The Role of Fluency in Learning to Read

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What is fluency and why is it important in learning to read? Take this interaction with one of my students:

The eight year old read the title of the book with a puzzled expression. “The Book With No Pictures? Is it a novel? But the book doesn’t look like a novel!”

He opened the book and read through the beginning pages quickly. When he came to the first page with the nonsense word he stopped and stared at it. Then he read it aloud and guffawed. “Hey! What is this book?” Then came this page,

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He read the sentence, “I am a monkey,” giggled some more and changed his voice when he came to the words in block letters.

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Then he turned the page and turned into a robot monkey with his clipped staccato reading. As he progressed through the book he was full of questions and comments. “This is the funniest book I’ve ever read.” “Why did the author write this book?” “No, I don’t eat ants for breakfast. Maybe I should try some!!!”

What happened here? The kid was a fluent reader who used his word recognition skills to read the text quickly and accurately. When he came to unfamiliar words, like the nonsense word, he paused a little longer to decode it but he kept up the flow of the words. He modulated his voice to match the size of the font and gave expression to the character (robot monkey). All the while he interacted with the text of the book making meaning—it was the funniest book ever, he wondered at the author’s purpose in writing such a book, and he responded to the text in the same humorous undertone employed therein. After the first few pages he anticipated what was to come and began to predict and check his predictions. When we finished he asked me if I had other books like this for him to read.

Have you ever had a child read a book to you? How does he or she read it? Do the words flow smoothly or are there disjointed pauses as the child tries to decode the individual words? Have you noticed when the child reads the text fluently he is so engrossed in it and is looking for meaning even as he reads? He brings the book to life as he reads the narrative with expression. He shows surprise, anger, joy and more as he understands the events described by the words as he reads them.

In the case of the fluent reader three factors—accuracy, speed and expression contribute to understanding or reading comprehension. The enjoyment derived from reading becomes a motivating factor for the fluent reader to pick up and read a book on his own.

On the other hand a struggling reader spends more time in sounding out or decoding words that he loses continuity. Reading is more staccato as he reads word by word rather than chunking them together. There is less interaction with the text—he doesn’t think about what is happening in the book—whether it is interesting, or if he knows something related to the event described. This limits the expression in his reading and his ability to comprehend the text. For this child reading is just a chore to be done with and so he avoids reading beyond what is necessary. Limited reading exposure in turn leads to limited fluency.

For ideas on how to help your child become more fluent:

Developing A Fluent Reader: Tips for Parents

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