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Reading Fluency: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?

I recently wrote a piece about reading fluency instruction for our special report on early literacy. Sometimes I'm asked how I come up with ideas for articles. And while the majority are based on news events or trends that my colleagues and I are picking up on around the country, this one was grounded in personal experience. 

Before becoming a reporter, I taught reading to students with special needs for about five years, first as a one-on-one tutor in a reading clinic and then as a special education teacher in a public school. For the most part, I was able to get students decoding—I could teach them the individual letter sounds and digraphs (letter pairs that make single sounds) and rules for sounding out words, such as the "final e" rule. I could even get the majority of students breaking up and sounding out words with multiple syllables. But the leap from decoding to fluent reading for many students was huge—for some, it was seemingly insurmountable. 

K-12_Dealmaking.gifWhen I'd begun teaching reading, the National Reading Panel's 2000 report had been presented to me as my "bible." It pointed to research saying guided oral, repeated reading worked, and sustained silent reading was unproven (most people took that to mean that it didn't work). Even so, I often felt I lacked the tools to help struggling students make the transition to fluency. 

This many years later, I was curious: What do we know now about fluency that we didn't know then? What's changed in the 15 years since the NRP report was released? What tools do teachers have that could've helped me? 

What I found was that not a ton has changed. The same fluency-building strategies—repeated reading, choral reading, and echo reading—are still well-prescribed. Having students read alone silently is still seen as lacking an evidence base. 

Some experts said it's clear repeated reading works—now teachers just need to use it more often and more faithfully. Others said additional, larger-scale research on fluency practices is still needed. 

One thing that has changed, Tim Rasinski, a literacy education professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, told me, is that many teachers are now overly focused on reading speed. "Fluency becomes little more than encouraging kids to read faster and faster," he said. "It gives them the wrong idea about what reading is about."

The idea is to make sure students read with more speed and fluidity than this:

 

But tests like the DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency value words-per-minute—and if that's taken too far, students can think they're reading well even if they're reading without expression or proper phrasing and breath.

As Melanie Kuhn, an associate professor of language and literacy education at Boston University, explained, skilled readers "slow down, we vary our rate, we think about our reading as we're going." 

And that's why good, fluent reading really sounds like this:

So while there isn't some new, revolutionary, agreed-upon strategy for teaching fluency, we have learned a bit about what not to do. I'd like to hear from teachers: Have you found other practices that work? Do you think more research is needed on fluency strategies for struggling readers?


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