The Phases of Reading Fluency

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A Guide for Educators and Parents

As educators and parents, we share the common goal of helping young learners become proficient readers. Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, smoothly, and with understanding. It is a crucial milestone in a child’s reading journey. You might be surprised at the many layers and foundational skills that are required of readers to be proficient in reading fluency. In this guide, we will explore four simple phases to building word reading fluency. And I describe them as phases since students will not jump from one skill to another in a lock-step manner. Instead, students will build upon previous skills as they continue to hone their skills in higher-level semantic and text-level skills. Join me as we delve into the key phases that lead to reading fluency and discover instructional activities to support each phase.

Phases of Reading Fluency

Phase 1: Developing Phonemic Awareness Proficiency

Did you know that reading actually starts without any letters at all? Before diving into reading, students must first gain proficiency with phonemic awareness – the ability to identify and manipulate individual speech sounds. This foundation is pivotal for connecting speech sounds to letters, known as phonics. Through engaging activities like sound isolation games and phoneme manipulation exercises, educators can guide students in recognizing the sounds that make up words. Encourage them to discern initial, medial, and final sounds, providing a strong basis for phonics instruction.

Instructional Activity:

Sound Sorts– Provide students with sets of picture cards representing words with similar phonemes. Have them categorize the cards based on shared sounds. Or, sort picture cards by the number of phonemes in each word. These types of activities sharpen phonemic awareness and lay the groundwork for phonics.

Phase 2: Building Word Recognition

Students will work towards proficiency in phonemic awareness concurrently with their phonics learning. Once they can isolate, blend, and manipulate sounds in our language, their brain is better prepared to attach those sounds to the letters on the page (phonics).

We must provide ample opportunities for students to read and spell words with the orthographic patterns you have already taught them. This will help train their brains to map the speech sounds to familiar letter strings in written words. To enhance word recognition skills, it is essential to emphasize letter-sound correspondence over relying on context clues or pictures for reading. Attending to all the letter-sound correspondences helps students develop accurate decoding strategies.

Instructional Activities:

  1. Fluency Grids: Utilize fluency grids with real and nonsense words. Students read each word aloud in a row, focusing solely on their phonic decoding skills. They continue on to the next row reading the same words in a different order. This activity boosts rapid word recognition and encourages the brain to attend to all the letters in a word.

2. Look-Alike Word Lists and Sentences: Present word pairs that are visually similar but differ by only one grapheme (e.g., cat vs. cot). Have students read and distinguish these words at the single word level and within sentences. This practice not only cultivates precision in decoding, but solidifies the student’s orthographic representation and understanding of the word’s meaning(s).

Phase 3: Reading Decodable, Connected Text

Once students can decode at the word level, it is time to build their fluency with connected text. Gradually introduce decodable texts with controlled vocabulary and phonetically regular words. Utilizing decodable texts for early readers reinforces their muscle memory of decoding and not to rely on picture clues, context, or guessing. Support students as they apply their phonics skills to read sentences and stories independently. As students orthographically map more words in their long-term memory for automatic recognition, they will be able to read less controlled texts.

Instructional Activity:

Guided Reading– Select decodable texts that align with students’ phonics knowledge. These decodable texts can be fiction or nonfiction (like the image below). Employ guided reading sessions, wherein educators provide support and prompt error feedback as students read aloud. Use choral reading and shared reading to model your own prosody and fluency. Utilize repeated readings of the same text to reinforce the decoding, prosody, and comprehension. Encouraging this expressive reading allows students to apply their newfound fluency to meaningful text.

Nonfiction decodable passage for short vowels with reading comprehension questions
Nonfiction Short Vowel Story

Phase 4: Fostering Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary

Fluency isn’t limited to accurate word reading – it extends to comprehension and vocabulary. When students understand the passage, their expression and prosody also improve. Engage students in discussions about the text’s meaning, encouraging them to make connections and predictions. Expand their vocabulary through exposure to varied words in context. Consider weaving in discussions about the multiple meanings of words (such as the multiple meanings of “bat” in the nonfiction story above). As students make connections and make sense of the words they are reading, they will build their orthographic lexicon of words they are able to read automatically.

Instructional Activity:

Story Retelling- After reading a decodable text, have students retell the story in their own words. This activity gauges their comprehension and encourages critical thinking. Discuss unfamiliar words encountered during the reading, exploring their meanings and usage.

As you embark on this journey with your students, keep in mind that every small step contributes to their overall fluency. The phases of reading fluency are part of a journey that require time, practice, and strategic instruction. By fostering these phases of reading fluency skills and implementing engaging activities, educators and parents can guide young readers toward proficiency. Remember, fluency is not an overnight achievement but a gradual process that we nurture with patience and expertise.

Happy reading!

Reading Fluency with reading fluency grids and decodable sentences
Fluency Grids and Reading Fluency with Decodable Sentences
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