From Phonics to Fluency
April 21, 2023
Are you wondering how to take your students from basic phonics skills to becoming fluent readers?! Research has long shown that there is a strong correlation between expressive oral reading and silent reading comprehension. We know we need to develop fluent readers, but how can we do just that?
In today’s post, I am going to share a little bit about what fluent reading is (and what it isn’t) and I also have three easy tips you can use in the classroom to help develop your students’ fluency! Before you dive in, I wanted to let you know that all this information is presented in video format. So if you want to listen or watch, just click below:
If you want to read the information instead, just keep scrolling!
Before I dive into the specific tips, let’s talk about what fluency is not. Fluency is not fast reading. Now I believe most teachers know that on some level – we know that fluency is not *just* fast reading, but that rate is part of reading fluently. We also know that many teachers give oral reading fluency (ORF) assessments because there is importance in reading quickly. We just don’t want to conflate reading quickly and fluency as one thing! Instead, we need to see it as one piece of a larger puzzle.
That being said, let’s go over the three main parts of fluency:
Accuracy: this is the most important component of fluency and should be focused on most. If our students cannot decode a word accurately, they won’t be able to understand what it means.
Reading rate: this is the speed at which students read – not too fast, not too slow.
Expression: this is going to be how well our students read with it sounding “natural” like they are speaking.
Now researchers have taken these categories and broken them down into smaller subcategories like intonation, automatic word recognition, self-correcting measures, appropriate phrasing, reading punctuation, prosody, and more, but they can all fall under one of those three above categories.
These are all the components that go into teaching students how to become fluent readers. Now I want to re-emphasize that accuracy is the most important and should hold the most weight in your teaching (especially at the K-2 level). There are even some that argue that if we only focus on accurate decoding our students’ fluency will come naturally. But that shouldn’t always be assumed. Some students certainly will become fluent readers as they learn to decode new phonics patterns in a systematic and sequential way, but it isn’t always the case. Knowing this, we can add explicit fluency instruction to our lessons to help students make that bridge from phonics to fluency.
So let’s dive into three tips and activities that we can use to build fluency with our youngest learners. All of these are going to focus on authentic fluency which means we will have an end goal of comprehension in mind and we aren’t going to focus on arbitrary goals (how fast can I read? for example). The components of authentic fluency instruction are as follows:
We will use high-quality texts to practice fluency. We will practice oral reading. It is important to remember that when we are talking about fluency with our students, we are talking about them reading aloud and not silently. So all our activities and fluency drills will be done orally. We will have teacher modeling and time for student practice. Students will receive timely feedback, and the activities should increase student motivation.
Tip 1: Scaffold fluency with blending lines:
Knowing that we are working with younger students and that we need to put a larger emphasis on accuracy, blending lines are a great tool for building fluency. Phonics-based blending lines allow students to work on their decoding skills in a scaffolded way. They first decode that pattern in individual words, then in short phrases, then in sentences with clear capitalization and punctuation. You can see this for the skill CVC words with short a shown above!
I created a whole set of these to use with students and their layout is based on some of Wiley Blevin’s work around using blending lines. So line 1 focuses on initial sound substitution. Line 2 focuses on end sound substitution and line 3 focuses on medial sound substitution. Lines 4 and 5 have students practicing that skill in phrases and then 6 & 7 are with sentences. They are also set up in a systematic way so the vast majority of words students are decoding on each sheet either include the focus skill or only include previously taught skills!
Now as a reminder, I wouldn’t just pass these out and have students practice independently if our goal is fluency. Instead, I will model aloud a few of the words and then ask students to orally practice the lines. This allows me to listen for fluency and provide feedback as needed. These work great in both whole-group and small-group environments!
You can find these blending lines by clicking below:
Tip 2: Practice Fluency Everyday with Whole-Group Assisted Reading Practices:
Now while “whole group assisted reading practices” might sound like a long, scary term, these practices are actually simple (and easy!) ways to have students practice their fluency each and every day. There are three main practices you can use in your classroom to help scaffold fluency and those are echo reading, choral reading, and partner reading.
All of these practices can be done with texts you are using in your classroom. It could be a decodable text your students are working on with a new skill you’re teaching. If you are reading aloud a story to the class and there is an important section you want to go over with your students, photocopy that page or section and use these practices to dive deeper! You can also use these with the blending lines I shared above (in fact, that’s a great way to use them as a whole group).
