Why is reading fluency important?
The positive impact reading fluency has upon levels of comprehension cannot be underestimated.
Fluency is not simply the smooth demonstration of having mastered the mechanics of being able to read; rather it is an outward expression of reading for meaning.
Whether reading alone in your head or out loud to an audience, fluency does not simply demonstrate to what degree you understand what you are reading - true fluency drives understanding.
To simply reduce the assessment of reading fluency to an arbitrary timing of how many words can be read per minute, is to completely miss the point of what this integral part of the reading experience has to offer the reader.
How a reader’s voice interprets and reflects what is happening in the text showcases how involved with the text the reader has become. It is crucial therefore that we help the reader connect with the text on an emotional as well as cognitive level.
Obviously, the mechanics of being able to read is an essential component of fluency - not just for those at the early stages of decoding but also as a more capable reader. Even the most competent of readers will come across more complex words for a first time: the name of a newly discovered dinosaur appearing on the news or when looking up the Latin name for a plant you want to buy.
However, hearing children read is not simply a matter of monitoring whether an individual can read smoothly and noting down strategies they use to tackle unfamiliar words. Listening to children read (at all levels of ability and ages) has a much greater value.
Literacy expert David Liben puts it well when he states that what characterises our weakest readers is not their inability to ‘think critically’ but rather a lack of fluency:
“Fluency does not guarantee comprehension, but lack of fluency guarantees almost all the time a lack of comprehension, especially with more complex texts.”
He goes on to talk about readers having an ‘expressive ear’ – an ear that can extract meaning from the tone and style the writer has adopted, the syntax and grammatical constructs they have used to express their ideas, the words they have chosen, the punctuation they have placed upon the page with precision and purpose.
In essence, the best readers, and those who enjoy reading the most, hear the writer’s voice. They interact and interpret this voice and express it themselves in a way they believe reflects what is happening: Should I read fast because the spaceship is about to blow up and everyone is racing towards the escape pods? Do I raise my voice because I am angry or because I am frustrated, lower it because I want to reassure the listener that everything will be alright? Do I pause and say nothing, not because an ellipsis dictates that I do so but because I understand that the character is too upset to speak?
Complex texts often rely heavily on the reader being able to read between the lines and interpret subtle clues woven throughout. These shades of meaning add colour and texture to the printed word, they enable the reader to connect with the text more fully, to both understand and to enjoy it more.
They invest time and effort in reading, in understanding the characters and the plight in which they find themselves in. But the key here is that they do so on an emotional level and, as such, develop their reading stamina not because they want to know what happens next or how the story ends, but because they are going on the adventure with that character.
It is my firm belief that reading fluency is inextricably linked to reading for pleasure, these two facets of the reading experience having a symbiotic relationship.
No doubt we have all come across the child who can read fluently but who reads in a monotone at a steady, unfaltering pace. This undoubtedly impacts upon the level of comprehension and enjoyment of the text.
In my own experience, such readers are usually found in the middle or upper-middle range of competency and generally struggle answering inferential questions. They lack an emotional attachment to what they are reading so find it hard to justify why they should spend time and effort investing in reading independently.
For this type of reader, reading comprehension has become perfunctory, an exercise rather than an opportunity to fall in love and get excited about the written word.
Becoming fluent in the true sense of the word can help turn this situation around; surely a fundamental aim when teaching children to read. We want readers to fall in love with reading - the process as well as the text.
If we are to maxamise an individual’s ability to understand a text fully, with all of the subtleties and beautiful nuances it has to offer, if we are to build in our learners a strong sense of the power the written word has to offer and encourage a true love of reading, then it is imperative that we set time aside to consider reading fluency.
If we want readers to fall in love with books, to read independently for pleasure and to embrace the reading experience, then we must give serious thought as to how, as individual teachers and as a school, we provide opportunities to provide for this in a meaningful and purposeful way.
With this message ringing loudly, my next blog will consider how we can encourage reading fluency as part of our Reading Curriculum so that each and every child can improve (and love) their reading in all its forms and for a range of audiences and purpose.
And if you've liked what you've read and want to know more, check out the Reading Fluency course available on my training page.