The power of fluency: 4 ways to build fluent readers

This school year, my co-teacher and I decided to bring back mystery readers with our students and invited families to take part in the activity. The concept is simple: a volunteer shows up on Friday afternoon (it’s a great way to end the week) with one of their favorite picture books to read to the class. (We sent an email out to families asking if anyone was interested in serving as a mystery reader over the course of the school year. As some of your readers gain confidence, they can volunteer to be a mystery reader, too.)

Once assigned a week, mystery readers respond to a three-question survey and we share the answers with the students during the week. They delight in trying to figure out who the mystery reader will be and are always beside themselves when the reader walks through the door.

My husband had the privilege of being the mystery reader for my son’s class early in the school year, and while he waited in the office with the other reader for the day, they talked about being nervous to read for a group of children. Both are extremely comfortable speaking in front of adults for their respective careers, but reading to children is daunting.

Fluency aids in comprehension

Teachers know that reading aloud is a skill. It is something we practice and a craft we hone over years and years of stories being shared with students. There is no greater power than a teacher holding a book and captivating children’s attention while we invite them into a great story. Really hooking them only happens when the person reading possesses the necessary skills to read fluently, however.

Reading aloud with proper fluency is not just for adults; it is also an essential part of students’ development as readers. We know students are developing phonemic awareness and phonics to support their word decoding. Meanwhile, they are also busy learning new vocabulary and knowledge to support their language comprehension. Reading with fluency is what brings both decoding and language comprehension together. (Our eBook How to support reading at home: A guide for families is a wonderful resource that explains all the bits and pieces required for reading. Consider sharing it with your students’ families.)

Engaging content builds confidence, and confidence builds skill.

Kids need to be able to read fluently to comprehend text. To be fluent readers, students must recognize words quickly enough to have a good rate (the speed at which we read). But they must also understand how to read with proper phrasing (naturally chunking words together) and intonation (the emphasis and tone given to certain words). To do this, readers need to utilize the power of punctuation and begin to tune in to meaning.

My co-teacher and I spent several weeks establishing systems in our rooms to practice fluency over the course of the year. Here are four strategies both our students and we have enjoyed as they learn to read fluently. A key idea to remember when utilizing them is to find texts that your students find engaging. We want them to be motivated to read and reread, a key to improving their fluency. Engaging content builds confidence, and confidence builds skill.

Tip #1: Have a reader’s theater

A reader’s theater relies on short plays specifically designed for reading aloud with a group of students.

Each child is assigned a role. They practice their part individually and in a group, then they read the play aloud. We have had fun with these by allowing our students to also make props and, as often as possible, we present them to an authentic audience (other teachers, a younger class, videos for classroom social media) to give the students purpose and motivation.

If you subscribe to Storyworks from Scholastic you’ll find a reader’s theater passage in each issue. If not, simply Google “reader’s theater” or head to Reading A-Z and you will find plenty of free options for printing.

Tip #2: Read Mo Willems’s books

Who doesn’t love a good Elephant and Piggie book? Not only are they great for teaching social skills, these books are also fantastic for learning to read with fluency.

Each story is written in color-coded talking bubbles for each character. The font size, the use of punctuation, and the feelings each character possesses make these books the perfect tool for a partnership to put their fluency skills to work. (Ask the editor of Teach. Learn. Grow. how excited she gets every time her six-year-old reads the bits in italics with emphasis, as intended.) Another less well-known but also excellent Mo Willems option is Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator.

Tip #3: Chart growth in rate from repeated reading passages

Rate is key to becoming a strong reader. Not everyone needs to read faster; there is such a thing as fast enough. But we want to have most words become automatically recognized instead of spending our mental energy sounding words out. I always share with my students’ families the number of correct words per minute a third grader should be reading. We all need to read with enough automaticity so that we can comprehend the text while reading it.

Learning to read is hard work.

One of the best ways to improve on rate is to read the same passage multiple times. There are plenty of box kits, published teacher books, and downloadable resources that are specifically for practicing rate. The passages have the word count on each line and the process for use is simple: Using a stopwatch, have the child conduct a cold read (read the passage with no practice) for one minute. Mark how many words the child read correctly in that minute. Then have the child continue to read the same passage over and over with the goal of improving their rate each time until they are automatically recognizing each word. (At that point, don’t aim for even faster; focus then on better phrasing and intonation instead!)

Our competitive students love this activity, and it really helps them understand the purpose of repeated activities to develop a skill. This same strategy can be applied using poems, nursery rhymes, or songs, and you’ll also find lots of great options on A-Z.

Tip #4: You Read to Me, I Read to You books

My co-teacher introduced me to this series of books, and I absolutely love them—and so do all our students. There are several versions of the books—fairy tales, fables, tall tales, scary stories—and they are specifically written to be read by partners.

The key to these books is making the two voices work together as they go back and forth reading aloud. Students can practice and present to each other or a younger class, or they can just have fun reading together. In all scenarios, they are working on their fluency.

Fluency is hard work

Despite all his nerves, my husband did an excellent job reading aloud to our son’s class. He also left exhausted after 10 minutes and has a new understanding for the work I do each day. (Ten minutes, my teacher friends. He was only there for 10 minutes.)

Learning to read is hard work. Just imagine how much more tired our students get while practicing their fluency. I would like to think (and have some pretty credible qualitative data from the mouths of my students) that these strategies I’ve suggested make that work accessible, engaging, and just plain fun.

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