Taking Another Look at Reading Fluency. Valentine’s Gift!

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it’s a little early, but getting close. So bringing you a special gift today, re-visiting how to help kids become capable, confident readers. Like anything else, everything starts somewhere, and I’m suggesting that more knowledge of foundational skills is critical to reading success, schoolhouse and home. Fluency is a big piece of the pie. I agree. As I discuss fluency, notice many things are applicable to everybody, such as boosting reading rate and enhancing speed.  We can all read better and faster.

I consider the sheer mechanics of reading a pleasure to teach, but we have to know what and how- to. Here are broad strokes.

Mechanical aspects of reading are not always mentioned or taught in teacher Credential Courses. I taught both K-12 and 7-12 credential courses and don’t recall anything much in the original Syllabus until I revised to include. And I wonder now how many staff development days are dedicated to, for example learning how visual/perceptual aspects may affect learning to read, tracking, following along a line of print, etc. For older students, or yourself, rate building tips may be helpful.

Regardless of reading program or methodology used, everything rests on basic skills including concepts of print, such as letter orientation, configuration clues. hand-eye coordination, eye focusing and teaming, etc.

Book handling is really important, too. First, how to hold a book, gently loving it. Later, we can really help all students by altering how a book is held, not lying flat on the desk, but tilted up, less losing place, assists fluency, too, as more words are viewed in each eye stop. I think we agree that phonemic awareness, sounds, letters, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, listening, speaking, writing all matter in our web of reading skill  acquisition. But for now, I am focusing on mechanics and fluency, as go-togethers.

Where do we start? Let’s start at the very beginning! Learning to read, at home. 

Parents are our partners. Parents and families are a child’s first and best teachers, so it only makes sense for a seamless bond between home and school, whatever that may look like. Every situation is unique.

I always encourage family reading time, as well as bedtime reading; reading together is the perfect way to enhance fluency.

Reading out loud builds fluency. Make it a daily habit, part of family life routines.

Just say no to flat, expressionless, boring reading. Say yes to smooth, correctly phrased, lilting lyrical reading! Repeating, reading out loud builds fluency. When kiddos just do silent reading, I get it and that’s important, but reading out loud is in my opinion, best. Better yet, record kids reading as well, also  following read-alouds and singing karaoke, as age appropriate. Seeing and hearing words together offers a powerful model for building fluency.

But where DO you start as a parent or caregiver? What’s optimum, given opportunity.

Ideally, read to your tummy. Lol. Just making a point to start early. Next comes lap reading, then keep reading with your child long after that. This is the first step toward building fluency. By modeling your love of reading, children hear the lilt in your voice, see your expression and experience the joy of language. Littles notice and soon learn squiggly lines make words, and follow eye movement, too. They begin to make more sense of the world through beauty of picture books and every day reading (environmental, functional, dramatic play print).

A print and language rich environment is a solid help in building fluency. Words have meaning, spoken and written. Exposing kids at home to a wide variety of spoken, written and literary experiences generally helps make a lifelong reader. We are aware many children don’t have homes at all.

Following along with online stories is also helpful to see pictures and hear the words at the same time. Many classic children’s stories on the internet are really enjoyable. Using audio books during car trips can be inspiring for your kiddos. Nothing beats hearing great readers sharing special stories.

What exactly is fluency and how do we encourage it?

Its very definition keeps changing. For example, researchers at one time thought fluency meant a child had no word identification problems. Others stated fluency meant bridging word recognition and comprehension.

Since the definition of fluency continually evolves, what do you think it means? What is your personal, and or professional response to the question?

In a mechanical aspect, fluency means automaticity, immediately knowing words and getting meaning from print. First, a budding reader is automatic, then becomes fluent. Developing readers enhance their fluency through lots of practice and repeated readings, reading the same paragraph or page several times to pick up the pace. this really builds confidence.

Fluency also means reading orally with appropriate speed, accuracy and feeling. We encourage kids to read in phrases, smoothly, with a lot of expression.

A little more to think about before we move on.

  • Silent reading must be fluent, as well! Kiddos benefit from silent and oral reading.
  • Fluency changes with familiarity of text. New text slows kids down.
  • Fluency affects comprehension. More fluent readers know what they read.
  • Reading word by word and regressing (back skipping) loses meaning.

