perfect!

Julie Dinan Dec 07, 2019 10:29 PM

Yes, Tim!! Why would anyone think comprehension, language and vocabulary are discounted, that's absurd. Without explicit phonics instruction, they'll never get to experience comprehension on their own if they can't access text. I'm tired of groups ignoring what needs to be done.

Amen to all who support our True Grit effort!

See ya later Skippy Frog, Chunky Monkey, Eagle Eye ...!

Sam Bommarito Dec 07, 2019 10:34 PM

Have to agree with Thera Pearce "Thanks for bringing sanity to this debate! bravo!". BTW- did an inservice for some beginning teachers today in St. Louis and recommended your site as one to follow. Also advised them to visit Rasinski's site. Folks like the two of you still give me hope that some day there might not be sides. Dare to dream!

Tim Shanahan Dec 07, 2019 10:35 PM

In response to several comments here and elsewhere:

(1) the choice isn’t phonics or fluency, it’s phonics and fluency;
(2) the impact of fluency instruction on decoding skills is worth looking at since the effects sizes were large (according to NRP).


Tim Shanahan

Harriett Dec 07, 2019 11:27 PM

I was very interested in the Amplify podcast featuring Timothy Rasinski, in part because I have used his materials and methods for many years, and in part because I was deeply disappointed that he was one of the 57 scholars who had signed the letter regarding the "PBS kerfuffle". It is an excellent podcast, and nothing that was said made me doubt that Rasinski supports the "science of reading", which is why I am still puzzled that he signed that letter.

I have been following the science of reading wars very closely because I work with 48 struggling readers, and the decisions I make every day affect those students. This is why I can say with confidence that once I figured out a way to systematically involve the parents (or any English-speaking "print partner") in repeated readings, incredible growth ensued for the students who work with me at school and with their parents at home.

While I do my best within my 30 short minutes with my students to lead them "to understanding how print works, to consolidating and automizing decoding skills, and to helping readers to figure out how to go from print to prosody," these students need repeated practice apart from my time with them to really develop these skills. These are kids who come to me without phonemic awareness or phonics skills, so I lay the foundation, and the parents build on that foundation and provide the practice needed for automaticity and prosody.

For more reading about the science of reading wars, I highly recommend Pamela Snow's blog, "Running with the hare and hunting with the hound. My response to Lucy Calkins' 'Science of Reading' essay" http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com/.

Susan close Dec 08, 2019 12:24 AM

I love your way with words and your way of weaving research into a well-argued perspective. Thank you. We do not need wars; we need comprehensive approaches that build powerful thinkers, readers & writers. In our SmartLearning classroom-based action research we have seen small miracles in comprehension & fluency when we position repeated readings as creating animated voice-overs. Reading in role & playing with text is so much fun. On Gr.3 student said, “Thank you, this sure beats work!” Thank you for lending a scholarly voice to yet another conversation that could see people excluding an important component of reading instruction. Happy festive season. 2020 vision must include the science-based practices that develop & advance competencies for deep & powerful reading & responding.

Dona Carhart Dec 08, 2019 01:19 AM

Here, here. Reposting.
Balanced, comprehensive or inclusive, whatever folks want to call it we should know our learners first and adjust accordingly. What works for one group of students one year may not be what the next year's groups' needs. We scale our instruction to meet students'needs and differentiate as we monitor success. If feedback tell us it's not working then we need to adjust but don't keep doing what doesn't work for those students. Collaborate and talk about solutions and find the right prescription.

Lettitia Long Dec 08, 2019 01:42 AM

AGREED! Simple & brilliant! Do what works.....”that such instruction enhances reading achievement—[is] the only reason any instructional routine should be adopted.“

Lettitia Dec 08, 2019 02:24 AM

PS - Thanks to Tim Shanahan for reminding us it’s not about US! It’s about student success. So, maybe we should take the cotton out of our ears and put it in our mouths! We need more thoughtful listening and genuine consideration of differing approaches. Current illiteracy rate stats in US is at “Code Black” (ER Term). Our kids can’t afford to be casualties of “The Reading Wars” or any other arrogant, ignorant, ego-slinging match-ups. Let’s think like Mary Poppins and find “a spoonful of sugar to help us swallow our pride.” Who knows, maybe we can build a literacy toolbox like her traveling case — filled with everything we need to deliver instruction that is “practically perfect in every way.”

