In preschool through second grade, most schools place a lot of emphasis on developing pre-reading and reading skills. By third grade, however, the focus typically shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. By this age, and throughout the rest of their school careers, students are expected to use their reading skills to learn and understand academic content in all areas, from science and social studies, to music, art, and even math. Through fluent reading, students also learn the more complex areas of language and communication skills, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. To effectively and efficiently absorb content in all of these areas, children must not only know the mechanics of reading, but be able to read fluently.
What is Reading Fluency?
Fluency is generally thought of as the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with proper expression. When a student reads fluently, not only are the correct words read, but the text sounds smooth and natural rather than choppy and stilted. According to reading experts, achieving fluency is what allows children to spend their mental energy deriving meaning from a text passage, rather than on decoding individual words and sentences. When children read fluently, they recognize most words automatically (known as automaticity) and read with expression (known as prosody) – using their voice to help convey the meaning of the sentence rather than speaking one word at a time. Research has shown that students who read fluently demonstrate better comprehension of the material they are reading than those who read less fluently.
How is Reading Fluency Developed?
Put simply, children develop reading fluency by reading. Like many other skills, the way to become better at reading for most children is through practice. Children should read a wide variety of texts to expose them to different words, styles, and voices. They should also read some texts repeatedly to improve the automaticity and prosody, and therefore their comprehension. Even many adults, when reading complicated prose, or reading about an unfamiliar subject, might read a passage more than once – getting the basic idea on the first pass through, then inferring the meaning more fully on the second. Many of us also find that in reading a favorite novel for the second, third, or fourth time, we may pick up subtleties that we missed the first time around. For children still learning to read fluently, reading selected texts again and again has the same benefit of increasing their comprehension of that passage. More importantly, this type of repeated reading also helps improve their reading fluency, so that they can discern meaning more quickly from the next passage they read, as well.
How Can I Encourage my Child to Read at Home?
- Allow your child to select his or her own books. Your child’s teacher or librarian can help guide you toward books that are at an appropriate reading level, but letting your child choose books at their proper reading level will increase their motivation and make reading time feel like a pleasure. You can use the 5 finger rule as a quick guide. Open the book to any page and have your child read it while holding up one handful of fingers. On each word that is challenging, they should put down a finger. If at the end of the page, there are no fingers down then the book is too simple, if there are 2-3 fingers down the book is at the correct level, and if there are 5 fingers down then the book is too difficult to choose for reading fluency practice.
- Listen to your child read. Sharing an enjoyable story with you can be very motivating for children. Have your child choose a book and enjoy listening to them read aloud to you. You can also take turns reading when it seems that your child needs a break or some support for comprehending the story.
- Let your child see you reading for pleasure and for learning. Children need to see that the adults around them read, too. Schedule in some family reading time where everyone in the family takes out their books and reads together on the couch. Share about the books you are reading as part of your regular conversations with your child (“You know, I read the most interesting book on the train this morning! It was all about…”). If you use an electronic reader, make sure your child knows that you are reading (as it might look the same to him as when you are working, playing games, or writing emails).
What Are Signs that My Child May Need Help with Reading Fluency?
For some children, simply practicing reading may not be enough to develop age-appropriate fluency. How do you know when your child might need extra help?
- Their reading seems especially slow and choppy.
- They strongly avoid reading, even with a choice of interesting materials.
- They might recognize a word on one page, but fail to recognize the same word a few pages later.
- They seem to ignore punctuation and read the passage as one long string of unconnected words.
If you think your child might be struggling, the first step should be talking to his or her teacher. Ask what the teacher has observed in class, and what the teacher recommends and whether the school’s reading specialist has checked in with your child. If you think your child needs more help, request (in writing) a formal evaluation from the school to determine whether your child needs extra support services. Getting a struggling reader help early can make all the difference.