Reading Fluency and Literacy in School Enhancing Comprehension at K-12 and Beyond

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Kathryn Starke Founder, Creative Minds Publications Read bio

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Shannon Lee Read bio

In the early 1900s, reading was an event — reading aloud was one of the most common forms of entertainment for family and friends. By the 1930s, silent reading had become the norm. And by the 1980s, the development of reading fluency had all but vanished from school curricula, prompting reading fluency to be considered a neglected goal in the instruction of reading.

Today, reading fluency, literacy and comprehension rates are alarmingly low, as evidenced by the fact that a whopping 2 out of every 3 children fail to achieve proficiency in reading. And studies have shown that a lack of reading proficiency leads to problems down the line. For instance, those who have trouble reading by the end of fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. That leads to even more negative consequences, such as a higher risk of jail time or future financial problems.

The good news is that reading fluency can be improved or enhanced at any age, but it’s an especially important endeavor in K-12 environments. Let’s take a look at what reading fluency and comprehension mean, what parents and teachers can do to help students become better readers and what resources may help further the cause.

Reading Fluency Explained

To understand why reading fluency is so important, we must first understand exactly what it is. The most basic definition is the ability to read text aloud, accurately and quickly. However, the more accurate definition also includes good prosody, which refers to the melody or flow of our speech as well as the expression we use when reading. The ability to read accurately and quickly, as well as to do it with good flow and expression, leads to reading comprehension.

“Decoding” refers to the ability to identify words quickly, with very little effort. In fact, proper decoding means reading becomes automatic — students don’t think through each word or need to sound it out. However, some students can develop the skills to pronounce words properly but read very slowly, which often leads to a few outcomes: a student might read less than his or her peers and as a result have less time to remember or comprehend the material; the student might struggle to identify individual words, unlike peers, who do so with ease; and the student might be unable to commit as much of the text to memory and thus be unable to integrate what he or she has read into other parts of the assignment.

The sooner a student begins to read on a regular basis, the sooner that student will develop the fluency needed to move into better comprehension and, ultimately, a smooth and enjoyable reading experience. However, studies have shown that students in grades K-12 — when reading fluency is most vital to support future educational endeavors — are often lacking in this regard. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 35 percent of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-grade students were at or above “proficient” in reading achievement in 2017, which is only slightly higher than the 2015 numbers.

“People often think that fluency means reading really fast without errors, which is certainly not the case,” says literacy specialist Kathryn Starke. “Fluency is the ability the read smoothly (not word by word) within a reasonable reading rate based on age and reading level. Fluency also takes into account expression by the reader when reading aloud. Fluency is certainly evident when there is not a major issue in decoding skills.”

This poses a problem as students move into high school and more complex reading material. Once they reach college, where independent reading is a core component of education, many students struggle in a way they didn’t in the K-12 grades. Though it’s never too late to boost reading fluency, it’s obvious that the sooner a student realizes that there’s a problem with fluency and comprehension, that student should take steps to improve both.

How to Improve Reading Fluency and Literacy

Fortunately, there are many ways students at any educational level can improve their reading fluency. Parental support is very important, as is the support of well-trained teachers and perhaps even specialists, all of whom understand the deep importance of reading skills for both the educational experience and day-to-day life. With a little time and coordination, reading fluency can become a priority in every setting, from home to school and beyond.

Here are a few options that can help improve fluency:

  • Repeat readings under timed conditions

    One approach involves the student reading a passage over and over, aloud, until he or she has mastered everything about it — pronunciation, expression and flow. Once the passage is mastered within the specified time period, the student moves on to a more complex passage.

  • Read favorite books

    Parents and teachers can keep copies of children’s favorite books handy and ask the child to read them over and over. Feedback is given each time the child reads, all with a positive, “you can do it!” slant. Since children understand the emotion and expression behind their favorite passages in the book, they might more easily grasp the other points of fluency.

  • Teach basic phonics

    The English language is a particularly difficult one to master. Words that appear to sound a certain way do not, depending on context. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to move back to basic phonics when teaching students — no matter the grade level — how to decipher words that don’t seem quite right to the eye but sound correct to the ear.

  • Test each child individually

    Teachers can take the time at the beginning of the year to assign passages to each student to read aloud. Those who seem to struggle with fluency can then be offered more opportunities to read one on one with the teacher in an effort to pinpoint the decoding issues and provide more guidance for reading fluency.

  • Read stories to your child

    Parents can read short stories to their kids and make a point of clear pronunciation and expression. No time to sit down and read? Books with accompanying audiobooks can be listened to on road trips or even at the kitchen table. Make sure the child isn’t just listening but also following along in the text.

  • Create a performance piece

    Poetry, speeches and scripts are a great way to engage a child in enjoyable reading. Help the child read through a particular passage or page of script, then help the child act it out. Even creating a full-on performance, with costumes and props, can be a great way to show a child how much fun reading can be.

