learning during read-alouds: improving fluency

help kids improve fluencyThis is a re-post of a November 16, 2011 post because it’s totally worth revisiting.


Fluency is a tricky–but totally important–element of reading comprehension.

No. Question. About it.

And though research is funny about fluency’s roll in reading comprehension, I’m a firm believer in the fact that in order to fully understand what is being read, it must be read fluently.

Lately, improving reading fluency has been my focus for Maddy and Owen. And I’ve realized that there are a ton of ways to make fluency practice fun, and I’ve been reminded that what works for one kiddo won’t always work for another.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Fluency: Fluency is defined by Pikulski & Chard as ‘efficient, effective word-recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of text. . . fluency is manifested in accurate, rapid, expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension.’

Their definition is a synthesis of the definitions in the Report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) and The Literacy Dictionary (Harris & Hodges, 1995), so it’s pretty solid.

I, personally prefer the definition of fluency developed by Mrs. Victoria and her second-grade class (as shared in Cahill & Gregory’s article): Fluency is reading like you talk, not too fast and not too slow, with expression and no sounding out.  It’s also important to understand what you read.

I like that definition. It’s easy and basic and sums up–in language that everyone can understand–the beauty and importance of fluency.

tips for improving reading fluencyModel, model, model fluent reading. We HAVE to.

Though there’s debate over whether or not fluent reading involves comprehension, I’m going to get bold and say I truly believe there has to be a link between the two.  You cannot possibly read fluently without understanding what you’re reading, and you cannot truly understand what you’re reading if you’re not reading fluently.  Right? Right.

There. I said it.

So a few months back, when I was chatting with Maddy about a book she had just read–a simple Junie B. Jones chapter book–and she was unable to tell me what happened, I kind of secretly freaked out.  As I watched and listened and watched and listened some more over the next few days, I realized that something was off.

Maddy was speed-reading and not comprehending.  She sped through each page–skipping words and misreading words and barely breathing or paying attention to punctuation in the least.  And I think that part of the reason was to try to get to the parts of her Junie B. books where Junie B. used the type of language that isn’t permitted at our house.  (Why we have these books in our house, I’m not sure, but that’s a whole other story. . . ).

So I decided that if I was going to practice what I preach and not scream SLOW DOWN!!! Stop! What does that say?! NO!! You’re wrong!! then I needed to do some thinking and moving. And fast.

tips for improving reading fluencyJunie B. books . . . hard for fluency practice.


Here’s what I did to help Maddy improve her fluency:

1.  I modeled fluent reading.  I read, read, and read some more. I read the Junie B. books that I can barely stand. The books I want to throw out the window.

And gradually I invited Maddy to read a page here and there, and soon it evolved into me reading every other page. And it’s fine.  It’s better.

tips for improving reading fluency

I still shake my head and tsk and tsk more when Junie speaks like a baby or uses incorrect English grammar, but it’s fine. It won’t be forever.

And as we’re reading different texts together at night, Maddy’s more inclined to read more out loud as her confidence is increasing.

2.  I had her re-read.  For passages that made Maddy really giggle and laugh and widen her eyes at Junie’s horrid behavior, I read the whole passage one time, and then I’d shut the book and pretend to totally freak out.

I can’t believe this. I cannot believe her, Maddy. What is she DOING? Please re-read this paragraph just so I can hear it again. I don’t believe it.

And she gladly re-read.  And if she was speedy, I’d say, remember how it sounded when I read it–make it sound the same way.

3.  We tapped our fingers.  At the beginning, after numerous attempts at modeling and having Maddy re-read only to speed through a passage, I had her tap her thumb and pointer finger together at the end of each sentence.

I said, Okay, I can tell it’s hard to stop reading because you love Junie so much, but I’m having a hard time keeping up. And remember that fluent reading should sound like talking–and we have to talk slow enough so that people can understand what we’re saying, right?So how about after each sentence, we pinch our fingers together–just for a second–to remind us that we need to stop and breathe a sec? Sound okay?

She was game. And after a few awkward sentences, sometimes too-long pauses, the tapping became more natural, more habitual, and eventually her pace slowed to a more natural one.

And now she usually starts out tapping but scraps it a few pages in.

4.  We mixed it up. We read shorter pieces–poetry, magazine articles, news articles, craft books–you name it.

I recognize that Junie B. books can be difficult for fluent reading because (thankfully!) Maddy doesn’t speak like she does, so I wanted Maddy to really hear herself reading short texts that she could read fluently and with ease.  Anything goes–cereal boxes, ingredient lists, photo captions in the newspaper, short magazine blurbs and poems.

And so far, she’s digging it.

5.  We celebrate successes.  When Maddy reads a passage really well–paying attention to text pacing, expression, and content–I try to point out exactly what she did that rocked.  Instead of saying something generic like, Oh that sounded great, or I like how you read that, I really get specific.

Maddy, you sounded exactly like Warren might sound when he said that to Junie.  You really made his voice sound sad.  Or Maddy, love that short pause when you saw the hyphen–that’s exactly what it’s there for–a break.

 how full is your bucket

fyi: This is just a starting point!   There are a bazillion ways to make fluency practice fun–and I am eager to try them out and share the other things we’ve been doing over here–but I needed to initially have Maddy slow down and pay attention to punctuation.  She needed to breathe. And slowly–slowly!–she seems to be engaging more with the text, remembering more, and paying closer attention to the concepts now that she’s paying closer attention to the words on the page.

