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Staying Literacy Strong: A Focus on Phrasing

By Timothy Rasinski, Valerie Ellery, and Lori Oczkus
 | Sep 22, 2015

shutterstock_216089584_300pxThink about the students you have who you think are not fluent readers. Chances are these are students who, when reading orally, read in an excessively slow word-by-word manner. Fluency certainly is a concern with these students. However, it is not the only problem that these students exhibit. Reading comprehension is likely to suffer as well. In fact, research has demonstrated a strong association between oral fluency and silent reading comprehension.

It just makes sense. When students read in that word-by-word manner, they are compromising the meaning of the text. Prepositions such as of and if as well as noun markers such as the and an have limited meaning by themselves. The purpose of such words is to enhance the meaning of the other words in the phrase in which they are placed. We think that phrasing is so important that we feel that the phrase, not the individual word, is the essential unit of meaning when reading.

Take for example the following phrases:

  • In the ocean
  • Under the ocean
  • Upon the ocean
  • Near an ocean
  • In an ocean

Each of these phrases have distinctly different meanings even though the meaning of the key word, ocean, is constant. Good readers make meaning by reading in phrases; struggling readers limit meaning by reading word by word.

Much of what we do instructionally—while well-intended and in many ways quite powerful—may tend to over-emphasize reading in a word-by-word manner. While we acknowledge  activities such as reading word walls, spelling and vocabulary lists, and word games have a legitimate place in our literacy curricula, we wonder about the extent to which such activities give students the unintended notion that reading words as individual units is the appropriate way to read.

Research and scholarly thought suggest  helping students learn to read in phrases (as opposed to word by word) is an effective way to improve reading fluency as well as comprehension and overall reading proficiency. Yet, interestingly, most instructional programs for teaching reading provide very little support or suggestions to teachers for helping students read more fluently and meaningfully through good phrasing. We hope to remedy this situation by offering a couple simple instructional suggestions for helping students become phrase-proficient in their reading.

Making phrase boundaries visible—The Phrased Text Lesson

One of the problems with a focus on phrasing is that, in many cases, phrase boundaries are not physically marked in the texts  our students read. Certainly punctuation such as periods and commas provide some indication of where sentence or phrase units end, however there are many places where phrase boundaries are unmarked.

One way to help students is to physically take a text and mark the phrase boundaries for students. Below is a common rhyme in which we have marked (usually with a pencil) phrase boundaries. Note that we marked within-sentence phrase boundaries with a single slash and sentence boundaries with a double slash to indicate shorter and longer pause.

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill / went up the hill / to fetch a pail / of water. // Jack fell down / and broke his crown / and Jill came tumbling after. // Up Jack got // and home did trot // as fast as he could caper // to old Dame Dob / who patched his nob / with vinegar and brown paper. //

Put the marked rhyme on display for all students to see and read and provide each student with an individual copy that will go into their poetry folder. Remind students that the slash marks indicate where they should break the text in the oral reading. Then over the course of a school day, read the text to students while they follow along silently (emphasizing the phrases in your oral reading), read it chorally as a class, and ask individuals and small groups of students to read it at various times, regularly reminding students to attend to the phrase breaks marked in the text. Hope students see  the essential ideas of the text are contained within the phrases.

On the following day, provide students with the same text without the phrase boundaries.

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. Up Jack got, and home did trot, as fast as he could caper, to old Dame Dob, who patched his nob with vinegar and brown paper.

Repeat the rereadings of the rhyme throughout the day. Help students note they should be pausing when they read, even when the markings are not present. In this way, students will be able to transition from using the visible phrase boundaries to inferring phrases that may not  actually be marked. Regular use of the Phrased Text Lesson will lead students to more fluent and more meaningful reading when reading independently.

High frequency word phrases

A common and important instructional goal in the primary grades is to develop students’ sight vocabulary, especially with common or high frequency words such as the, it, and dog. As we noted earlier, high frequency words are often practiced using a word wall in which 10-20 words each week are added to the wall and practiced regularly. In addition to a high frequency word wall, why not also have a high frequency word phrase wall which can also be read and practiced regularly?

Here are some phrases and short sentences that are made up of words from Edward B. Fry’s first 100 Instant Words:    

by the water
Who will make it?
you and I
What will they do?
He called me.
no way
one or two
all day long
into the water
It’s about time.

By practicing phrases that contain high frequency words, your students will be getting important practice on these common words, but at the same time will also be practicing reading these words in phrases and sentences which actually convey meaning. Start with this list of the first 600 instant phrases.

Certainly, reading fluently with good phrasing is not the only competency we need to help students develop. However, it is an important competency that is often overlooked in instructional programs for reading. Just a small focus on phrased reading in the elementary grades has the potential to pay significant dividends in our students’ development into proficient readers.

The ideas shared in this article are from the newly released Literacy Strong All Year Long: Powerful Lessons for K-2 by Valerie Ellery, Lori Oczkus, and Timothy Rasinski. The text features 40 lessons explicitly demonstrating a dynamic gradual release of responsibility format. These lessons spiral across the seasons of the year, building literacy essentials that include engaging lessons for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation.

Timothy Rasinski, a literacy education professor at Kent State University, is a prolific researcher who has authored more than 150 articles. He is a former co-editor of The Reading Teacher and the Journal of Literacy Research. He is coauthor, with Maureen McLaughlin, of Struggling Readers: Engaging and Teaching in Grades 3–8. Valerie Ellery is as an international literacy consultant, best-selling author, and motivational speaker. Her book, Creating Strategic Readers: Techniques for Supporting Rigorous Literacy Instruction, is currently in its third edition. Lori D. Oczkus is a literacy coach, best-selling author, and popular speaker. She is also the author of Just the Facts! Close Reading and Comprehension of Informational Text.



Leave a comment
  1. Patrick Akos | Jun 24, 2019
    Thanks so much for the Authors sharing their wealth of experience. I look forward to use it as an assessment tool and intervention material for my students.I recommend the link for teachers who have students with oral reading fluency problems.
  2. Ana | Feb 20, 2019
    Thanks for the great information, which is easily to comprehend and implement in the classroom.  I appreciate the link to Fry's instant phrases.  What valuable information to help our readers succeed.
  3. Brenda Hare | Oct 05, 2015
    Thank you for this great teaching tip.  I am eager to use the 600 phrase charts to help my students become better readers.

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