Fluency “testing” is very stressful for many children. Just this comment.

Here are ideas for your teaching toolkit for youngest, emergent readers:
1. Read together, out loud, school and home.
2. Let your child self -select books, at least part of the time.
3. I encourage you to teach classics and mix it up, various genres and interests.
4. Focus on books featuring rhyme, rhythm and predictable patterns with littlest.
5. Practice reading in phrases. Model how to do it, post anchor charts of phrases.
6. Use a metronome, or tap out phrases (beats) with a pencil.
7. If your child is reading word by word, use easier reading material for now, to avoid frustration, or “scaffold it”, assisting from fully dependent to independent..

For the easiest way to determine a working reading level, use the ‘five finger technique’. Ask kids to put down one finger on the page each time a word is unknown. If the book is too hard, five fingers are down right away. This would be at the frustration level.

In order to motivate your child and instill the love of reading, it’s really important to use an independent or instructional leveled book. There can’t possibly be any fluency if the book is too hard to begin with.

If your child is older, a developing reader, here are a more ideas:
1. Choral Read- Read aloud together and to each other, taking turns.
2. Make fun videos reading out loud.
3. Read to another family member or friend.
4. Encourage intonation, emotional reading. Model it.
5. Solve any problems such as regression (back skipping) by repeating the reading.

Also: Practicing reading in chunks really helps. Screenshot or copy a page, divide sentences into phrases for easy reading practice. Boosts fluency and comprehension.
6. Do Repeated Readings of the same passage to pick up the pace. Repeating readings works, chart showing growth, helpful.
7. Use Echo Reading. You whisper read as your child is reading. By sitting close, reading together, powerful, easy strategy.

As the reader matures, practice rate building activities. Good readers start adapting their rate based on the purpose, why they’re reading something. But this takes awhile, so be patient, and start with the basics.

Most important secret of all, if your child is still reading word by word and you think you’ve done it all, go back to the beginning, tracking. Watch how many times your child’s eyes stop on a line of print. The more fixations (eye stops), the slower the reading. So increase span by being aware, lengthening phrases and reading orally, a lot!

Basics-KWL, fluency, mechanics. (Know, Want to Know, Learned).

What do you already know? What do you want to know? After you validate your learning, you’ll want to know more. This is just a snapshot glance at closely connected subjects of fluency, rate and speed reading. There are, as I said, many definitions of fluency, starting with “automaticity’, automatically knowing a word. But there’s more. Educators always say “children learn to read, then read to learn”, I’m adding then learn to read better and faster! We truly are all lifelong learners.

There’s so much to know about which words have most meaning, such as signposts and signals, etc., but more in another article. Those meaning words affect fluency, especially emotional intonation, how we read it.

A “good reader” is also flexible, matching reading skills, purpose and rate to read fluently. Intonation, phrasing and emotion, are also important. However, improvement in the physical, mechanical aspects of reading make a huge difference. This includes rate, rhythm, shortening time of each eye “stop”, and increasing the width of vision span per eye stop.

Way back in 1879, A French researcher, Javal noticed a student’s eyes don’t move smoothly along a line of print; instead they make a number of starts and stops on every line. These are called “saccadic movements”. Although these eye stops only last one-fourth to one-half of a second, the pauses are real and easily noticed. Meaning is made during these stops, the pauses that inform. Too many eye stops, however and speed and comprehension are affected.

Everyone can improve reading speed skills once the fundamental building blocks are mastered. You can watch your child or students while they read, or catch this for yourself. You watch, or someone else watches.Observing the number of stops along a line helps us move our eyes faster, taking in more information at each eye stop, phrase, a complete sentence, later a paragraph.

A s a certified Hynpotherapist and NLP (neurolinguistics, peak performance) practitioner, at one time I studied “Photo Reading. “Ostensibly, by altering our ‘state’, through a kind of self-hypnosis, we could photograph an entire page at one time. I was never able to do this, although I was reading remarkably faster.

Speed readers greatly exceed 900 words a minute, by skipping words, lines and whole blocks of print. We really don’t need to read that fast, do we? Reading in which all words are read can’t be done much faster than 800-900 words a minute. This is supported by the fact that the shortest possible fixation when reading of two to three words, is at least a fifth to a quarter of a second in duration. This would mean that a ten word line would be read in two thirds of a second!

