What Is Oral Reading Fluency?

Whether you’re teaching first-grade emergent readers or helping middle school students accelerate towards grade-level proficiency, developing students’ fluency in reading is essential. Fluency is often an overlooked literacy skill, yet it is key to determining whether a student is a skilled reader.

What Is Fluency?

Fluency is defined as the ability for students to read text accurately, at an appropriate rate, and with expression. Considered one of the “big 5” reading pillars by the National Reading Panel, alongside phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension, fluency plays an important role as the bridge between word recognition and comprehension so that students can read with meaning.

Research demonstrates that with adequate instruction and practice, students recognize words more automatically and comprehend language more strategically. Readers are skilled when they can fluently process both word recognition and comprehension effortlessly. Fluency development is usually a focus during the early- to mid-elementary school years, though studies have shown its effectiveness for older striving readers, too.

Why Is Reading Fluency Important?

Researchers have found that there is a positive correlation between students’ fluency and overall reading ability. In other words, when students read more fluently, they comprehend better. Students who are not yet fluent are expending their cognitive resources in deciphering the text at the word level, and therefore, they are not understanding the greater meaning. Becoming automatic at word-level reading allows students to focus on meaning and background knowledge instead.

Fluency and automaticity may at times be used interchangeably, but there are differences. Automaticity refers to the speed at which students can process a word: recognize the letters of the word, associate sounds with the letters, blend the sounds together, say the word, and ultimately retrieve the word’s meaning. Skilled readers can automatically process the word in a second or less. Automaticity factors prominently in math research as well. Without being automatic at basic computational skills, students cannot tackle higher-order mathematical concepts efficiently. However, reading fluency goes beyond word automaticity and encompasses the intonation, phrasing, and expression students use when reading text.

It is important to emphasize that fluency is not entirely about being a fast reader. In fact, speed readers may lack comprehension; in addition, there may be times when reading slowly, particularly in an unfamiliar genre or technical manual, is essential for comprehension. Therefore, reading fluently is, in fact, a combination of three elements: accuracy, reading rate, and expression. The table below outlines some of the characteristics that differentiate fluent from non-fluent readers.

Fluent Readers

Non-Fluent Readers

Fluent Readers
  • Read quickly
  • Read words automatically
  • Pause at punctuation marks
  • Sound like they are speaking
  • Read with appropriate intonations
Non-Fluent Readers
  • Read slowly and laboriously
  • Read word by word
  • Do not pause at punctuation marks and read through sentences
  • Sound choppy
  • Read in a monotone voice

Fluency Teaching Strategies

It’s one thing to know what fluency is, but how does one teach it? Research supports several evidence-based strategies that educators can use to incorporate fluency instruction and practice into their reading lessons:

  • Model fluent oral reading: The teacher reads the text aloud with emphasis on expression and intentional pausing.
  • Guided oral reading: Students read a text aloud with feedback and explicit guidance from the teacher.
  • Repeated oral reading: Students read and reread a text multiple (for example, three) times. This is most effective with a model. Guided and repeated oral reading have been shown to demonstrate improved oral reading fluency in both younger learners and older striving readers.
  • Repeated reading practice for performance: Students practice reading the text in front of others as a performance (e.g., Reader’s Theater).
  • Prosody development through teaching phrase boundaries: Students learn the appropriate placement of pauses around phrase boundaries, which contributes to understanding meaning.

When providing fluency instruction and practice, there are three categories of text: independent level (95% or higher word accuracy), instructional level (90% to 94% word accuracy), and frustration level (less than 90% word accuracy). For fluency practice, educators typically use texts at students’ independent or instructional levels. Challenging grade-level text is best during whole group class time, where teachers can provide explicit instruction, background knowledge, and essential vocabulary to facilitate comprehension.

Additionally, students can listen to audiobooks independently at the frustration level for greater exposure to grade-level content. It is important for teachers to provide a variety of texts to students and not limit them to one level: some for independent fluency practice and others to build grade-level content knowledge.

No matter the fluency instruction, it is important to ensure that it is in fact helping students become better readers! To learn more about oral reading fluency assessment—including how to administer it and use it to inform instruction—read the next article, Optimizing Literacy Instruction with Oral Reading Fluency Assessment.

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Our AI-driven reading assistant Amira Learning is the first program to use students oral reading fluency assessment to automatically place them in powerful 1:1 reading tutoring.

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