Ask any primary grades teacher about reading fluency, and you are likely to hear something about WCPM from one-minute oral readings. (That’s words correct per minute, a bit like miles per hour.) You might even hear some benchmark numbers that describe how this number goes up in the primary grades. It’s true: in first and second grade, students are typically increasing their reading speed limit from about 8 WCPM to over 80 WCPM (see “Oral reading fluency norms: A valuable assessment tool for reading teachers” for more information).
That might not be NASCAR-worthy acceleration, but going from 8 to 80 really ends up being one of the great Wonders of the World. Consider this: at 8 WCPM, Junior is totally consumed by the task of sounding out or recognizing each word, one by one. No one listening to him read aloud will be able to follow the story—including Junior himself. But by a year or so later, Junior will be reading 80 words per minute and understanding many phrases and sentences as he is reading them. A whole world will open up to Junior, by way of reading comprehension.
The elements of fluency
How does fluency work this magic? Pulled apart, three key elements each play a huge role in that move to reading with comprehension: rate, accuracy, and prosody.
Rate matters mostly because it gives us a window into how much effort it takes kids to decode each word. When each word is a puzzle, it’s really hard to attend to the meaning that is accumulating across whole sentences.
Words must be read with sufficient accuracy, too; you can’t build the right meaning with too many wrong words. Together, rate and accuracy make up what David LaBerge and S. Jay Samuels called “automaticity.” For students with automatic enough word recognition, the mental processing resources required for decoding are minimized. This frees up attention so the reader can attend to meaning.
[T]hree key elements each play a huge role in that move to reading with comprehension: rate, accuracy, and prosody.
A student’s WCPM predicts reading comprehension, especially in the primary grades time while rate is accelerating (see J. Ricardo García and Kate Cain’s 2014 article, “Decoding and reading comprehension”). Kids who can read 40 WCPM are not as likely to understand what they read as kids who read 80 WCPM. Accuracy also becomes an excellent window into how well a student might understand different levels of text, particularly once students have gathered some initial speed in their reading. This is because a student with higher accuracy is likely using all kinds of clues to figure out if a word is what they think it is. They don’t just use decoding skills, but context and meaning clues, as well (see “Behind the test scores: What struggling readers really need”).
We can’t forget about prosody, though. “Prosody” means expression and phrasing that support meaning. It’s that certain something that many primary grades teachers do so well in read alouds. We want kids reading with prosody, too. We don’t want them barking at text, that is, just calling out words as if they are a list. Prosody works as a bridge from automaticity to comprehension. Research, including “Reading fluency as an indicator of reading comprehension,” is showing that when we attend to a student’s prosody in addition to their rate and accuracy, we get better insight into their path to reading with comprehension.
No need to hurry
So, yes, WCPM is accelerating across the primary grades, through various numbers and benchmarks. But of course, the process of learning to read is not a speedway. We don’t want kids accelerating just to go fast but get nowhere. Instead, there is a destination: reading with comprehension, in more and more challenging text. Fluency is not the end goal; fluency is the horsepower that takes kids to this exciting new world. It combines well-tuned rate, accuracy, and prosody.
Turns out, there’s a lot going on under the hood. Because, you know, car metaphors.