  • Remind them of their progress

    Students want to see how well they are doing. Foster that curiosity by providing the student with a short passage comprised of a set number of words — 200, for instance. Ask the student to read it aloud. Record how long it took and plot that on a graph. Each time the child reads the passage, plot the progress on that graph. Eventually the child will see how much faster he or she is getting.

These are just a handful of ways parents and teachers can help students practice their reading. It’s vitally important to ensure the student is just as challenged at home as in the classroom and vice versa. Collaboration between parents and teachers can keep the reading going, and progress will soon be evident in both environments.

Reading Fluency and College Readiness

Though the foundations for reading fluency and comprehension are created during the elementary and middle school years, high school students must continue to improve their reading skills as they look toward college and beyond. All too often students at this age reach for the CliffsNotes versions of assigned books; however, this is also the time when reading in-depth for comprehension is more important than ever.

The average full-time student can expect an average of 250 pages of textbook and outside reading each week. That’s a significant amount of reading, and students who read slowly or must go over a passage several times for comprehension can find themselves in over their heads within a matter of weeks. Numerous studies of college students in developmental reading courses found that most of those students’ word-analysis skills were at fifth-grade level, and their average sight-word recognition skills were at eighth-grade level — not nearly high enough to be able to handle the intense college workload.

That’s why it’s important that students continue to improve their reading fluency, even when they’ve reached a point of believing their reading is “good enough.”

“It’s imperative that high school students get into the habit of rereading a section and/or passage, which will help improve their comprehension skills,” Starke says. “When we increase our vocabulary and the automaticity of words, we are improving our fluency.”

Does getting high school students to look away from technology long enough to read a book sound like an impossible task? “Since today’s high school students are often equipped with phones or tablets, and the average high school student does not want to be singled out in a classroom, encourage them to use their technology to learn the proper pronunciation or meaning of a word simply by typing it in their search bar,” Starke says.

And, of course, remind them that there are plenty of ebooks out there to be enjoyed right on their devices.

High school students sometimes tackle complex materials and try to make sense of concepts that could be entirely foreign to them. In that case, reading the passages over and over until they gain understanding might not be enough. They need to take it a step further and take a different view of the material. “To improve comprehension, high school students can be taught a variety of graphic organizers and think charts to document thinking, skills and strategies while reading, from cause-and-effect charts, to outlines, to mapping charts of a main idea and supporting details,” Starke suggests.

Those particular skills — outlining, mapping, charting and documenting ideas and details — will hold them in good stead in college, where they might be expected to approach the reading material in these ways as a matter of course.

What Educators and Schools Can Do

Teachers are on the front lines of reading comprehension and literacy instruction, so it stands to reason that their close attention to a child’s reading difficulties might provide the first notice of a problem. The good news is that teachers have the tools to immediately begin solving it. There are a variety of ways teachers and school administrators can develop and refine curricula to address reading fluency at any age.

“One of the easiest and most effective ways for K-12 teachers to address reading fluency is to implement silent reading time, which increases student reading stamina, vocabulary and fluency,” Starke says. “During this time, teachers can conduct one-on-one conferences as well to check the students’ silent comprehension, which is different from oral reading comprehension.”

Guided repeated oral reading (GROR) is an evidence-based strategy for improving reading fluency. The student is asked to read the same passage three to five times, receiving feedback each time from the instructor. By providing feedback on accuracy, rate and expression, students can incorporate those changes into each subsequent reading, eventually reaching a point of fluency with that particular passage. They can then move on to more difficult assignments.

Repeated readings of text can also contribute to better comprehension, one of the cornerstones of reading throughout life. “All schools, from elementary to college, can easily provide students with repeated readings as well as paired passages of the same theme or topic,” Starke says. “For example, if a reader has two different passages about the life cycle of a frog, the vocabulary will most likely be the same, which means if it’s the second article read, the students should be more familiar with content and vocabulary; therefore, the comprehension can also be improved.”

For those teachers who want to conduct full-class fluency lessons, one option is fluency-oriented reading instruction (FORI). This evidence-based practice begins with a teacher reading a particular passage aloud while students follow along in silent reading. Then, students read the passage aloud numerous times throughout the week, including echo, choral and partner reading. They also practice the passage for 15-30 minutes daily. At the end of a week, students engage in discussion, writing an essay or performing other activities that prove comprehension of the passage.

Various other options exist for teachers to improve reading fluency in the classroom and beyond. For example, using books on tape and having children follow along can help them understand expression. Tap into kids’ competitive natures by taking advantage of reading programs specifically designed to increase time spent with a book. Assign homework that requires students to truly focus on a particular passage, rather than respond by rote.

The most important point is to remember that fluency can be improved at any point. Teachers should be alert to any problems with fluency at any grade level and stay prepared with grade-appropriate options to improve all points of reading fluency.

