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Step 3: Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read words automatically (without needing to sound them out) so that the reading sounds fluent, like talking to someone.  Our brains can only hold between 5 and 10 things in our short term memory.  If we use up our short term memory by sounding out too many words we can not use it to remember what is going on in what we are reading and how what we just read fits in.

In other words, if the brain is busy working out words, it will not be understanding what the words are saying.  For example if the brain is busy with: “the ‘th’ will say /th/, the ing will say /ing/, the middle part is ‘ink’ which should say /ink/, so it would be /th/, /ink/, /ing/…oh! ‘thinking!’  it has no room left over to understand what ‘thinking’ has to do with what is being read.

Fluency is all about AUTOMATICITY.  In order to read with fluency, and thus be able to understand what we are reading, we need to be automatic with the pieces that make up reading.

We need knowledge and automaticity in

  • Naming colors, shapes, etc.
  • Naming words that start with a particular sound and rhyming words
  • Blending and segmenting
  • Letter sounds
  • Common words
  • Sight words (Words common to the learner like her or his name)
  • Common chunks (-ing, -ight, -ick)
  • Phrases using common words

300 words account for 65% of the words in text. Rapid recognition of these words in the primary grades forms the foundation of fluent reading .
(Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson, and Paris, 1998)

Almost 500 words can be derived from the 37 most common word families in English. They are:

ack, ain, ake, ale, all, ame, an, ank, ap, ash, at, ate, aw, ay, eat, ell, est, ice, ick, ide, ight, ill, in, ine, ing, ink, ip, it, ock, oke, op, ore, ot, uck ,ug, ump, unk.
(Wylie and Durrell, 1970)

The only ‘proven’ way to increase fluency is by reading the same thing over and over.  Ways to do this include:
  1. Have students read material that they are over 95% automatic with, then read it again and again to other people, pets etc.  This is where the fastest learning is going on, because most of the words are automatic, and becoming more so, and the few words that are not have a chance to stay in short term memory long enough to get into long term memory since each word will not immediately booted out of short term memory by the next hard word.
  2. Have students read a poems, short stories or exciting parts of a story over and over until she or he can perform it by reading it out loud with lots of expression, like a kindergarten teacher reading to the class.  Videotape the result and send to a loved one far away.
  3. When reading more difficult material, ask student to tap his or her finger on each period, then re-read the sentence.  The first reading is to decode the words, the second is to understand it and make sure it makes sense.  (At the bottom of this page find a link to the full directions for this method).
  4. Close Reading.  After reading something the first time keep going back to the text to re-read and find evidence and notice new things.  Ask questions that require students to re-read parts to you in order to answer.  Discuss particular parts of the story to find ways the author uses techniques like imagery or personification.
Though re-reading is the only ‘proven’ way, there are always many ways to learn.  For example there are many common words that cheat.  In other words, if a student does not know the word already, she or he will not be able to sound it out.  For example the word ‘said’ can not be sounded out.  (The first and last sounds are common, but the “ai” being pronounced /ĕ/is unusual and should be pointed out.) I recommend that all students memorize the following lists of common words and word chunks.  ‘Schwa’ words are words where the vowel sound says/ŭ/ (the short u sound) instead of its normal sound.


Click on the following links for more strategies to improve fluency:

Flashing Technique 
specifically to help students move from sounding out words to reading words automatically.