Learning, Leading, and Loving Literacy

Recently, we’ve been encouraging teachers to calculate fluency rates while they assess students for reading.  Why?  Because fluency (a reader’s rate along with accuracy, phrasing, expression and use of punctuation) affects a child’s ability to comprehend a text and often affects how much “reading work” a child can accomplish.  Fluency is one of those things that encompasses all aspects of reading – and that’s exactly why we have to be careful with it.

On the surface, calculating fluency rates is a wonderful way to assess students and determine if a book or level is appropriate for them.  Calculating fluency comes in a nice, neat little formula and there are accepted, standardized “norms” that we can measure progress against.  There isn’t much in the world of reading that can be calculated or measured so simply, so we gravitate towards it and use it to measure if a student is “on level”.  However, I’d encourage every teacher and parent to take a closer look.

Fluency can be affected by so much, and it’s the observations we make during the assessment that are even more important than the rate itself.  Did the child lose their place as they read?  Did most of the reading sound fluent, with just one or two parts that the child really worked hard at, and that slowed the rate down?  Was the child reading at a nice easy pace, but making several careless errors along the way, affecting the formula?  These questions not only help you understand a child’s fluency rate, but also help you plan intervention (if any).

Here is the advice from Fountas and Pinnell, found on the Heinemann website:

What is the best rate for reading?

Educators should be cautious in assessing a student’s rate of reading. Words-per-minute is only one factor in fluency, and we believe that it is not even the most important factor.  Proficient readers vary greatly in the speed of their reading.  Rate depends on purpose for reading, content, literary quality, and genre.  Excellent readers may have good reason to slow down and reflect on what they are reading.  It is a natural part of reading to search back in the text to confirm memory or look for information.  They pause to examine illustrations or graphics that provide more information. And, remember that it is also possible for students to read too fast.  In other words, faster is not necessarily better.

We do not want readers to read in a slow, halting way; but, teachers who are concerned about students’ fluency should attend not just to rate but to four other key factors:

  • Pausing—Readers reflect the meaning of the text by pausing appropriately. They are guided by the punctuation.
  • Phrasing—Readers read in meaningful phrase units to show the meaning of the text.
  • Stress—Readers emphasize some words more than others in a sentence to reflect the meaning.
  • Intonation—Readers’ voices rise and fall to reflect punctuation and the meaning of the text.

To support fluency, teachers can place students in texts that they are capable of reading and then work consistently to support pausing, phrasing, stress, and intonation.  Rate will ultimately be affected so that students read at a good pace—not too slow and not too fast.

So please, pay attention to fluency rates, but more importantly, listen and pay attention to the readers in front of you.  How they sound will give you more information about their fluency than the formula will.

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