Lorri Wilke Dec 08, 2019 04:45 AM

Bravo! [Enthusiastic applause!]

TheMoabof5 Dec 08, 2019 07:36 AM

Unfortunately many schools (my children have attended) focus solely on oral fluency speed and ignore nearly all other aspects of reading. That results in kids learning that guessing and skipping unknown words is better reading because it’s faster and gets praise. What’s the use of reading 100 correct words per minute if the accuracy is below 70% and the child can’t truly comprehend the details of the passage. The schools then uses such generalized comprehension questions that kids can guess those easily . They have “proof” of increase in fluency numbers but in reality the child hasn’t gained any new reading skills. They still can’t decode unknown grade level words and this negatively affects comprehension. I stopped school intervention for private tutoring using evidence based structured literacy programs All of which include fluency work AFTER the child has the skills to decode the material accurately. Its a fantastic blend of skills needed for my boys to become more skilled and fluent readers. With evidence based structured literacy my boys finally learned the most basic skills they needed to decode and read. With increased deciding skills come increased accuracy, increased fluency and better comprehension has always followed. My 12yo son went from reading at a K-1 level to a 4-5 grade level in one year. With another year of intervention he’s come close to grade level. Heavy phonics programs like Lidnamood-Bell, Barton, Sonday, Lexersice..... they do work for struggling readers. There is also the issue of low RAN which is one aspect of SLD in reading that cannot be fully remediated and it will negatively affect fluency no matter the intervention . These children will need accommodations in place so that they can keep up with grade level reading material using audio books and text to speech technology . This is crucial to their vocabulary development, their self esteem and overall academic success. With 4 dyslexic boys I’ve been in the trenches for years and have witnessed want works for not only my own children but for the children of the many parents I’ve met over the years. . I do have a daughter who learned to read with ease so I know how easily some children can learn to read. Children like my daughter, who learn to read no matter how they are taught, are the exception not the norm. Schools have been fooled to complacency by a small minority of children’s easy reading success despite poor reading programs.

Diana Morello-DeSerio Dec 08, 2019 02:49 PM

Thank you for being the voice of reason in all of these "war" issues. I so appreciate the articles and times of hearing your perspectives on such issues. The obvious thing that always resounds is that it is evident you have spent time with children.

Tim Shanahan Dec 08, 2019 03:46 PM

The Moabof5–
There is no excuse for overly favoring or disfavoring any component of literacy that substantial bodies of research have shown to be beneficial to children’s literacy learning. One can find classrooms with too little or too much attention to phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary (language), comprehension, and writing—the solution to that is not to promote one or another component over the others, but to continue to push for comprehensiveness.


Cecilia Sofie Dec 08, 2019 03:53 PM

What do you know of and/or think of David Kilpatrick’s work regarding orthographic mapping and Tim Conway’s work/business Neuro-Development of Words (NOW)?

Linda Dec 08, 2019 04:04 PM

How do you feel about Read Live/Read Naturally? It doesn't seem to improve reading fluency but is promoted as doing such.

Harriett Dec 08, 2019 04:38 PM

Tim, this might be a good time for you to revisit your blog from 2008, "Why Balanced Literacy is a Problem." Here are two important paragraphs, which lead me to think we should perhaps shift toward a different label, like "explicit literacy". https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/why-balanced-literacy-is-a-problem

"Research indicates that kids benefit from explicit instruction in a wide range of skills, from differentiating language sounds to matching sounds with letters to making a text sound like oral language to interpreting word meanings in context and thinking about a wide range of texts with an extensive and complex set of intellectual tools. We need the teaching of a complete conception of literacy.

So, let’s leave the political compromises and code language of “balanced literacy” behind. But let’s also commit ourselves to teaching literacy thoroughly and completely—and researchers can help realize this vision, by exploring more thoroughly those aspects of reading that we don’t yet understand very well (passionate exhortations aside)."

Kari Walchalk Dec 09, 2019 02:50 AM

Ditto AMEN

Sunshine Moss Dec 09, 2019 03:03 AM

Do you have the titles for the citations? I would like to read a couple of them.

