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You Want Me to Add Fluency?!

a hand holding up a book

Why fluency routines matter in secondary school & how you can use them (tomorrow)


Do your students struggle to read class materials?

If you are a middle or high school teacher whose students struggle to read core texts in your class, this post is for you. Maybe you dread asking students to read aloud because they refuse to or they stumble awkwardly through the passage. Possibly, only a few students will read that novel at home. Perhaps when you assign students to read the textbook in class, only a small handful do.

Getting students who have been denied reading skills to read something complex on their own is a real problem for many of us in middle and high schools. 

The challenge is as a secondary teacher you have content to cover - chemistry experiments to do, Before the Ever After to read, U.S. Reconstruction documents to engage with. You don’t have time to teach adolescent students reading skills. If you had the time, you might not even know where to start.

Here’s the thing - students can accelerate their reading skills while focusing on course content. Really! Fluency routines are the way. Let’s see why and how you can use them. 

But first…what is reading fluency and why should I care about it?

Oral reading fluency can be described as how students sound when they read grade level text. Specifically, fluent readers can read a text with: 

  • Speed: an appropriate rate

  • Accuracy: word recognition with automaticity

  • Prosody: proper expression akin to normal speech

Those students of yours who stumble through reading course texts out loud? Those students are not fluent readers. And the important thing to know here is that students who do not read fluently do not comprehend what they are reading; too much of their cognition is caught-up in attempting to decode each word.

However, once students know what the words say (decoding text), they can get down to the business of exploring what the words mean (comprehending text). Therefore, improving reading fluency gives students access to those challenging texts and makes possible the hard work central to your discipline.

Using fluency routines will support learning how to turn pennies into gold, exploring the disillusionment of dreams in Before the Ever After, and arguing about to what extent the Reconstruction Era was an unfinished revolution. 

How can I figure out if my students need fluency routines? 

Most high school students are not proficient readers. This is, of course, no fault of their own. Previous schooling denied them access to grade level reading skills. But here they are, just the same. And students deserve access to reading skills.

If you are unsure if your students are meeting grade level fluency expectations, you can find out by using an evidence-based assessment. Using such measures are key to understanding your students’ current fluency needs - they give reliable data so that strategic supports meet actual needs and interrupt biases we all have about which students can or cannot read.

One easily implemented assessment is determining a student’s reading rate, known as Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM). To measure WCPM, have a student read aloud for 60 seconds from a grade level passage (note: this means the grade students are currently in). After 60 seconds, count the number of words students read correctly. That’s your WCPM score. Anything below 150 likely means the student could use some fluency support.

(Want more information or assessment types? Check out Tim Rasinski’s fluency assessments and resources for the Ohio Literacy Alliance. They are fantastic.)

I’m in. How do I use fluency routines in my classroom?

In a nutshell, fluency practice will look like:  

Step Zero: Text Selection

Select a single text passage you will use for each routine throughout the week. Fluency is built through repetition. So pick something worth rereading for its complex structure, key information, centrality to the unit, unusual syntax, raw beauty, or other reasons compelling to your discipline. The text must be a grade level one so that grade level skills are developed. 

Step One: Model Reading

Provide a fluent model of the text read aloud. You can read aloud or give students an audio recording of the text. Disfluent students hearing disfluent models are not helpful (or kind). Note: Students must track the text with their eyes as they hear the fluent model. Though middle and high school students will rarely use a finger to track, asking them to use their pencils to follow along word-for-word usually does the trick.

Step Two: Fluency Routine

Engage in a short routine - choral reading, echo reading, and paired reading are a few favorites. You can find more evidence-based fluency routines here

Step Three: Connect to Comprehension

Do a vocabulary or comprehension task after reading. These tasks can be sourced from your course materials. Use 2-3 comprehension questions or do some text-based vocabulary work. These tasks extend fluency work to knowledge building and word recognition.

Steps 1 through 3 should take about 10 minutes. This means any time students are reading grade level text in your classroom, you can integrate fluency work. Do this a few times throughout the week and students on on their way to accelerating their reading skills. Better yet, join with a team of teachers and you each implement fluency routines in various content areas 2 to 3 times a week. Now you have reading acceleration across content areas.  


But will students DO fluency work? 

In short - they sure will. Students want to be able to access class materials, they just haven’t been given the reading skills to do so. You can make clear that the work of fluency routines will provide them reading skills.

When introducing fluency routines into your classroom, consider a combination of transparency, giving students small wins, and providing the space for students to own the work.

Some ideas to consider:

  • Start with a mea culpa on behalf of the school system: the fact that students cannot yet read at grade level has nothing whatsoever to do with a student’s intelligence and everything to do with bad instruction. A student’s current gap can be mended with their hard work. Make a deal with students; if they do the work, they will get better at reading. 

  • Give a little more 'why' on the importance of fluency work and expand on the concept of reading having no connection to intelligence. The graphic guide, How We Read makes clear what reading skills are and how to develop them. The text can be paired with this close reading lesson. Both resources help students understand how decoding, word recognition, and fluency impact their reading skills. 

  • Ground the work in empowering students to be agents of their own literacy. Students could decide how they will engage in the work and track their own progress. Make space for students’ identities and assets within the context of building reading fluency.  


Finally, a reminder that our own biases about our students can often cloud our judgment of their engagement. Rather than seeing students’ unwillingness to engage in fluency routines as oppositional, lazy, or not valuing literacy, ask how you are framing the work, how you are putting students in the center as experts, and how you are valuing their voice in the process.

It is our job as teachers to make sure students can read.  AND, don’t forget to revel in the magic that is being able to read. There is deep joy in this work! 


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