Reading Fluency Apps and Tools

With so many students embracing a variety of technology aids in the classroom, it makes sense to provide them with the applications they need to succeed in reading fluency. The following apps are specifically designed to improve reading fluency skills. Keep in mind that this is just a sampling of the hundreds of options out there.

Alphabytes

It all starts with the alphabet. This app lets young children focus on learning the alphabet, both uppercase and lowercase letters, then putting those letters together to form simple words. Students can trace the letters or use them in a memory game, among other options. Available on iTunes.

Dr. Seuss’s ABC

Using the colorful book characters known the world over, this app offers three levels: Read to Me, Read It Myself and Auto Play. Kids can highlight text for narration, helping them understand what a word should sound like. Available on iTunes or Google Play.

Montessori Crosswords

This app allows young students to drag and drop letters into a grid to form words that correspond to pictures. With three difficulty levels, this app works for very young readers as well as more advanced readers, making it suitable for anyone from pre-K to fourth grade and beyond. Available on iTunes and Google Play.

Bluster!

Race against the weather to match as many words as possible. This game, suitable for kids in grades K-4, can be played solo, against another player or as a competitive team event. Available on iTunes.

Preposition Builder

Prepositions can easily change the meanings of sentences, and they often trip up readers young and old. This app requires the student to choose the proper preposition for a particular image or sentence; using the wrong one changes the image. Each level opens up a new chapter of a story. Completing all levels gets young readers to the end of the exciting tale. Available on iTunes.

Inspiration Maps

Designed for students in grades four and up, this mind-mapping tool is great for helping students organize ideas. Options include brainstorms, maps, organizers, diagrams, text outlines and more. The app works with a variety of different programs, such as iTunes, Dropbox and Photos. The free version doesn’t allow sharing options. Available on iTunes.

News-O-Matic

Kids can keep up-to-date on age-appropriate news while encountering new reading challenges each day. Five news stories each weekday range in difficulty level and length, providing an opportunity for students to test their fluency. Also includes “This Date in History,” educational games and more. Available on iTunes and Google Play.

Expert Q&A with a Reading Fluency Expert

Kathryn Starke Founder, Creative Minds Publications View Bio

How can a lack of reading fluency during the K-12 years affect students when they enter college?

Lack of reading fluency most affects students’ comprehension throughout the K-12 years and, of course, into college. Since professors usually don’t ask college students to read aloud, they wouldn’t know a student’s difficulty with fluency. However, during their silent reading assignments, students that struggle with decoding of words or reading word by word often have difficulty recalling and comprehending material, which is the ultimate goal of a reader. Silent, independent reading is one of the largest components of learning in a college atmosphere. Reading fluency issues can arise for college students as they are reading more challenging texts. Since fluency closely relates to how easily a word is read, if a college student is having difficulty decoding new, complex vocabulary, this affects fluency, which can lead to a lower comprehension of the text or passage.

What are some strategies for students that seem tempting but really don’t do much to increase reading fluency and comprehension?

Partner or buddy reading is a suggested idea to increase reading fluency but it’s not very effective because you’re listening to your peer reading 50 percent of the time rather than improving reading abilities yourself. To go along with this, pairing a higher-level reader with a lower-level reader doesn’t help either student become a better reader. Often the higher-level reader tells the other student all the words without allowing that lower-level reader to figure it out on his or her own. I also discourage parents and teachers from asking students to take notes to improve comprehension, which at the elementary and sometimes middle school levels essentially means students will just copy lines and sections within the text without regard to paraphrasing or thinking and summarizing in their own minds what the text says.

In what ways can teachers and parents collaborate to improve reading fluency for their students?

There are more than a few ways teachers and parents can collaborate to improve reading fluency. A great way is to incorporate poetry, reader’s theater/plays and repeated readings in school, which can also be done at home with parents. Timed readings and reading for a minute to see how many words are read are also fun goal-setting activities children can complete, simply competing against themselves to improve fluency.

Where can educators and parents go to learn more about improving reading fluency?

Educational blogs such as Reading Rockets and Scholastic provide great information and suggestions about improving reading fluency. The International Literacy Association also addresses this, as well as the other pillars of reading instruction.

Anything else you would like to add about reading fluency and comprehension?

It’s important to have daily practice in reading fluency and comprehension, which are two pillars of reading instruction.

Additional Resources

Looking for even more ways to improve reading fluency? These resources can help parents and teachers — as well as students themselves — find new ways to improve everything about students’ reading game.

A staple in the fight for better reading since 1984, Book It! is sponsored by Pizza Hut. Students can set goals and each receive a free personal pan pizza for every month they reach that goal. Keep in mind that goals are provided for every age, even those who are too young to read on their own just yet.

K-12 teachers can find a wealth of professional development options here, as well as free resources to help them bring literacy to the classroom.