Kim Entzminger Dec 09, 2019 12:31 PM

Thank you for your common sense view of teaching reading. I am still baffled at the way many of our "organizations" that claim to support literacy, ignore evidence and cling to one way of doing things. All children are different and all children need teachers who can meet THEIR needs and help them become proficient readers. Unfortunately individual children just don't always conform to any one way of learning.

Joan Sedita Dec 09, 2019 02:15 PM

Thanks for reminding everyone that fluency is an essential reading component and requires just as much attention as the other "fab five" (i.e., P.A., phonics, vocab, comp). And also for highlighting the importance of developing oral language because it forms the foundation for all reading components. I'm responding because I was a little taken aback at this line in your piece: "...phonics firsters seem to have written off explicit fluency instruction." I'm not sure who started the label "phonics firsters", but I'm disappointed that you have adopted it. In doing so, you promote an incorrect assumption that people who promote the importance of phonics instruction believe that phonics is more important than other reading components and that it therefore should be taught first, or to the exclusion of other components such as fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. I interact with a lot of reading educators and also try to stay current with much of the commentary related to this heated topic. From my perspective, almost everyone I encounter who strongly supports phonics instruction also supports explicit instruction in all reading components for beginning reading instruction. In fact, most of these folks emphasize that the "decoding" side of the Simple View of Reading includes phonemic awareness and fluency along with phonics instruction. Which is why I also disagree with your characterization that phonics supporters have forgotten about fluency. Developing automaticity for application of phonics concepts to decode words in context is part and parcel to teaching phonics. I really don't see many people who say phonics is all that's needed or that it needs to be taught first. I think a better term to replace the misnomer "phonics firsters" might be "supporters of explicit instruction of decoding skills to support comprehension". It's longer and not as provoking, but is a fairer way to describe people. I do think you are spot on to say that people who still believe that whole language is the best way to teach reading do not support evidence-based approaches to developing fluency skills. These tend to be the folks who knock oral reading practice and instead promote silent reading.

Tim Shanahan Dec 09, 2019 03:32 PM

I wrote this entry in part in response to those phonics advocates who last week were denouncing fluency instruction as outside the science of literacy. Some phonics advocates are so rabid that they think the way to ensure their versions of phonics is to denounce or neglect any other approaches. I know of no well known phonics advocates who do this (at least openly) and the letters I received or gained access were private messages so calling out individuals is not possible or the point.


Timothy Rasinski Dec 09, 2019 05:44 PM

Thanks, Tim, for your important thoughts on this topic. I remember years ago you sharing with me the great results you had in Chicago when phonics/word study, fluency, writing and comprehension were mandated parts of the literacy curriculum. I wonder why other schools did not pick up on what you demonstrated.

In one of her comments Harriet mentioned that she “was deeply disappointed that he (me) was one of the 57 scholars who had signed the letter regarding the PBS kerfuffle.” I guess now is a good time for me to explain why I signed on to that letter.
My major concern was that the PBS program, as well as other media reports on the reading crisis, seemed to identify phonics and the sole answer to reading difficulties. I was concerned about the message it sent, especially to parents, who might then advocate for a strong phonics program for their children at the expense of the other critical SOR competencies identified by the NRP and others. As a scholar particularly interested in fluency, and knowing of its importance but lack of traction in many reading curricula, I was dismayed and disheartened by the PBS program. Why was reading fluency, as well as the other SOR competencies, not given similar weight as phonics?

This one-sidedness was/is not limited to the PBS program. Other media reports intended for the general public seem also to focus on phonics to the exclusion of fluency or other SOR competencies. For example, in the 3 reports written by Emily Hansford about the problems in reading instruction in the United States, phonics was mentioned 73 times; reading fluency was mentioned 0 times!

Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong advocate for phonics and word study. I teach courses at Kent State University on the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics; all teachers in Ohio are required to take such a course. What bothers me is that the message being sent to the public in these media broadcasts and reports is that phonics alone is the answer. And so, I signed on to the letter that expressed this concern.

As you say, Tim, advocates of the SOR need to embrace all of the science of reading. And fluency is clearly one of those scientifically validated reading competencies. Thanks again for your important and essential work on behalf of teachers, parents and children.

