What is Reading Fluency?

If you’re the parent of a child who is in the early grades at school, then you’ve probably heard his teacher talk about reading fluency. Now you have questions. Just what is reading fluency? Why is it important? How does his ability to read fluently affect my child at school?

These are important questions. Knowing the answers can help you assess how well you child is doing in school, will allow you to understand more fully what his teacher is telling you, and can even give you ways to help your child increase his reading fluency skills. So, let’s get you some answers!

What is reading fluency?

While we often think of reading as a single skill our children must master, the process is actually a confluence of several different skills, each which must be mastered before reading as a whole becomes easy and effortless. Some of these separate skills include phonemic awareness, comprehension, decoding, phonics and vocabulary. And then there’s fluency.

You’ve probably heard the term “fluently” applied to someone who speaks a foreign language: “She speaks French fluently!” You know that means she speaks French very well and in a way that can be easily understood. When used to describe reading, the term has a very similar meaning. It means you can read well and in a way that is easily understood.

Reading fluency is the ability to quickly and accurately read a passage of text with expression. This means your child can read a sentence smoothly while recognizing most of the words. While reading fluently, he will understand the sentence clearly enough to add expression to the words, making them more meaningful. This means he pauses when necessary, for instance, or lets his voice lilt up at the end of a question, cuing the listener to the fact that it is a question that he’s reading.

When a child who is fluent in reading reads silently to himself, he can recognize words by sight and quickly group them into meaningful phrases, phrases that convey the message the words were intended to convey. When reading aloud, the fluent reader doesn’t stop and start, or have to sound out many words. He reads smoothly and with the natural cadence and expression that he normally uses when talking. Someone listening to him read will understand clearly what the author of the words meant by them.

What are the three components of reading fluency?

While reading is broken down into component skills, each skill has components of its own. The same is true for reading fluency. Below are its three components. While you may not have heard these terms before, the ideas behind them are fairly simple.

  1. Prosody – This means your child is reading with the appropriate intonation and phrasing, giving listeners the clues they need for understanding. This is the “expression” mentioned before.
  2. Accuracy – Accuracy simply means that your child is reading each word correctly. He doesn’t say “these” when the word is really “this,” for example. Reading each word accurately makes fluency possible.
  3. Automaticity – This refers to the ability to recognize words immediately, without having to “sound them out” or ask for help. When your child can read with automaticity, he can read through a complete sentence smoothly and without choppy-sounding stops and starts.

Why is this important?

Fluency is important because it is the bridge between sounding out individual words and truly understanding them. It’s the gateway to comprehension, or understanding. Why? Because when your child can read fluently, he no longer has to focus on decoding each and every word; he can now concentrate on what the words he’s reading really mean. If your child has to “sound out” each word, or puzzle over its definition, by the time he gets to the end of a sentence, he may not even remember what he’s read. Being able to smoothly and quickly read a sentence from beginning to end allows him to “hear” all the words and understand what the sentence means and how it adds to the story or passage he’s reading.

Fluency also adds to understanding because the fluent reader reads with expression. There’s that word again! Why is it so important? For a number of reasons. Inflection tells us when a question is being asked, for instance. The cadence or rhythm of the words we read tell us when one sentence stops and another begins. It tells us whether the author is speaking directly to us or whether the words are being said by a character in the story. Pauses from those crucial commas can even give a sentence more than one completely different meanings.

How can I help my child develop reading fluency?

As with all aspects of reading mastery, fluency takes practice. Here are a few fun activities you can try with your child.

  • Make it a race – Let your child race against the timer while he reads a short passage. Choose a passage at, or even a little below, his reading level – ideally something that he’s read before. Success is important while your child is improving his reading fluency. Remember, too, to make it a game. Offer a small prize if he beats the timer, then challenge him to do the same passage a little faster.
  • Play a part – Reading parts in a simple play is a great way to practice reading with expression. After all, your child will have the chance to “become” the character he’s playing. Let him choose the character he wants to be, and read the other parts yourself. The interplay between the characters will naturally bring out expressive reading.
  • Read along with an audiobook – Children love audiobooks. But, rather than just listening to a favorite recording, have your child read along with it. This allows him to mimic the speed, pacing and expression offered by the recording. Choose books he’s already heard more than once, however. Trying to keep pace with a story he’s never encountered would be frustrating.

Fluency takes time to master, but it’s well worth the work. Surround your child with interesting reading materials and encourage him with fun activities, then sit back and watch his mastery grow!