The science of building fluent readers

Do you wonder how to help students build their reading fluency? We recently spoke with Jan Hasbrouck, a researcher, author, leading expert in reading fluency, and co-developer, with Gerald Tindal, of the oral reading fluency norms. Our goal was to better understand important nuances and distinctions when thinking about reading fluency and building fluent readers.

“Fluency is not fast reading. Fluency is fluent reading,” Jan told us. “The biggest misconception around fluency is that we want students to read faster and faster.” But speed for speed’s sake isn’t a worthwhile goal. “We should think about getting students to the point where their reading mirrors spoken language,” Jan explained. “That’s what our brains understand. And that facilitates comprehension.”

To hear more about building fluent readers from Jan, watch our video below.

What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency is comprised of three parts: accuracy, rate, and expression (sometimes referred to as prosody). Although all three components can be measured, most oral reading fluency assessments focus on the predictive skill of automaticity. Automaticity, in turn, is made up of the most predictive two components correlated with later reading success: reading accuracy (the percentage of words read correctly out of the amount of total words attempted) and reading rate (the number of words correct per minute).

An oral reading fluency assessment, such as the oral reading fluency measure in MAP® Reading Fluency™, is the quickest way to screen students to determine if immediate intervention is needed. Without early intervention in place, research suggests student phonics and fluency gaps will continue to widen and students will continue to fall behind grade-level expectations.

How do I use oral reading fluency data?

If a student is low in accuracy while reading an on-grade-level passage, this signals that the student needs acquisition-level instruction and has difficulty with decoding words. A brief screening with an oral reading fluency measure can help you determine if any students are below grade level in accuracy when reading a grade-level text. After the screening, you can assess phonics patterns not yet known and group students accordingly to effectively intervene and teach specific phonics skills.

Here is a list of common actions teachers may need to take, followed by tips on how to go about them:

  1. Identify students with word recognition needs. Use a universal screener that delineates between word recognition and language comprehension difficulties, such as MAP Reading Fluency.
  2. Assess student knowledge of phonics patterns. Use a phonics and/or spelling diagnostic survey to assess phonics skills that students have and have not yet mastered.
  3. Group students for intervention based on data. Form groups of 3–5 students who have similar phonics needs.
  4. Begin intervention at the first commonly missing phonics skill. Align student needs with the phonics scope and sequence of your intervention program.
  5. Monitor progress. If students are not making expected progress, adjust the intensity of the intervention. Ensure groups are flexible and aligned to student needs.

If a student is low in reading rate but not in reading accuracy, this signals the student needs fluency-level instruction and requires more guided practice with reading connected text. One way to provide this is to do a first read and to scaffold learning anytime the student misreads a word. The feedback provided should be the least amount of prompting needed for optimal student learning. For example, if a student misreads “wage” as “wag” and does not self-correct, the teacher may use a series of prompts, as shown here:

A chart shows how a teacher can help a student pronounce the word “wage.” The teacher can review rules for long and short vowel sounds in English and model pronouncing the word “wage.”If at any point the student reads the word correctly, you do not need to provide the more extensive level of support and feedback. This way, the student is prompted to do the hard work of decoding and can gain the experience needed to increase their chances of applying this pattern to other words. If the student is given the word as a whole, they may be less likely to think about the unfamiliar pattern within the word and assimilate it into their understanding of how words work. You may then have the student start at the beginning of the sentence and read the word again in the context of the story.

If the word is a Tier 2 vocabulary word or a concept the student may not be familiar with, you may follow up with a student-friendly definition or example, such as “A wage is money you earn for doing work. If you work at a job, you are paid a (wage).” This may be done while keeping in mind the time constraints, the amount of context explaining the word within the text being read, and the importance of understanding the target word to the passage.

What should I do now?

In your journey of learning, growing, and shifting practices to align with research, remember to give yourself grace. Choose one thing to focus on at a time and partner with trusted colleagues to collaborate and seek feedback. Leveraging oral reading fluency data can help to tailor interventions to accelerate student progress. Rather than asking kids to laboriously sound out words or expend precious effort to read at an appropriate rate, prioritize improving their phonics and fluency skills, as this allows them to focus on, understand, and ultimately enjoy what they read.

Here’s a quick summary of what you can do when building fluent readers, whether you’re a teacher or a school leader.

Recommendations for teachers:

  • Use oral reading fluency screening data to identify students in need of word recognition intervention. If students score low in accuracy (regardless of their score on rate), place students in a phonics-focused intervention group aligned with a phonics scope and sequence. If students score low in rate (and on or above level in accuracy), place students in a fluency-focused intervention group.
  • Use least-to-most prompting and feedback to help students acquire skills faster.
  • Monitor student progress and adjust intervention intensity as needed.

Recommendations for administrators:

  • Ensure teachers screen students with an oral reading fluency measure three times a year, starting by the winter of first grade.
  • Provide time for teachers to have high-quality, practical, and embedded professional learning in teaching word recognition and reading fluency aligned to the science of reading.
  • Encourage collaboration by scheduling data meetings for teachers to discuss students’ data, needs, and progress toward goals.


Reading differentiation made easy

MAP Reading Fluency now includes Coach, a virtual tutor designed to help students strengthen reading skills in as little as 30 minutes a week.

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