Harriett Dec 09, 2019 06:26 PM

I am grateful that Professor Rasinski has taken the time to explain his reasons for signing the letter, and I wish that I had taken his phonics course in my reading specialist credential program rather than the one on the 3-cueing system. I also appreciate hearing about his continued concerns. It is so important that we strive to find common ground about issues that directly affect our students.

Here's an excerpt from Emily Hanford's Hard Words https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read which refers to comments by Mark Seidenberg and tries to dispell the notion that "phonics alone is the answer." She writes:

"Phonics isn't enough

When you talk to whole language proponents, it's clear pretty quickly that the distrust of phonics instruction is motivated by a fear that reading will be reduced to rote and boring phonics drills. One of the reasons whole language flourished in the 1970s and '80s is that it rejected the idea that children should sit quietly in rows listening to a teacher direct a lesson. "In whole language, the battle was seen as, 'Are you in favor of literacy or are you in favor of skills?'" Seidenberg said.

He said no one is advocating for rote and boring lessons. But the science shows clearly that when reading instruction is organized around a defined progression of concepts about how speech is represented by print, kids become better readers. There is also widespread support in the research for the effectiveness of teacher-directed lessons as opposed to letting children discover key concepts about reading on their own.

What's also clear in the research is that phonics isn't enough. Children can learn to decode words without knowing what the words mean. To comprehend what they're reading, kids need a good vocabulary, too. That's why reading to kids and surrounding them with quality books is a good idea. The whole language proponents are right about that."

Chase Young Dec 09, 2019 07:33 PM

There is so much to think about here, Tim. I have read this several times today. I have a lot to say in terms of research, but this memory keeps popping up instead.

When I worked in the coastal bend there was a private school that used to have me visit, administer assessments, and write instructional recommendations to the parents of the children. No, these recommendations were not for the teachers. They didn’t even read them.


The school used a strict phonics program and did not deviate. During a discussion, an administrator said the school did not deviate because it typically worked for about 70% of their students. She didn’t worry about the other 30%, because that is where I came in. I assessed those that didn’t respond to their phonics-based curriculum, and most (if not all) were dysfluent, so it was an easy gig, as I simply copied and pasted the same recommended strategies at home, most of which were derivations of repeated readings. Then again, of those 70%, no one can be sure how many received outside tutoring or support beyond phonics at home.

So, essentially, it was the parents job to help those who were not finding success from their narrow approach to literacy instruction, and it sounds like this issue might soon be more widespread. So, American parents, get ready to be your child’s interventionist. Feel free to email me, I still have the document ready to copy and paste.

Nancy Wright Dec 13, 2019 02:28 PM

OK, so teaching reading fluency is important, no argument. Will you be addressing the specific ways to teach fluent reading in a future blog?

Jennifer Buckingham Dec 16, 2019 01:22 AM

Hi Tim. Good blog post. Would you mind pointing me to the O'Reilly (2019) paper that you refer to? Thanks in advance.

Rebecca Burns Dec 28, 2019 02:30 AM

What exactly does fluency instruction look like to you? It involves repetition, for sure, and the value of self-motivated repetition is not in question.

Self-motivated repetition is a persistent characteristic of all learning and language learning in particular (children's night rehearsal, relentless repetitions of speech routines in play, requests for repetitions of stories and songs...). No one can argue that there is no place for repetition and rehearsal in literacy development. So what is really at stake in the Reading Wars? I think it comes down to money, because it costs money to control the way teachers teach--to make them do what the experts say they "should" be doing.

Perhaps "The Science of Reading" is the "Business of 'Evidence-based' Reading Instruction". Let's see how Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt package "Fluency Instruction" for the harried school administrator that has to ensure that x number of minutes is now spent each school year on each of the kinds of instruction that The Science of Reading or the International Reading Association recommends...

I predict attractive, durable spiral bound booklets with "leveled" reading passages printed out (only in English--no one needs to read fluently in their native language unless they are a native English speaker after all), charming stop watches for timing reader performances, and attractive charts for tracking individual growth over time. Those completed charts are direct evidence of program compliance. Or, just buy Scholastic's software + hardware iread package.

Say that something "works" or is necessary for a good academic outcome, and then it becomes "required" and then it becomes something to be accounted for, and voila--education publishing delivers the canned model of method, curriculum, assessment, and serves the needs of management when the original instructional routine required no special purchases beyond a classroom library, a talented teacher, and healthy kids.

