Fluency Overview

Reading fluency represents an extremely complex process, as the reader has to integrate perceptual skills to automatically translate letters into coherent sound representations, lexical skills to unitize those sound components into recognizable wholes, and processing skills to identify meaningful connections within and between sentences, relate text information with prior knowledge, and make inferences to fill in the gaps in the text 


What is fluency?

The common understanding of fluency is that of a timed reading exercise. There are word per minute recommendations from various sources, but we encourage parents, teachers, and tutors to take a broader view of fluency. We prefer to think of fluency as the ability to read accurately and with expression at a rate that allows you to comprehend what you are reading.

Slow word processing or decoding results in decreased comprehension. This relationship is based on the premise that if students are expending all or most of their energy and attention in decoding text they will not have much left over for constructing meaning. Conversely, if reading is automatic they have more capacity to think about what they are reading and the author’s intentions.


Why does fluency matter?

Fluent reading creates a bridge between reading stamina and reading comprehension. A student who is reading slowly and with great effort will likely have trouble comprehending what they read because so much brain power is going into reading the words. These students will frequently reread a passage in order to figure out what it meant after they read it the first time.

Sometimes, students will read more slowly than expected because it is the rate at which they can understand what they are reading. On the flip-side, students who read very quickly with little expression may not be understanding what they read, but simply going through the motions of reading without processing what they are reading as they read it. They may read words flawlessly with no understanding of the meaning of the words.

Reading fluency has long been acknowledged as an essential skill that proficient readers need to have, and now is the time to focus attention on all areas to be developed—accuracy, rate, and prosody—for truly effective, comprehensive reading instruction for all children.


How can I tell if fluency is an issue?

Parents frequently learn of reading concerns from teachers when it comes time for timed reading. It is critical to understand that issues with fluency can stem from pre-requisite skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, remembering words, speech ability, grammar, and/or comprehension. At MODReading, we think of fluency as a culminating skill. If all those pre-requisite skills of learning to read are fairly automatic, then it is time to work on improving fluency. If a student is struggling with reading single words, it makes no sense to expect fluent reading.


How does fluency impact learning disabilities instruction?

It is a well established practice to time the reading of a passage, analyze errors, and re-read the same passage to increase fluency. If timing is stressful for a student, it is not critical to include timings but instead use some form of reflection on the first and second read-throughs.

If you notice that a student’s fluency does not improve between readings, it is likely time to pause repeated readings. You can double check all pre-requisite skills, use eye-tracking supports, and check rapid naming ability. Also, some students will have difficult comprehending material if they read faster than their ability to process language. For students who read really quickly, and don’t seem to understand what they read, slowing down may not be enough. They will likely need to work on developing reading comprehension skills.