9 things you didn’t know about being a fluent reader

3 March 2018

Author: Aidan Severs

This blog post is a taster of some of the content of our Improving Literacy In Primary Schools course, which focuses on reading, writing and oracy in KS2. 

Scarborough's Reading Rope

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Decoding and sight recognition both have a part to play

Often, when it comes to the initial stages of teaching reading, the focus is placed solely on phonological awareness and decoding, but recognising words on sight is far more important once a reader is beyond the stage of learning to read that involves decoding. When a competent reader reads, unless they are reading a very complex scientific text, for example, they will be reading most words by sight rather than by decoding them. With children, the aim is to teach them phonological awareness and decoding so that they are eventually familiar with all the words they will commonly come across. If children don’t get to the point where they are reading words on sight, they won’t be able to read fluently.

There are no quick ways to develop reading fluency

The EEF guidance says that ‘most pupils will benefit from being explicitly taught [to read fluently] rather than just being encouraged to practise individually.’ But what is it that we should be teaching children?

As illustrated in Scarborough’s Reading Rope, there are many strategies that bind together when a competent reader reads. Fluency is the result of this coming together of different strategies; we might see fluency as a skill that we can develop in children by teaching them a range of strategies. As previously mentioned we must explicitly teach strategies such as decoding, working out word meanings and retrieving and inferring information. All these strategies, and more, contribute towards fluency in reading. Without having these strategies modelled children find it very difficult to develop fluency just by attempting to practise reading fluently independently.

The more you read, the more fluent you’ll be

The Matthew effect is a well-known concept when it comes to learning to read: it says that the rich get rich and the poor get poorer (see p380 onwards: https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u81/Stanovich__1986_.pdf). This means that those who are good readers enjoy reading and subsequently choose to read more and as a result will develop their vocabulary and reading strategies better than those who are reading less (often because they are poor readers and don’t choose to read as much). This article from Russ Walsh explains how increasing encounters with text should help poorer readers: http://russonreading.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/when-readers-struggle-increase.html

But it’s not only about reading more – reading a variety of different texts is important too. If a child has encountered several texts within each genre then they will begin to build up an understanding of the features of that genre and will begin to make better inferences. For example, if reading a story where a character is alone in the dark, children who have read other horror, mystery or adventure stories will assume that something bad will happen, in the same way that they would expect a Disney film to end with the two lead characters falling in love and living happily ever after! Without this knowledge of genre that comes from exposure to the texts, children will make lower quality inferences, will have a weaker understanding of a text and therefore will not be able to read it fluently.

You’re not a fluent reader unless you understand what you read

Fluency in reading isn’t based solely on the ability to sight-read words in quick succession. The EEF guidance report ‘Improving Literacy In Key Stage Two’ summarises that ‘fluent readers can read quickly, accurately, and with appropriate stress and intonation’. How can they do this, particularly the second part of that statement? Because they understand what they read. Fluent readers, when reading aloud, will use voices for characters, will change their reading speed and volume according to what happens in the story, and they will read a non-fiction texts in an entirely different manner. This all happens because they are understanding what they read. They understand not just single words but how words come together to make meaning. Therefore, we need to teach comprehension strategies, and understanding of other reading strategies, in order to develop fluency.

In their review of research ‘Fluency: The Bridge From Decoding To Reading Comprehension‘ Chard and Pikulski summarise that “…fluency must be assessed within the context of reading comprehension. Fluency without accompanying high levels of reading comprehension is simply not adequate.”

But there is a virtuous cycle going on here. The EEF reports that ‘a fluent reading style supports comprehension because pupils’ limited cognitive resources are freed from focusing on word recognition and can be redirected towards comprehending the text.’ Understanding leads to fluency which leads to further understanding. Because good readers understand how the language is being used they can focus on developing a deeper comprehension of the text.

In order to read fluently you have to find and infer information

Reading fluency depends heavily on being able to exercise a range of reading comprehension strategies. Of all such strategies inference-making is notoriously the most difficult – indeed there are those who believe it’s a skill that can’t even be taught. However, information retrieval is a simpler strategy. As we have already seen, the ability to read fluently depends heavily on being able to understand what is being read. If information is not being retrieved or inferred from a text then a reader will be understanding very little of what they read and will therefore struggle to read fluently.

Fluent readers bring more to the text than they realise

A very important strand on the Reading Rope is ‘background knowledge’. Tim Shanahan, whose blog is a goldmine of information about Literacy teaching and learning, summarises thusly: Research over the past 40 years or so has made it clear that the knowledge that students bring to a text—any text—will have an impact on what is comprehended or learned from that text. The more you know, the better your comprehension tends to be.” (http://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/is-building-knowledge-the-best-way-to-increase-literacy-achievement#sthash.j89Jb1Hr.dpbs)

Professor DT Willingham also provides some good examples of this:

“Suppose you read this brief text: “John’s face fell as he looked down at his protruding belly. The invitation specified ‘black tie’ and he hadn’t worn his tux since his own wedding, 20 years earlier.”…. [having] background knowledge …means that there is a greater probability that you will have the knowledge to successfully make the necessary inferences to understand a text (e.g., you will know that people are often heavier 20 years after their wedding and, thus, John is worried that his tux won’t fit).”  (https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/how-knowledge-helps)

A good vocabulary unlocks fluency

Decoding and sight-reading words is a start, but we need to know what words mean before we gain any greater understanding of a text as a whole. Before we begin to retrieve or infer information or use our background knowledge to understand something we read, we have to know what the phrases, sentences and paragraphs that we are reading mean. In turn, before we can understand a whole phrase, sentence or paragraph, we need to know what most of the words mean: studies show that as many as 98% of the words in a text need to be known in order for good comprehension to take place. (https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/2000-Hu-Density-and-comprehension.pdf)

Fluency can be modelled

We have already looked at how fluency is a skill which is developed through the modelling and practise of a range of reading strategies. Teachers can model phonological awareness and decoding. Teachers can model how to retrieve information from a text. Teachers can model how to make inferences from a text. By modelling different reading strategies, and then allowing children to practise these strategies themselves, reading fluency can be developed.

But there are other ways of modelling fluency too. The guidance report outlines the following approaches as being well supported by evidence:

  • guided oral reading instruction—fluent reading of a text is modelled by an adult or peer and pupils then read the same text aloud with appropriate feedback; and
  • repeated reading—pupils re-read a short and meaningful passage a set number of times or until they reach a suitable level of fluency.

The repeat exposure to the text will allow children to gain a better understanding of its contents, therefore they will be able to read it more fluently. The way a competent adult reader reads a text aloud with understanding helps children to understand the content of the text more. This article on the Reading Rockets website goes into more detail on this matter: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/reading-aloud-build-comprehension

Scarborough’s Reading Rope can be used diagnostically

Perhaps as you’ve read this you’ve had particular children in mind who you know find it difficult to read fluently. Scarborough’s Reading Rope is a good starting point when diagnosing particular issues with reading fluency. It will help you to begin to think more specifically about a particular child’s strengths and needs.

The guidance report points out that “diagnosis of the specific issue should be the first step for any intervention. For example, it is important to rule out weaknesses in the individual strands (decoding and phonological awareness) before attempting to ‘entwine’ them by developing reading fluency.” It also suggests that “fluency can be assessed by listening to pupils read from an appropriate text.” Beyond the Reading Rope there are also “various rubrics, such as the Multidimensional Fluency Scale, [which] can be used to inform accurate diagnosis.”

Posted on 3 March 2018
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