Carol Chomsky's Repeated Reading method involved the use of tape recorder. Either she recorded the passages herself or she had lucked into an early audio book. Back in the 1970's (when I was training to be an English teacher), using audio recordings to support students' reading comprehension was controversial--many thought it weakened students' motivation (!) and skills (!!). At least that part of the war is long gone. So here is the method Chomsky used, quoted from wikipedia, citing Margalit Fox's obituary of Chomsky in the NYT:

"...children would read a text silently while a recording of the text was played. The child would repeat the process until the text could be read fluently without the tape."

A text, read repeatedly, silently, along with a recording of the text. Teachers and students selecting appropriate texts together, in appropriate languages at appropriate levels.

What could happen if the experts refused to endorse any canned curriculum products? What if the dollars that routinely go into purchases of reading curricula went to teachers to enhance their knowledge of language and literacy development?

Diana Dec 31, 2019 04:32 PM

If adults would stop worrying about being so important and "right" about their own view points and focus on what the students are showing them they need, then applying what research suggests, these wars may fade. However the adult ego is quite a beast to wrangle!

Kim Wagner Jan 07, 2020 02:56 PM

"A pox on both your houses". Such a great quote and about sums up the new "Reading Wars". I know that the term Balanced Literacy is on the naughty list right now, but this blog piece demonstrates what real balanced literacy is all about. Literacy is not just phonics, not just fluency, not just vocabulary, not just strategies and skills, not just writing, but all of these working in concert to allow students to interact with and think about and write about meaningful text. In all this mess, everyone is a little right and a little wrong. Thanks for a great blog entry.

Victoria Risko Feb 11, 2020 06:16 PM

Thank you for drawing attention to an inadvertent omission of fluency in the listing of elements important to reading development as presented in our recent Literacy Leadership Brief published by ILA (2019) and entitled Children Experiencing Reading Difficulties: What We Know and What We Can Do.
We very much agree that fluency is fundamental to reading development as is evident in our inclusion of fluency as part of the important process of learning to read. This is also evident in our summary within the Brief, in which we called for comprehensive instruction to be "more than letters and sounds, more than smooth fluent reading, and even more than solid reading comprehension."
To correct the omission and prevent misunderstanding, we have revised the paragraph appearing on page 1, paragraph 7 of the Brief, to include fluency and its definition as one of specific elements important to reading development. Please see this link to the revised brief:

Joanne Davey Nov 06, 2021 10:56 PM

Hi - what exactly is reading fluency instruction - it is mentioned many times but as a rather intangible concept. Yes we want children to read with fluency but how exactly are saying this should be done. How do you instruct children to be fluent? Do you mean fluency practice?
Thank you.

Joanne Davey Nov 06, 2021 11:00 PM

Apologies - I have just posted a question but just seen that Sarah asked something similar on 2nd October to which you have replied, thank you.

Elaine Aug 24, 2020 11:29 AM

Thank you for this blog post about fluency Tim...
I am wondering if there is merit in building fluency at the phrase and sentence level in isolation. For example if you have recently taught students about complex sentences, is there merit in building fluency around reading different examples of complex sentences in order to efficiently process them and extract the information contained in them eg with this example ‘Before leaving for work, Mum hung out the washing, after quickly eating a speedy breakfast’. Is there merit from a fluency point of view in students reading many sentences such as this and then being asked questions such as ‘What was the first thing that happened?’
Many thanks!

Sarah Oct 02, 2021 12:52 AM

Can you be more specific on what you mean by "fluency instruction?"

Do you mean repeated readings of a text? How many times?
Do you mean "Fischer Speed Drills?"
Or do you simply mean reading aloud?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 02, 2021 12:20 PM

I'll go with the National Reading Panel on this one... teaching oral reading fluency refers to having kids read aloud challenging texts (texts they cannot already read fluently) with feedback and repetition (rereading). Studies have found that 2-3 readings are usually sufficient.



Rosenetta Farley Jun 02, 2022 10:08 PM

I am going to say that Silent Reading when sufficently scaffolded can support fluency. My students participated in "SILENT READING" ALMOST WEEKLY!

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Wake Up Reading Wars Combatants: Fluency Instruction is Part of the Science of Reading


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