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Becoming a Fluent Reader

Is “fast reading” a “fluency synonym”? Do all good readers need to be fast readers? In this blog post, we are going to be exploring these questions. Fluency is one of the five components of reading that the national reading panel identified in the year 2000 as being essential to becoming a good reader so we want to make sure we address it. In the official definition of dyslexia put out by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), we read “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition …” (emphasis mine). You see sometimes the dyslexic person can read the words, but they are so slow and disfluent that it impacts both their ability to understand what they have read and their ability to function in both school and jobs. This is why fluency must be addressed.

First, let us talk about exactly what fluency is. Is it desirable to read as fast as possible? Is that the main goal? No- we must always keep in mind that the real goal in reading is always comprehension - not speed. A key part of fluency is prosody. Prosody is reading with expression and with appropriate phrasing. Prosody is the melody of speech. If you can read as if you were talking then you have fluency. If what you are reading aloud is interesting to listen to, if you slow and stop at the appropriate places and keep phrases together, if your brain can understand the meaning of what you have read, then you have fluency.

Also, understand and keep in mind that you should read certain things slower than others. If you are not familiar with the subject matter you will need to slow down and maybe even look up some of the words in the dictionary. In that case, you will have to reread after the meaning of all the words are understood. Everybody must do this. Even if you are a really good reader if you read a biology book or a law manual you are going to have to slow down, look up words, and reread. (Unless you are a biologist or lawyer). That’s normal and has to happen if you are going to comprehend what you have read. If you are reading something easy to understand, and you already know the vocabulary then fluency will be easier to achieve, and you will be able to speed up your reading.

It is a myth that fluent readers skip the small words. Think about the comprehension problems that would occur if you were to skip small words like “not” or “if”. Sometimes small two or three-letter words completely change the meaning of the sentence into meaning the opposite thing. It’s not just words either, prefixes such as “dis” and “un” change the word to mean the opposite of its original meaning. Everybody should read all words in the text for comprehension. In fact, many times when students are struggling with fluency and comprehension, they are skipping small words or word parts. Often, they will leave off suffixes and endings of longer words. This is not okay and good readers do not do this. It is poor readers who are feeling pressure to read quickly that will try to read as fast as possible often skipping things and leaving off word endings and thereby losing the meaning of what they have read. Never forget that it is more important to gain meaning from what you are reading than to be fast.

When your reader can successfully sound out the words accurately it is time to start working on being more fluent. Do not work on fluency if they are not at this point yet. The last thing you want to do is to cause a bad habit of guessing or put undue pressure and anxiety on the reader when they are still not confident in sounding the word out. Think about how stressful it would be to the reader if they are not confident that they can read the word and then they are being pressured to be fast. Nobody can work well when feeling pressure or anxiety. Often what ends up happening is the child will see the first few letters and then quickly think up a word that begins with that letter. Do not accept word calling and make the child slow down and sound out the word. You can say something in a teasing, funny way to hopefully put them at ease such as “Wait a minute cowboy! We are reading here – not guessing. Slow down and try that again.” Do not just give them the word. They are building their reading muscles by sounding it out themselves. Actually, the first thing you can do to increase fluency is practice. The more you practice, even though it is a slow practice, the better. Every day you should be practicing reading together. The together part is really important. Do not tell your beginning reader to practice reading alone. Research shows that silent reading to self does not produce reading gains but reading together with someone who can provide immediate feedback does. So, you want to read every day for about 15 minutes together. Make sure you have a book that your child is capable of reading. If your child is a beginning reader you will want your book to be a “decodable” book.

Besides just practicing here are some ideas you can try for increasing fluency.

The first one is so simple and fun you will want to do this even if you do not need to work on fluency. It’s just listening to good readers read. You can read to your child, or you can listen to audiobooks. Hearing the prosody of good readers will unconsciously and painlessly increase your child’s knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure. Books have much richer and more complicated language than conversation does even in the most educated homes, so being exposed to many books will expose your child to the rich and varied language structures and vocabulary that they will not otherwise be hearing. In addition, you will be able to listen to books at a much higher level than you would be able to have them read for themselves and that is a good thing. They will learn more and the more they know and are familiar with the more they will be able to understand when they read about similar things themselves later. For great ideas of books to read aloud to your children, I recommend listening to the podcast Read-Aloud Revival. If you are listening to a book that is at your child’s reading level, you can have him or her follow along with their finger under the words as it is being read.

