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Five Ways to Help Struggling Readers Build Reading Fluency

By Shannon Gilfeather
 | Apr 18, 2018
kids-readingReading fluency is the ability to read with sufficient ease, accuracy, and expression, providing a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. To help students become more fluent, many educators assume that reading more is the key, and therefore require students to read silently for several minutes a day. The problem, however, is that silent reading is not proven to help build reading fluency in struggling readers.

According to the National Reading Panel, “There is insufficient support from empirical research to suggest that independent, silent reading can be used to help students improve their fluency.”

That being said, silent reading does have an important place in students’ lives. Once a student is a fluent reader, they should read anything and everything that is available at their level.

But if students haven’t yet developed reading fluency, is it fair to ask them to silently struggle through a passage, a chapter, or an entire book? How will that help them improve?

Here are five best practices for building fluency among struggling readers:

  • Model fluent reading. Students are more likely to achieve fluency if they have a strong understanding of what constitutes reading fluency. Have teachers or other fluent readers read aloud to students. This way, students can hear what reading aloud should sound like and can gain a better understanding of natural prosody, which involves elements such as pausing at the end of a sentence and using rising intonation with a question mark. 
  • Conduct student read-alouds. Reading fluency is most commonly assessed by listening to children read aloud. When readers lack fluency, their oral reading sounds choppy or hesitant, lacking the accuracy, rhythm, and flow that indicates confident understanding of the text. When reading aloud, the student should focus on accuracy rather than speed. Students who read most closely to what the author intends in terms of prosody and expression have a deeper comprehension, overall, than those who read strictly for speed. It is also important to remember that any words or constructions that prove troublesome when reading orally can also pose difficulty when reading silently. A key goal in engaging students in read-aloud activities is to help them develop the skills and attitude to notice and conquer such challenges instead of avoiding them. As students become more proficient, their speed will likely improve as well. Of course, in many classrooms, it can be difficult to find enough fluent readers to listen and provide feedback to individual students as they read aloud. Digital guided reading tools can help. One example is the Fast ForWord program, which provides a guided reading tool that uses speech verification technology to give real-time corrective feedback to students as they read aloud, like a guided reading coach. This type of technology can be particularly helpful with hard-to-engage students who may be more willing to practice reading aloud with a digital tool that listens without bias or judgment.
  • Preview key vocabulary. When introducing a text for the first time, identify new or potentially challenging words.  Before reading the text, practice the words in isolation outside of the text. Teach the correct pronunciation and meaning of the words. 
  • Host a Readers Theatre. A Readers Theatre, where students perform a play for their peers, is a fun twist on reading aloud. This strategy works well with stories that can be broken down into parts or characters. Instead of memorizing lines, students read their assigned parts orally for practice and then read them aloud for both expression and meaning to an audience of their peers. In addition to reading fluency and expression, a Readers Theatre can help students develop critical skills such teamwork and cooperation.
  • Compliment students when they read fluently. While it’s helpful to gently point out students’ struggles so they know what to work on, it’s also beneficial to acknowledge when they are reading fluently. Reading fluently for some students is hard work, so it is important to offer encouragement and to recognize the effort they are putting forth.

Reading fluency can be a major barrier to proficient reading if it’s not addressed. Modeling fluent reading, and giving students plenty of opportunities to practice reading aloud with real-time support, helps them improve so they can build a bridge from reading fluency to comprehension and reading success.

Shannon Gilfeather is a special education teacher at Salk Middle School in Spokane, WA. She has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in reading. She is dual certified with two bachelor’s degrees in special education and elementary education with additional endorsements in interdisciplinary child development and psychology.

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