Optimizing Literacy Instruction with Oral Reading Fluency Assessments

Oral reading fluency is the ability for students to read text accurately, at an appropriate rate, and with expression. The What Is Oral Reading Fluency? article outlines a framework for oral reading fluency, describes the characteristics of fluent and non-fluent readers, and provides evidence-based best practices for fluency instruction. But how does one know that fluency instruction is, in fact, helping students become better readers, and how do you use fluency measures to provide targeted instruction?

Administering Oral Reading Fluency Assessments

Assessing fluency should be embedded strategically and frequently to ensure students are receiving the instruction and practice they need. Educators can assess students’ fluency by using grade-level passages that have been controlled for level of difficulty and having students read aloud a new passage for one minute.

  • Accuracy: Notate which words students misread, skipped, or substituted with another word. Errors do not include self-corrected words, additional words that do not appear in the passage, or mispronunciation based on regional dialects or speech impairments.
  • Rate: Subtract the number of words students read incorrectly from the total words they read in one minute. This yields the total words correct per minute (WCPM) score.
  • Prosody: Listen to the students’ reading of connected text and observe whether students placed emphasis on the correct words, the tone rose and fell at appropriate points, and students paused at punctuation marks and phrase boundaries.

To determine whether students’ WCPM score is on target, educators can use the Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) norms chart that provides grade-level expectations throughout the year. A sample is shown below. This provides insight into whether the student is below, at, or above the 50th percentile, and therefore, reading at grade-level fluency benchmarks.

Students should be screened at the beginning of the school year. If a student’s fluency score is more than 10 words below the 50th percentile, educators should follow up with an additional phonics screener that assesses phonemic awareness and phonics skills to determine whether additional instruction on foundational literacy skills is needed. Additionally, a comprehension measure can provide a more comprehensive student profile.

Educators should monitor students’ progress in fluency development a minimum of three times per year. For younger students, educators can conduct ORF assessments more frequently, either once or twice per month. ORF assessments should also be conducted more frequently for striving readers needing intervention—once every one to four weeks—to determine whether instruction needs to be adjusted.

Educators can set reasonable goals for students using research-based expected growth goals, taking into consideration students’ individual performance and grade level. First graders, for example, may set a goal of increasing their WCPM by two to three words in a given week. If students make many errors while reading, a goal can also be to decrease the number of errors, and therefore, increasing their accuracy.

Using ORF Assessment Data to Inform Instruction

Students’ accuracy and fluency scores are used to guide each student’s targeted instructional recommendations. For example:

Low Accuracy, Low Fluency

Students who are not reading at grade-level fluency standards and are instead reading word-by-word with low accuracy may need support with decoding and foundational literacy skills. These students will benefit from systematic, explicit instruction in phonics and word-level reading accuracy and automaticity. Explicit instruction should include words that students can decode and high-frequency words that students need to recognize by sight. In addition, teachers should provide guided oral reading opportunities and repeated readings of text at students’ independent level while working towards instructional level texts with teacher feedback. Rather than independent silent reading, students may benefit from audio-assisted reading of instructional level or grade-level texts.

High Accuracy, Low Fluency

Students who exhibit high accuracy on word reading but lower fluency scores will benefit from opportunities for ample fluency practice. Educators can provide guided oral reading instruction coupled with students repeatedly reading the same texts. Multiple reads allow students to focus their attention away from word-level reading to grasp the larger meaning of the text. Educators can also focus on students’ phrasing, pausing at punctuation, and reading with expression.

High Accuracy, High Fluency

Students with high accuracy on word reading and high fluency scores will benefit from instruction that helps develop students’ prosody when reading. Additionally, educators can focus on grade-level comprehension instruction and encourage students to read independently from a wide range of genres.

The gold star denotes the instructional focus for the different types of readers.

Low Accuracy,
Low Fluency

High Accuracy,
Low Fluency

High Accuracy,
High Fluency

Phonics Instruction

Low Accuracy,Low Fluency

Targeted explicit systematic phonics instruction

High Accuracy,Low Fluency

Grade-level phonics instruction

High Accuracy,High Fluency

Grade-level phonics instruction (if applicable)

Fluency Instruction

Low Accuracy,Low Fluency

Explicit fluency instruction

  • Guided oral reading
  • Repeated reading of decodable or controlled text
  • Audio-assisted text
High Accuracy,Low Fluency

Fluency practice

  • Guided oral reading
  • Repeated reading of decodable or controlled text
  • Audio-assisted text
High Accuracy,High Fluency

Focus on prosody

  • Develop prosody (reading with proper phrasing, expression, and intonation)
  • Independent silent reading

Comprehension Instruction

Low Accuracy,Low Fluency

Explicit instruction on comprehension using text at the instructional level or challenging texts with teacher support

High Accuracy,Low Fluency

Grade-level comprehension instruction with teacher support

High Accuracy,High Fluency

Grade-level comprehension instruction

What’s Next? Technological Advances in ORF Assessments

Technological advances in educational software are making the administration of oral reading fluency assessments more efficient. What traditionally took multiple class periods and scheduled one-on-one administrations can now happen through AI-driven software that listens to students’ passage reading and computes a WCPM score for the whole class. This allows teachers to test the fluency score of their whole classroom quickly, thus freeing up more time to focus on planning instruction.

Additionally, as online learning becomes more sophisticated, digital ORF assessments can be automatically connected to core, supplemental, and intervention programs. Educators get not only essential data on students’ fluency development and reading progress but also guidance on instruction needed in fluency and foundational literacy skills. Oral reading assessments may be short, but they are becoming increasingly impactful tools that can enhance literacy instruction to transform reluctant students into empowered and successful learners.

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