By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
During my first years of counseling in elementary schools, I LOVED every opportunity to read to my students. The moment I picked up Interrupting Chicken to read aloud for the thousandth time, every pair of eyes in the classroom locked onto me with intense focus. A reverent hush descended upon even the wiggliest of kids sitting on our Magic School Bus rug.
I had a reputation among our Special Education team for my over-the-top expressive reading — crafting silly voices for each character and adding extra gasps, sighs, giggles, and other auditory cues to the story.
But behind all the theatrics, I was also demonstrating an essential literacy skill: fluency in reading.
There was one student in particular who was particularly enthralled by these performances (let’s call him Dave). Dave was so captivated that, in fact, this was the only reading activity in which he would ever engage without resistance.
During independent reading time with our team, he often claimed all books he read were “boring” compared with my oral reading. When working one-on-one with Dave, if I asked him to read a sentence out loud to me, he would plead for me to read it instead, calling it “too hard” and saying things like “You’re better at it.” Even during choral reading, it was common to see Dave mouthing the words silently as the class read together.
Despite the immense progress he had made with critical reading skills since the start of the year, Dave still struggled with reading fluency. He did not always understand what he was reading, even after rereading the text on different occasions. He also stumbled frequently during echo reading. As a second-grader lagging behind his peers, he felt embarrassed, and as a result, avoided reading entirely as much as possible.
Dave needed support with his fluency in reading if he was going to succeed in other academic areas of school as a soon-to-be-third grader and to build his own confidence with reading.
Fluency in reading: an essential component to literacy
Whenever I reflected on other students in my classrooms, I couldn’t help but think of how easily some of these kids learned to read and read well. But behind that seeming ease with reading, I knew these proficient readers had actually developed a complex series of interconnected skills that worked together to create fluidity and efficiency.
Dave’s challenge with fluency was a powerful learning moment for me as a new educator. His journey helped me better understand the ways in which fluency in reading practically impacts comprehension skills, reading accuracy, and many more facets of the reading process.
What is reading fluency?
According to the simple view of reading, fluency is just one of five skill areas necessary for children to become successful readers. Fluency in reading itself can further be broken down into four parts that fluent students coordinate effectively as they read.
As described by researchers at Northern Illinois University, reading fluency includes:
- How easily and correctly students can read words without needing to decode them (accuracy);
- How efficiently students can read (speed);
- How well children read such that it sounds like spoken language (expression);
- And how successfully students can understand what they read (comprehension.)
In all four areas of fluency, it is essential to recognize that no individual part is more or less important than the rest. Rather, it is about the student synchronizing each ability together to ultimately read text with ease. Because of this nuance, each student’s fluency development may look a little different from the kid sitting next to them in class.
Imagine working with two different students in your classroom, Jason and Maria. Jason reads at a much faster pace than Maria during “read along” exercises in class. However, as he reads, Jason struggles to express the words he speaks appropriately, and he doesn’t fully understand all of the words on the page when asked. He also wrestles with accurate reading, sometimes saying the wrong word in a sentence out loud.
Maria, on the other hand, has a slower reading speed than Jason. But when reading out loud, Maria uses proper expression that matches the emotion of the words and story at appropriate times. When asked to define a specific word, she usually gives the correct answer, and rarely does she misspeak while reading orally.
Which student is the more fluent reader?
Though Jason is the faster of the two readers, he is still working on his fluency in reading, as well as his vocabulary development, and Maria is further along in her fluency development. Reading fluency involves much more than simply increasing student reading rates or reading accuracy alone!
Why does reading fluency matter?
Before we can answer this question, let’s first recognize that reading fluency is closely interrelated to the science of reading. Though commonly misunderstood as a specific curriculum or instructional model, the science of reading actually refers to a vast body of scientific reading research insights and, most critically, literature about evidence-based approaches to teaching basic literacy skills that can be adapted into various classroom practices.
And this research highlights that fluency in reading is essential for student success — not only for their time in school but also for the rest of their lives.
Why? Fluency is tightly connected to broader reading comprehension, as well as a student’s comprehension strategies. In their 2001 analysis, Fuchs et al asserted “oral reading fluency as an indicator of overall reading competence.” And children must understand what they are reading to successfully navigate school and the world beyond the classroom.
