Fluency as a Bridge to Comprehension

 Comments from the desk of Dr. Tim Rasinski,
Professor of Reading at Kent State University
Fluency as a Bridge to Comprehension
Dr. Tim Rasinski

Dr. Rasinski and StudentsFluency Is the ability to read accurately, expressively, quickly with good phrasing and comprehension.  A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education identified oral reading fluency as a strong predictor of silent reading comprehension.  Moreover, the same study found that nearly half of the fourth graders studied had not achieved an even minimally acceptable level of reading fluency.

Fortunately, a solid body of evidence suggests that fluency can be taught and that effective instruction in fluency results in overall improvements in reading.  Not only teachers, but parents can have an influence here.

Let’s look at a few of the effective methods for teaching fluency.  All of these are discussed in more detail in my book, the Fluent Reader The Fluent Reader.

Accuracy in recognizing words

Modeling of expressive, fluent oral reading

Repeated (practice) readings of authentic texts while, at the same time, being sensitive to text difficulty

Reading with assistance from a stronger or expert reader

Supported practice looking at and reading text to focus on phrasing [rather than reading word for word]

There are many practical ways to teach these methods but here we will focus on two effective ones:  reader’s theater and tape-assisted reading.
Reader’s Theater is an authentic and entertaining activity that helps students improve their word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. It requires no props, costumes, or scenery unless the teacher and students want to include them.   Reader’s Theater is an oral activity in which students read scripts or stories (after practicing reading their particular part and gaining assistance as necessary with vocabulary, phrasing, expressiveness, etc.)  Each student takes the part of one of the characters or narrator.  There is no need for an actual production of a play or theatrical event although props may be used. The goal of this strategy is to help students with their fluency and comprehension by allowing them rehearsal time to practice reading with expression and prosody, the opportunity to read and reread for meaning, and the ability to focus on word meanings.

Although you may want to find out more details from my book or other sources on reader’s theater, he’s how it works in a nutshell:

Reader’s Theater: A Quick Guide

  • Before the week begins, choose a script or prepare one based on a text. Make copies for the group, two for each member.
  • On Monday, discuss the purpose and procedures for Reader’s Theater with the class/group. Assign students parts by having them volunteer or audition. Practice needs to be done aloud and also silently.
  • On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, have students practice their parts in class, on their own, in their groups and at home. This activity can also been done during center time or as part of an anchor activity.
  • Friday is performance day. Students can read/perform their scripts for an audience of classmates, parents, or even the principal. Remember, this is not a performance based on memorization. They are reading the script they have practiced over the week.

My website contains a resource list of ready-made scripts (many of them free) for use in the classroom or even at home (http://www.timrasinski.com/presentations/readers_theater_sources.pdf).

Tape-Assisted Reading

The second tool for improving fluency (and thus comprehension) is tape-assisted reading.  We sometimes call this reading-while-listening.  The term is fairly self-explanatory but it is essentially when a student listens to a fluent rendering of a passage or book from a tape, CD or other audio recorded media while reading that same passage or book themselves.

This has been shown to be particularly effective for students having difficulty with reading and with ELL students.  Not only does tape-assisted reading have a place in elementary school but also in the middle school environment.  Research also supports a variety of implementations from in-class to pull-out sessions during the school day to tape-assisted reading programs at home.

During the summer school session of 2003, twenty-three teachers in twelve middle and high schools in the Boston Public Schools and the San Diego Public Schools participated in projects involving the use of audio books to improve student learning.  A survey of response journals of Boston Public School students strongly suggests that students who read with audio book support made more entries and longer entries than students who read with print only. Such a finding reflects the comprehension improvements that seen in the study, suggesting that struggling readers using recorded books better understand what they are reading and so have more to say when asked to write about what they have read.   In addition, many teachers observed positive changes in their students’ attitudes toward reading in the groups with recorded books support.

Of course, tapes or CDs of books are available through many commercial resources but many public and school libraries have good collections to borrow as well.

By using these two instructional concepts, the fluency, and thus the comprehension, of students can be improved.

In closing this discussion on comprehension with a focus on fluency, I offer one caveat:  Much has been made of assessing speed as a single method for quantifying a student’s fluency.  Because improvements in how automatic a child is at decoding are often determined by gains in reading rate, it is not difficult to see why students (and teachers) begin to focus almost exclusively on improving reading rate as the goal of fluency instruction.  Indeed the primary aim of many instructional programs is to increase reading rate through repeated reading of nonfiction materials.  It is not unreasonable, then, to suspect that students in such programs would focus on reading faster for the sake of reading faster, without giving equal attention to comprehension.  The result of such a focus, however, is faster reading with little improvement in comprehension, which is the ultimate goal of reading and reading instruction.

Those comments take us back full circle to the definition we began with:  Fluency Is the ability to read accurately, expressively, quickly with good phrasing and comprehension.   Focus on using fluency instruction as a tool, a bridge, instead of an end in itself, and students will be well-served.