Another thing that will help immensely in the future is just learning lots of vocabulary words and lots of stuff. The more stuff we know about and understand the more we can learn about. The information builds on itself. When your child is old enough to be sounding out longer words, they will do much better if they recognize the word. If they do not know the word then even if they have sounded it out correctly, they will be hesitant, their voice will have a question mark in it and, because they are unsure, and they will read haltingly. But if they have a large vocabulary and recognize the word as they sound it out, they will be much more confident. Listening to read alouds as mentioned above will help increase vocabulary and in addition, you could choose to learn Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes or read a book together such as Vocabulary Cartoons.

So far, the ideas I have been talking about are kind of like the underlying backstage types of things that will support reading fluency without actually working on fluency. They will be fun and will not produce any anxiety. Your child won’t even be thinking about reading fluency but yet you will be supporting their ability to gain fluency and automaticity. Now it is time to transition and talk about the work of increasing speed in reading.

With anything you want to get better and faster at you need to practice. Practice a lot. So, the best thing for increasing your reading fluency is practicing. However, the old saying “practice makes perfect” is not true. The truth is practice makes permanent. If your child is in the habit of guessing if they don’t really know how to sound out the words if they don’t know the sounds the letters will make then they are not ready to practice reading. You don’t want to reinforce the guessing and word-calling. You might need to step back and do some other things before trying to have them practice reading.

If your child is ready to practice reading you should read together with them for about 15 minutes every day. I already mentioned this, but I will say again that they should read aloud to you. You do not want them to only read silently for 15 minutes every day. Studies have shown that reading silently did not increase the child’s reading ability but reading with immediate feedback does. My guess is that many times when a struggling reader is supposed to be reading silently, they really are just looking at pictures and not practicing reading at all.

Rereading is one of the most important and best ways to increase fluency. Have your child read a passage making sure they know all the words. You may even preread some of the words together if you know they might struggle with them and talk about what they mean. This would be a good way to increase vocabulary knowledge. Then have the child read the passage again, and again. You will want to tell them ahead of time that you are going to reread so they are expecting it. You don’t want them to either feel like they didn’t do good enough the first time or be anxious to be done so they don’t want to continue working on reading. You can just let them know “we are going to practice this short section today, but we are going to do it 5 times.” Similar to rereading is echo reading. This is where you demonstrate the phrasing in the passage, then have them echo read. You can combine these two techniques. Especially if your child is reading the words but not getting the phrasing and not sounding very natural you will want to read to demonstrate how it should sound. You can just tell them “Now it’s my turn.” After your turn, you can give them another turn. Or you can just start oy echoing. You can reread a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole book. You will get more out of a book if you reread it. Why not read a book aloud to your family and then have your child read the same book by following along with the audio version and then try reading the book alone. Don’t make this a chore to mark off your list. Storytime should be fun.

Other ideas that you can try that may be fun and at the same time increase, fluency is singing while reading the words, and participating in acting where they will have to practice reading their parts with expression. If your child has a personality that would appreciate these things, acting or singing could also provide a platform where your child can discover their strengths and shine. Without them even realizing it they will be practicing using expression and rereading. Teachers can have the whole class do choral reading. That way everyone reads together, and the poor reader is not singled out. The poor reader may be able to follow along with the class.

But none of these things will be enough to take the place of learning to read well on your own. If your child struggles with reading, they will not just pick up on it because you have them echo the words after you, reread or follow along with an audiobook. These things are to support gaining speed and confidence after they can already read these things on their own but remain slow and halting. Struggling readers must learn all the rules systematically and sequentially with lots of reinforcement and support. They will not just pick up on the tricks the different letters will do no matter how much practice they have. Fluency is something that comes after knowledge and confidence are already in place. There are 5 essential components of successful reading and fluency is the 4th one. If the first 3 (phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary) are not in place already then it is not time to work on fluency. One of the most important accommodations that a dyslexic person must receive in school is more time. They should never be expected to take timed tests and should receive extra time for reading assignments. Even though they can become good readers they will not outgrow dyslexia and will probably never be as fast at reading as a person without dyslexia. Whatever stage you and your child are at right now you can enjoy reading together. Give your child the gift of your time and read lots of stories to them while snuggled together on the couch and grow in them the joy of reading and the love of books. You will always be glad you did.

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