Research has also demonstrated that early reading fluency abilities in elementary students can predict their academic performance in literacy-based subjects at later grades — even after controlling for related factors like reading comprehension (Bigozzi et al, 2017).
A lack of reading fluency skills has wide-reaching consequences for students’ overall reading and academic success. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, “children who are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade struggle in every class, year after year,” as so much of the curriculum taught across subject areas relies on students’ ability to read. For students facing other learning difficulties such as dyslexia, reading fluency and comprehension are even more heavily affected, even with at-home literacy activities in the picture (Torppa et al, 2022)
At the end of the day, fluency in reading is a critical skill for children to develop so that they may best thrive in their experience of reading itself, the joy that both storytelling and reading bring, and ultimately in their daily lives.
“Fluency is not an end in itself but a critical gateway to comprehension. Fluent reading frees resources to process meaning.”University of Oregon, Center on Teaching and Learning
How families impact reading fluency
Here’s the thing about fluency: educators are not alone in their quest to build these skills in students. And if you’re at all familiar with ParentPowered, you can probably guess what I’m going to say next!
Families play an important role in helping children develop fluency in reading. Research has found that, for struggling or non-fluent readers in particular, parent-led reading interventions and support at home increase a student’s reading fluency (Bilgi 2020). But parent involvement in at-home reading and literacy also benefits even the most confident readers in a classroom. Studies show that literacy activities at home also improve students’ reading comprehension and even attitudes towards reading more broadly (Çalışkana & Ulaşb, 2021).
Combined with a teacher’s effective reading instruction, parents driving at-home reading practices should be enough to guarantee fluent reading in individual students… or so one might think.
In reality, the magic happens when educators and families collaborate with each other to create ongoing opportunities for students to practice their fluency in reading.
In fact, research has repeatedly shown that family engagement in student literacy development — across multiple facets, not just fluency — positively influences a number of school outcomes, including improved reading scores. This impact is especially important for historically disadvantaged students, who tend to benefit most when schools establish strong family partnerships in service of learning. Family engagement also brings other boons to the school community, including but not limited to improved teacher satisfaction, a more positive school climate, and increased graduation rates.
To put it simply, it’s through a reciprocal partnership between home and school that children are best positioned to become fluent and confident readers.
3 ways families and schools together encourage reading fluency
ParentPowered believes that all children deserve the opportunity to thrive, in their reading journey and beyond. And we know that when educators combine best practices in reading fluency development with effective family engagement, students can do just that.
These strategies are just a few of our favorite ways to encourage strong family-school partnerships that boost literacy. Share them with your team and families!
Practice habits of regular, two-way communication about student growth
Communication is foundational to strong family-school partnerships. As often as schools share out to their parent community about upcoming school events or even connecting families to community resources, educators want to also encourage parents to share back with their school teams just as often.
Practicing two-way information exchanges also ensures educators and families are aligned on a child’s fluency development. It also offers an opportunity for educators to support families with building these skills at home such that it reinforces fluency at school.
Here are a few ways that educators can help families build communication with school and students to develop reading fluency:
- Keep shared reading going. Even after children can read on their own, add shared reading to homework routines. Give children lots of diverse material to read aloud to their parents and caregivers. Poetry is great for building fluency and can become a quick nightly routine.
- Encourage families to really have fun with reading. Using silly voices and acting out stories are great fluency builders. Watch this video clip from our ParentPowered Family Workshop series to help everyone hone their ability to really bring books to life.
- Use family-school gatherings as opportunities to deepen fluency. When you bring families together, consider doing it around activities that will model and build fluency in reading. You might host a poetry slam or a night of readers’ theater. Here’s a story from our ParentPowered Family Workshop series that families can act out together!
Want more strategies for effective communication between home and school? Download our educator communication guide.
Create everyday learning moments for fluency development in home routines
Most common reading fluency activities — such as partner reading or echo reading — work best when adults can give dedicated time and have unique tools like decodable books to work with students. Yet for some families, it can be difficult to find even 10 minutes to read with their child. It’s also possible that specific tools for teaching reading fluency, even free ones, are not accessible to parents for a variety of reasons like limited access to the internet or digital resources.
