Improving Comprehension by Improving Fluency

Brad Wilcox
Timothy G. Morrison

Abstract

The authors begin with the importance and the nature of the skills and strategies of fluency. They then examine some methods teachers can use to help students improve the rate and accuracy of their reading: repeated oral reading, neurological impress and echo reading.  Finally they consider some motivating ways of engaging students in reading processes through expressive performance: readers' theatre and puppet presentations.

The main purpose of reading is comprehension, and foundational to improving comprehension is fluent oral reading. Traditionally, reading speed (rate) has been the most defined and emphasized aspect of fluency. But though identifying words quickly is important, fluency involves more than reading fast. Students who read fluently must also read with accuracy, identifying words correctly, and with expression, reading text like it would be spoken (Pikulski & Chard, 2005). The Common Core emphasizes all three of these aspects of fluency as fundamental skills. In addition, the Core stresses that readers should read with purpose and understanding. Because skilled readers spend so little time identifying each word, they are able to efficiently comprehend what they read to meet their personal needs.

Teachers sometimes think of fluency instruction as a series of exercises or drills. But this is not the case. Oral reading fluency is closely related to speaking and listening. Listeners imitate what good speakers do, and good listeners and speakers become conscious of what fluent reading should sound like. As teachers read aloud to children and engage them in normal conversations and discussions, they are helping them use language to become informed and to inform others. That's teaching fluency.

Skills and Strategies

But more complex processes and relationships are involved. The human mind has a limited amount of attention it can use in one time period, so when some processes become automatic, attention is freed up to attend to other things. Although the words skills and strategies are often used interchangeably, some (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008) stress crucial differences between them.

Skills are processes that are completed automatically, requiring little attention and memory. Skills can be performed almost without thinking about them, like tying a shoe or riding a bike. These tasks may be difficult at first, but once mastered they do not interrupt the shoe owner or cyclist from talking or thinking about something else. Reading skills include identifying letters and words, knowing about spaces between words, and understanding punctuation. Even some simple inferences can become automatic skills (Fuchs, Fuchs, Hosp, & Jenkins, 2001). Reaching an automatic level of word identification is very important in reading development (Rasinski, 2011).

By contrast, strategies are deliberate processes that require attention and memory.When readers have turned some strategies into automatic skills, they have attention left over to read expressively and build comprehension. This means that they can use new strategies like identifying cause and effect relationships, understanding the sequence of events in a passage, and clarifying meanings of unfamiliar words to create better understanding of what they read. When students move from reliance on strategies to automatic use of skills as they read, they become skilled, fluent readers. This transition does not happen without extended practice in rate, accuracy, and expression.

Rate and Accuracy

"Repeated exposures to the same words leads to improvements in fluency" (Samuels, 2003, p. 174). Many ideas have been recommended for building fluency (Blevins, 2002; Kuhn & Schwanenflugel, 2008; Kuhn & Stahl, 2003). Three effective ways to help children practice increasing rate and accuracy are repeated oral reading (Samuels, 2003), neurological impress (Flood, Lapp, & Fisher, 2005), and echo reading (Tompkins, 2010). Research has shown that these practices help students turn reading strategies into skills (Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, & Meisinger, 2010).

Repeated oral reading. The most common approach to developing rate and accuracy is repeated oral reading. Originally developed to help children who struggle with reading, repeated reading is a simple three-step process for all students:

  1. The teacher selects appropriate instruction-level texts for students. These passages, which can be narrative or informational text, should be about 200-250 words.
  2. Students read the text to become familiar with it.
  3. Students re-read the same passage several times quickly.

Although the stress in repeated reading is on increasing rate of reading, other aspects of fluency can also be improved. By repeatedly reading the same text, students practice the same words over and over. Doing so can help them improve accuracy and automatize many high frequency words.

Repeated reading scaffolds struggling readers and English language learners. As students are given multiple opportunities to read the same text, they are able to increase reading rate and improve decoding skills (Breznitz, 2006; Paige, 2011).

To keep repeated reading from becoming routine, try allowing students to record themselves as they read, or display a song or poem that children can read together chorally. After students become familiar with the text, ask them to read or sing it again using a different accent (e.g., British, western U. S., southern U. S., etc.). You could ask students to assume a stereotype character—read like a grandma, like an angry person, or like someone reading to a baby.