We’ll see. . . .


 More of the skinny:

When I really took a step back and looked at what Maddy was doing as far as reading, I was surprised–and slightly taken–by the fact that she wasn’t able to adequately summarize (or even explain just a little bit!) the texts she was reading.  And she reads a lot.

Ever since she was teeny, Maddy went to bed with a huge pile of books.  And as she read them, we’d either hear a thump! clunk. thump. . . thump, as she dropped them from her bed to the floor, or we’d find a big pile of books next to her tiny body when we checked on her before we turned in for the night.

For a long time, I didn’t worry about Maddy’s reading; she made great strides in Kindergarten and again in first grade, and when she hung out on the same level for a few months last year, neither my husband nor I sweated it. It’s normal for kids to make quick level-leaps in the beginning (especially through Kindergarten and first grade), and often, once they reach a certain point–they kind of stay stagnant.

There are a ton of levels in Kindergarten and grade one; ideally, kiddos move from level A to J during this time, as they move through Early Emergent and Emergent Reader Stages while they’re learning the basic concepts of print, alphabetic principles, phonological awareness, and early phonics.  And then in grade two, the move can seem small–K to P–but the strides are great.   Readers slowly begin to tackle more difficult sentence structures, less repetition, more of a reading comprehension focus.  They hang out in levels for a longer period of time, which is why there is a larger number of books in these level ranges.

This is another simple but totally important reading comprehension strategies as part of my Read-Aloud Learning series. I am LOVING it, and thanks to the following *awesome* articles I used as a reference for this post:

Applegate, M. D., Applegate, A. J. and Modla, V. B. (2009), “She’s My Best Reader; She Just Can’t Comprehend”: Studying the Relationship Between Fluency and Comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 62: 512–521. doi: 10.1598/RT.62.6.5

Cahill, M. A. and Gregory, A. E. (2011), Putting the Fun Back Into Fluency Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 65: 127–131. doi: 10.1002/TRTR.01018

Pikulski, J. J. and Chard, D. J. (2005), Fluency: Bridge Between Decoding and Reading Comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58: 510–519. doi: 10.1598/RT.58.6.2




  1. Holly says

    Thanks Amy! What a fabulous post. (There are tons of great tips that will be used and reused with the little readers at our house.)

  2. Sarah says

    Thanks! This sounds similar to my Cora (age 8) who reads supersupersuperfast; whose Lexile score range is 766-916 (!!) yet whose running record score is level R. When reading aloud, her comprehension sank. I can’t wait to try the pinching fingers technique for punctuation awareness. And, rereading the paragraphs that I read first, in your very sneaky but good way. Thanks for your great ideas!

    • amy says

      Sarah! I love that you have a Cora, too!! WOW–she’s rockin it with reading! Let me know if the tapping helps–and if you come up with anything else super-sneaky that gets her to slowslowslowslow down, please share! Thanks so much for reading, my friend!!

  3. Maria says

    Amy, you know I love these “learning during read aloud” posts :) My 11 year old son really, really struggles with reading comprehension b/c of fluency, so I’m with you on this one!

    He just complained while reading a book to his dad that he was reading and had no idea what anything meant! He often needs to re-read things to get the point. He needs to be reminded to “chunk phrases” in order to slow down and pay attention to the meaning of them.

    It’s also frustrating for him b/c he stops to sound words out alot which interrupts his “flow.” I told him when that happens to me I just skip over them, read to the end of the sentence, then stop and go back and look the word up. If I don’t do that I read to the end of the paragraph and then go back to look at the tricky word again…he doesn’t love reading enough to do that, yet, so usually we’ll just tell him what the word is to keep him going.

    Thanks so much for this series. I learn so much and though being a sneaky teacher doesn’t come natural it does work when I put it into practice : )

    Always look forward to the read-aloud helps, thanks!!!!


    • amy says

      Maria!! Thank you so much, my friend. Reading is hard–and more difficult for some kids than others. It’s awesome that you’re reading with your son and that he’s willing to read to you–and I know how hard it is to want to keep the momentum going. . . anything you ever have ?’s about, let me know. I’m more than happy to do what I can and add my two cents’ worth. Thanks so much for reading and thank you a TON for writing. Stay in touch!!

  4. says

    What a fantastic post and so timely in our house! I just had an “Oh no” moment too when reading with my 7-year-old. She’s sounding very choppy and robotic– not smooth and flowing. I can’t seem to think of anything that makes her move towards the smoother reading that she had been starting to do over the summer. Hmmm.. any tips to keep reading fun but start to address this while I’m reading with her?!

  5. says

    A great post – I just pinned it so I can find it again. I am studying this at the moment and your thoughts are appreciated. How you feel about Junie, sounds like how I feel about Barbie right now!

  6. says

    Great post. I’ll go out on a limb with you and say there has to be a connection between fluency and comprehension. When I taught struggling readers, none of them read fluently, once they could read fluently, they weren’t struggling readers anymore. I love how you kind of took the blame for comprehension trouble when you said something like, “I’m having trouble understanding… when you read so fast.” I need to remember that line!

  7. Kelly says

    Thank you for this post! It is packed with useful tips parents and teachers can use right away to work on fluency. We tried the read the funny part several times strategy with ‘The Day the Crayons Quit.’ My daughters could not get enough of the peach crayon page and it sounded better every time they read it. I always LOVE reading your blog. Keep up the great work my friend!


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