The good news is that all families can positively impact reading fluency development in their children through their existing everyday at-home routines — no extra time or tools necessary!
This is one of the core philosophies about family engagement at the heart of ParentPowered Core. Through this evidence-based curriculum, parents and caregivers receive age-differentiated insights, activities, and learning extensions in areas like literacy development. These resources are delivered via text message, reaching even the hardest-to-reach families. And that means that every family has the opportunity to help their children build or prepare for essential early reading skills, like oral language development and fluency in reading, even in the earliest years of a child’s life.
Here are just two of the many ParentPowered activities that guide families to cultivate reading fluency skills in younger children:
- FACT: When you tell stories, you open up a world of learning. Listening to stories builds your child’s imagination as well as essential comprehension skills!
- TIP: At bedtime, look at a favorite family photo with your child. Tell the photo’s story: “This picture is of the time that aunt Linda and I visited a farm…”
- GROWTH: Keep telling stories! Now make up a story about a stuffed animal that snuck out at night. Talk about where it went, what it did, and how it got home!
- FACT: When kids share details from stories, they build literacy skills. Sharing details helps kids understand stories. It makes them better storytellers, too!
- TIP: After a story, ask about the details: “Who was in this story? A mouse! Where was the mouse? What happened after the mouse ate the cookie? Then what?”
- GROWTH: Keep asking about details in stories! Now ask WHY and HOW questions about the story you read. Try “WHY did the bear hide? HOW did he feel?”
Design equitable, culturally responsive opportunities for all families to help with reading fluency
Equity in education is critical for supporting all students’ growth, and reading fluency development is no exception. It is therefore critical for educators to ensure they build strategies for equitable family engagement — ones that are responsive and respectful of both student and family diversity culturally, ethnically, linguistically, or otherwise.
A great place for educators to apply culturally responsive family engagement that boosts reading fluency is by providing literacy resources and activities in a family’s home language. This allows parents who may not speak English as their native language to still engage in their child’s reading development. For multilingual students, developing fluency in reading in English comes with additional benefits, as it also helps them with oral language development in English.
In addition to providing at-home reading fluency activities to families in their home languages, schools can also:
- Communicate the value of bilingualism. Make it clear to families just how much their child benefits from songs, stories, books, and conversation in the language they are most comfortable using. A parent’s voice makes every story special!
- Make sure the books on your class shelf represent the cultures, traditions and experiences of your families, so that all children have the opportunity to see themselves and their families in the books they are reading. Take a look at this tip sheet for more inspiration when creating environments that include children’s home language and culture.
- Employ cultural guides and home language models. These individuals play an essential role in building bilingual families’ trust and engagement by helping children and families feel accepted and welcome, especially as they adjust to new environments. Read this guide to learn more.
Culturally responsive family engagement makes all the difference when it comes to developing students’ reading fluency and other core skills. You can watch our recent webinar or download our tipsheet for more ways to design culturally responsive programming for families.
Family-school partnerships ensure all readers thrive
One of the most powerful lessons I learned from working with Dave was the critical role that families play in developing fluency in reading. After a series of parent-teacher conferences about Dave’s challenges, our school team and his family committed to practicing a series of reading activities that centered on his favorite stories from rug time. Dave could bring each of these activities with him between home and school, and that anyone in his family could do with him. Even Dave’s two older siblings helped out with oral reading, echo reading, and other reading drills at home.
With time, patience, and commitment, Dave’s reading rate slowly improved. We watched his rigid, expressionless reading evolve into animate, engaged performances. I still remember how my heart fluttered when Dave actually volunteered to read a sentence out loud to the rest of the class during popcorn reading time, instead of muttering “pass” with a scowl. And he read so fluidly and confidently — a far cry from the choppy reading he struggled through just months earlier.
Family involvement was essential in Dave’s journey to becoming a confident and fluent reader by the end of the year. His progress required both the family and school teams to work together to develop his fluent reading skills. And that’s the power and potential of family engagement!