Neurological impress. Neurological impress (Flood. Lapp, & Fisher, 2005) allows students to see the words as they are said and heard. While tracking the text with a finger or pointer, the teacher sets the pace and reads with expression so that the student can focus on saying the words quickly and accurately. The student chimes in when he can, but may follow silently at times, especially if the text is unfamiliar or is written above his instructional level. Neurological impress can help children develop rate; however, fluency varies with the difficulty level of text and with the reader's prior knowledge of the passage content.

Research has shown that this one-on-one assistance can make a dramatic difference in reading gains, whether it is done by a teacher, an adult volunteer, or a competent peer (Young, Rasinski, & Mohr, 2016). Neurological impress is especially appropriate for students who are identified through multiple tiered (i.e., RTI) processes as needing additional instruction.

Echo reading.In echo reading children see and hear the words as the teacher (or other adult) reads; then they have a chance to practice immediately afterward. Echo reading can be done in small groups or as a whole class. Model by reading a phrase from a text aloud, emphasizing proper rate, accuracy, and expression, then having the students read the phrase back, following the example. Provide praise and feedback while moving through the text together. Keep a brisk pace and read with expression to maintain continuity and interest. Fluent peer partners can work effectively with ELs for echo reading. Encourage an English learner who has become proficient with a particular book to be the lead reader for younger children to echo.

Expression

Reading rate and accuracy are two essential aspects of fluency, but reading with appropriate expression is also consequential in gaining comprehension. Reading with expression often involves reading for authentic audiences with genuine purposes. Students can lose motivation to practice skills and strategies if they feel they are rereading text for no purpose. A sense of audience can bring new life to expressive reading practice for many children. If they know they are going to be performing for a group of parents, another class, or even for each other, children see a reason to practice. Two effective strategies that give opportunities for performance are readers' theatre (Young & Rasinski, 2009) and puppet shows (Allington, 2001).

Readers' theatre. Readers' theatre is like a play, but instead of memorizing and acting out parts, performers read them (Worthy & Prater, 2002). Some scripts are commercially produced and include parts written at different levels of difficulty (Benchmark Education Company, 2003-2005). However, students can easily work out their own scripts if they are assigned sections of a picture book, short story, or poem to be read by individuals in a group. For example, Reader A may read the first two lines in a poem, followed by Reader B reading the next two lines, and so forth. Students can also write original scripts. Whatever the script source, students need plenty of time to practice. As they prepare to perform for an authentic audience, they feel motivated to read the text repeatedly and practice their oral reading (Tyler & Chard, 2000).

Practice time for ELs will be more effective if you explain words that may be confusing to them, especially puns (e.g., "He ate so much over the holidays that he decided to quit cold turkey"), idioms (e.g., "I'll have to look up the answer"), and jokes. Assign several students the same part and have them read it chorally. Translate a short script into a different language; have some students read a part in one language and a second group read the same part in the other. A good source for readers' theatre is the book You Read to Me, I'll Read to You (Hoberman, 2001). Group students into twos or threes, assigning each group one poem to practice.When the groups are ready, have each read their poem to the rest of the class. Similar books are Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices  (Fleischman, 2008), Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (Fleischman, 2004), and Partner Poems for Building Fluency: Grades 4-6 (Rasinski, Harrison, & Fawsett, 2009).

Puppet shows. Students can write a puppet show script with the teacher assigning parts of a story as in readers' theatre (Rasinski & Hoffman, 2003). They can create a simple puppet theatre by draping a blanket or sheet over a table and crouching behind it. Puppets do not need to be costly or elaborate. Paper drawings glued to sticks, decorated paper bags, or socks placed over hands can serve the purpose.

When students perform puppet shows, audience members may lose interest if they cannot hear the performers well from behind the blanket. A simple solution is to allow performers to record their voices as they read the script. As they listen to the recording, they can identify problem areas and practice to improve. When they are ready, they can make a final recording of the entire script. This process allows them to practice both their speaking and listening skills. On the day of the performance, the children can play the recorded script as they move the puppets. This prior recording not only results in a louder, clearer performance, but it can ensure less stress and more success for struggling readers and English learners.

Teachers already have much on their plates as they try to teach children to read. It is easy to leave some aspects to the side. Fluency is an element of reading that has sometimes been diminished in the past. But teachers need to remember that by teaching fluency they are doing one of the most important things they can to improve comprehension. And that focus must never be overlooked. 

Brad Wilcox is an associate teaching professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. Formerly an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education, he has taught reading, language arts, and children's literature. Early in his career Brad taught sixth grade in Provo, Utah.

Tim Morrison is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in reading, language arts, and children's literature. Tim has taught Grades 4, 5, and 6 in Pocatello, Idaho and Grade 3 in Springville, Utah.

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