Reading Comprehension and Fluency

Though you may not be familiar with the technicalities of reading fluency, you probably know a fluent reader when you hear one. They have the ability to read smoothly, with intonation and expression, and at the same speed you would use when talking.  They are a joy to listen to, yet many adults and even more children have yet to become proficient in fluent reading. But that could change.

 Once relegated low on the list of reading skills to master, in recent years fluency has regained a spot in the academic limelight.  The Report of the National Reading Panel determined that fluency is one of five critical components necessary for successful reading.

Why is fluency important to reading comprehension?

A nonfluent reader puts a large amount of effort into decoding words.  By the time such a reader finishes a sentence, he or she may forget what the sentence was even about.  Comprehension is blocked because the process of decoding takes so much time and effort the short-term memory can’t grasp the fragmented input of information.  By contrast, a fluent reader reads in smooth and continuous phrases and the brain can retain and comprehend what is read.

Just as a car needs fuel to run, comprehension is largely fueled by fluency.  Allowing a budding young reader to ignore fluency does much more harm than good because it’s basically allowing them to practice bad reading.  One way teachers have tried to avoid this is by taking a simplistic approach to improving fluency.  And that is to simply “read, read, and read some more.” The basic premise behind this strategy is that the more students read, the more likely fluency will develop on its own. The problem with this is that there are struggling readers that for a variety of reasons haven’t progressed beyond decoding skills.  These readers need guidance to move forward with fluency. 

Strategies for developing fluency

Recent research studies have identified strategies that are most likely to improve reading fluency.  One such strategy is modeled reading.  Here teachers or parents “model” proper reading by reading aloud to their students.  This way they can hear what “good reading” sounds like in terms of pacing connected text and proper expression. Comprehension increases because the students can focus on content before they read the passage on their own.

Independent reading can lead to substantial gains in reading achievement.  Not only is sustained silent reading an important part of reading instruction in school, but also the amount of outside reading has a big impact on reading success. The idea is that in order to become fluent readers, students have to read a lot.  Teachers and parents have the job of making sure that students actually want to read and experience the joys of the written word.

In conclusion, fluency is once again receiving the needed attention it deserves.  While fluency alone will not guarantee strong reading comprehension skills, it is absolutely a necessary component.  Not only is fluency important to oral reading, but successful silent reading requires fluent reading as well.  Regardless of the method, without adequate levels of fluency the tedious process of decoding words draws attention away from understanding.  The clear relationship between the amount students read, reading fluency, and reading comprehension should be all the encouragement we need as teachers and parents to help students see reading as an exciting avenue for exploring their world.