For our purposes, picking up our pace or rate by reading in phrases, whole lines and paragraphs is enough, don’t you agree?

Hack That Reading Speed! Quick tips for quicker reading.

1. Observe your student’s (or your) reading along a line of print, online, or textual, noticing the number of eye stops, or fixations. Your goal is to lengthen span and lessen the number of stops. Dividing the number of fixations by words read is the “index of recognition span”, or amount seen per fixation.

2. Eliminate back skipping, or “regressions”. It slows down reading rate and lessens comprehension. Use a metronome to pace, or tap a pencil to set a rate or rhythm. Recording reading is very helpful. Partner reading also works well. Forward and backward motion of regression reduces speed as much as 30-50 percent.

3. If your student labors with reading, has trouble tracking print, makes continuous errors, reads one word or one syllable at a time, mechanics becomes a top priority. Do Echo Reading, (Reading under one’s breath, as model, along with student). Repeated readings, (150-180 words), three times, two minute increments. Graphing is successful to show progress. I strongly endorse this strategy. I think the reason why, the process of “overlearning” kicks in big time.

4. Use easier, familiar reading material, books and tech. just for now. Why teach at the frustration level?

5. Go back to phonemic awareness and phonics, if needed, to fill gaps. End letter by letter, word by word reading. Watch speed zoom! Yes, you can use phonics word recognition strategies with vocabulary of middle and high school level subjects.

6. Sub-vocalizing, saying each word out loud slows down reading. Actually, whether orally or silently. Encourage using eyes only, without moving head, or mouth. Observe, practice.

7. “Retellings” not only encourage comprehension, but boost fluency. More familiar with material, faster the reading. Use small chunks of two or three paragraphs to a whole page.

8. Hold the book or tablet up at a 45 degree angle, instead of down on desk. This helps eyes take in more print at a time, and there are frequently less eye stops and regressions. Boosts fluency and I think comprehension, as a result.

9. Give skimming and scanning special attention. When skimming to survey material in the preview, notice headings, first and last sentences, etc. Great time for a full Book Walk for preview.

10. Let your eyes run down the middle of the page to gain an overview, stopping once or twice on the line. This is called “Super dipping”.

11. Focus on the white spaces between the lines, rather than the lines themselves. This is called subliminal reading, or “reading for concept” (reading between the lines).

12. Or, focus right above the line of print. “Tangerine effect” refers to softening your gaze. You will be amazed how fast and how much you recall.

13. Practice “Tri Focus” Read it Fast. Set up a practice sheet with three columns, asterisks across and down page. Student “reads the stars”, then apply strategy to reading material with student reading larger span based on a tri focus of three columns, as practiced.

14. Scanning for specific information. Use “Crisscross method.” Scan from top right corner to bottom left corner, then glance at top left and scan to bottom right of page.

15. Familiarity with proper phrasing. Provide written selection,/ telling student to insert vertical lines between words/ to highlight proper phrasing.

Perception as basis of speedier reading:

Perceptual means the number of letters your eyes can perceive and understand in a single sweep. The greater the span of perception, the more you can read in a single glance. Most readers have a perception span of about 20 letters, about four words. We can do better, necessary in the world of STEAM.

Final tip, new or reminder:

Practice rapid page turning, when applicable. Skip the little words. Stay away from the margins. Rate is determined by purpose.

Finally, take a look at “Brain Gym”, if new to you. This amazing program, based on the Basic 26 offers simple movements designed in part to help learners get set for reading. I especially appreciate the midline activities.  I am currently updating my knowledge base about handedness and writing, perhaps reading. At a minimum, my experiences tell me this works, and I hope you take a look, Anything written by Rae Pica will also be so useful. Learning through movement, affects reading and fluency, yes.

I hope this has been a helpful start or review of reading fluency. Not just about littlest readers, that’s just the beginning.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

I’d love to hear from you:

Twitter: @RitaWirtz

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Website: RitaWirtz.com

Instagram: @ritamwirtz

Books: Stories From a Teacher’s Heart, Reading Champs

Brain Gym

As always, thanks to BAM for support of my writing.



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