Let’s talk about each of these practices!
Just like it sounds, with echo reading, students will echo your voice. This will be your chance to model the text aloud so students can hear what fluency should sound like. They will listen to the natural cadence of your voice, how you emphasize different words, and stop at different punctuation. Then they will echo your reading while looking at their own texts. This type of practice is most beneficial during the initial presentation of a text.
The second practice is called choral reading. With this, you and your students are reading a text at the same time. You are still the “leader” when reading this text, but they are reading it at the same time as you are. If you work in older grades, you may be able to introduce a text with choral reading, but in K-2 I like to begin echo reading parts of the text first, and then on the second read (usually the next day), we read the text but we do it with choral reading.
The last practice is partner reading, sometimes called paired reading. This can be done in many different ways. It is most successful when you purposefully pair your students by their reading ability. To do this, you will want to rank students reading abilities from highest to lowest – let’s pretend we have 2o students, 1 will be your highest ability reader and 20 will be your lowest ability reader. Then, cut that list in half and pair students from the top of the halved lists (1 is paired with 11, 2 with 12, etc.). This type of pairing can ensure that there is always a “stronger” reader in the group, but that they aren’t too spread apart in reading ability. It’s important to note that in your class, you may have some students in your class that are not ready for paired reading just yet. For example, if you are working on fluency with a passage focusing on long vowel teams ee/ea, but you have 2-3 students who are still decoding CVC words, then this type of paired reading isn’t the best use of instructional time for them. Instead, I would have the rest of the class pair up for fluency practice with the long vowel teams passage, and I would pull those students to work on decoding and fluency with a CVC passage!
Just like with the other practices, you will need to teach your students how paired reading will work. Students will grab the text we are reading (they will have already done echo reading and choral reading with this passage on previous days) and with their partner, they will read the passage together. Students can read the passage line by line, they could read page-by-page (depending on the way the text is set up), or they can practice reading it chorally together. This gives students another chance to practice their fluency with an appropriate passage and gain more confidence in reading.
Echo reading, choral reading, and partner reading can be used every single day to help students build fluency with quality texts!
Tip 3: Read Texts Repeatedly
Hopefully, this tip came through in both tip one and tip two, but research has shown that for students to become authentic, fluent readers, students need to read the same text numerous times. We also know that students gain a deeper comprehension of a text when they read it more than once. When our youngest learners students read a text for the first time, they are often spending so much time decoding the words on the page, they aren’t necessarily understanding what the passage is about.
The blending lines shared in tip one are a great example of this. When students first receive those blending lines, they may be a bit slower when decoding each word on the page. We may echo read the text together to help students become more fluent. Then, when we take it out for a second time and choral read it, our students become a bit more fluent with the words, phrases, and sentences and can begin to tell you what is happening in the sentences or finish the phrases to make a complete sentence. The third time we take out our blending lines to partner read them, students will sound much more automatic and natural reading them! As long as we are using appropriate texts, repeated readings of any text will help students tremendously with fluency.
Now there are a couple of notes I want to make about repeated readings. The first is that repeated readings are only beneficial for accurate, but slow readers. We know the importance of accuracy when it comes to fluency, so it is important to note that if students are not accurate in reading the words on the page, continuing to read it repeatedly isn’t going to help. We also know that some of our students may receive a new passage and be able to read it fluently right away. If that is the case, they need a text that will challenge them a bit more.
Another note is that you don’t want your students to memorize the text. Since we will be reading the text numerous times, we want to make sure they are attending to each word on the page. Be sure to look around and make students students’ eyes are following the words on the page!
Two great activities to use when doing repeated readings of a text include reader’s theater and poetry. Reader’s theater and poetry have been used for a long time to help enhance students’ fluency. Both of these practices are highly engaging and motivating for student learning. Poetry has a natural sing-song type prosody which is fun for students to both read and listen to and reader’s theater gets students into performance mode!
If you’re looking for some fun poems, I have a whole set of decodable phonics poems you can use with your students. To see them, just click below:
So there are my three tips for taking students from phonics to fluency! Just to recap real quickly, we have tip 1: scaffold fluency, tip 2: use whole-group assisted reading practices, and tip 3: use repeated readings.
Do you have any other fluency tips for us?! Share them below in the comments!
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