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Fluency Concerns: Is the Book Just Too Hard?


With fluency being one of the components of reading, it’s no wonder why so many products are on the market now.  However, it seems some fluency products have made it more complex than it needs to be. 

A Short Story

Three years ago, when I was a coach, I had an epiphany in a second grade hallway.  County requirements asked for a running record to be completed for student portfolios. For many teachers, this was a new form of assessment and resulted in some needed training and practice.  Some went right to work getting running records completed on each student. Some did not.

So, I am walking down the hall one day when a teacher frantically stops me. She was desperate for some help. She had kind-of, sort-of waited until the last minute to complete running records for portfolio requirements. To protect the guilty let’s just call her Mrs. Cook because, well, that’s her name.  So, I was trying to help Mrs. Cook with this arduous task when I realized how hard it was to complete a running record on a child that wasn't mine.  “Try this one," and noticing quickly that it was too easy or too hard, "okay, let’s try this one instead.” The sad experiment went on. But it was then that a light bulb went off in my head.  If the book was too hard, the student sounded choppy.  If the book was too easy, they read too quickly.  If the book was just right, magically, they read at just the right pace and intonation.  I also noticed that –---students----- that ------pointed-------to-----each------ word------sounded------choppy, versus students who had their finger glide or didn’t use it at all. Try it out for yourself.  You’ll see what I’m talking about.  At minimum, it’s just something to think about when focusing on fluency.

Free and Simple Resources to Help Improve Reading Fluency/ Comprehension in Your Classroom

So with this background knowledge I still value improving fluency, but look more at it as an indicator to help determine if a book may be at the frustration level for a child.  It’s just one piece to look at, with most of my energy going under the umbrella of comprehension. I think this is especially important being an upper grade teacher. We all know that student that sounds great reading but says, “I don’t know,” when you ask them what they have just read. With that said, here are some of the things I consider important to think about regarding fluency instruction:

  • Students should have daily, ample time allocated to reading books on an independent reading level. Newer research moves this to a 97% accuracy rate and above, with a good understanding (3 of 4 questions about the text answered). This takes a lot of support and modeling for struggling readers who often select books that are at the frustration level without some guidance.
  • Focus on expression through fluency conventions- Our class has looked at dashes, ellipses, commas, and italics in context of what we are reading. We discuss why writers use these conventions in their writing and how they do this to help us read it a particular way. In other words, we can read it the way the author would read it out-loud, if they could be sitting next to us with the book in their hand.
  • Use reading conferences to focus on fluency- Let's say a student reads over an italic word as if it is just another word. This would be a great time to say, "Wait! Think about this for a second. Imagine author X sitting at his computer typing this story. He gets to this sentence and decides to italize this one word. That takes time. Why did he do it?" Let's say the author used it for sarcasm. You can then use this moment to have the student re-read it again with a sarcastic emphasis.
  • Keep it simple- If a child is reading very slowly, most likely they are spending all their time decoding and not comprehending. If a child is reading as fast as they can, they are probably not thinking about what is being read. By ear, I feel pretty confident in hearing this, and often recommend a harder or easier book be selected based on how they sound and their level of understanding. Hence my title.
  • On the other hand, if you're not sure what that "sounds" like and your school uses DRA, there is a fluency calculator built into a clipboard provided. It's a neat little gadget. If you don't have this, you might want to visit Scholastic red where grade-level passages and a fluency calculator are available for free.
  • Time to read out loud- Alloting time to read out loud to your students and allowing time to read with a partner is an easy and free route to improving fluency. There are free readers' theatre scripts online, but re-reading a guided reading book or a shared book for reading partnerships works as well.
  • Books on CD/Tape- Our public library has many popular novels on CD. I encourage students to check these resources out on their own and bring them into class. Students benefit from viewing the text and listening to a professional read the book out loud. Modeled fluency that is free and in your neighborhood. How cool is that? If you check CD's out yourself- make sure to return them. The fees can get pretty high...and this is speaking from experience. :(
  • Other teachers- There are some great teachers around that make our life a little easier. A really great one is Laura Candler of www.lauracandler.com. Nearing a million visitors and printable resources galore, it's easy to see why her site has a lot of traffic. She, of course, offers some fluency resources. Here is one of them that you can use in your classroom. I like her format and scale for reading emphasis. It's worth checking out.
  • More teachers- After posting this Alyssa Zelkowitz, our Scholastic Special Ed blogger, sent these fluency friend posters she made on powerpoint. She also added modified/adapted decoding strategy posters as well.

    Download decoding_and_fluency_strategies.ppt 

You Only Have One Plate

Overall, reading comprehension and fluency concerns are, most likely, going to come together. When a child is not understanding what they are reading, they are probably going to have a hard time reading fluently with expression. For me, this concept helps keep everything in balance when so many programs and resources beg for our attention in the classroom. As teachers we only have one plate- but a never-ending menu to work with and select from. Keeping a balance on that plate is another post for another day.

And speaking of plates...if your schedule is flexible like mine for Monday and Tuesday, I would highly recommend The First Thanksgiving under Scholastic's main page. We used this site to compare and contrast the daily life of Pilgrim and Wampanoag children. The site includes information on clothing, housing, food, chores, schools, and games. My students really enjoyed working in groups on this, and the photos are fantastic. This is perfect for those two days before Thanksgiving break, and meets reading and social study standards for us. We plan on visiting the Mayflower section of the site Monday and physically using our hall to "see" how long the boat was. If you have some other ideas, please share. I'm still looking...      

If you would like to learn more about our classroom, I invite you to visit us here.

P.S. Enjoy your Thanksgiving break. I will take a break from posting, so look for a new post in- gasp- December. :)

P.P.S. Isn't my drawing just the cutest? I am easily amused.


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Angela Bunyi

Hey Alyssa!

I swear the best thing about this job is finding posts like yours. Like your "Word Ending Elephant"...that is great for ELL learners. This is a really typical pattern of error for this population, and would be something concrete for them to help remember what they are working on.

And, if you don't mind I would love to incorporate your ideas in my room. If you already have posters made, would you consider sending it to me? I can then post it under this blog, with credit, as The Cheetan' Cheetah, the Just-Right Rabbit and Reading Robot fit right in!

Side note- Under the Scholastic video I am talking about our CAFE board but the photo shows a picture of our decoding board (beanie babies). David worked hard on putting everything together, so I never corrected him. :) The actual CAFE board can be found on my main page. It stands for Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, and Expanding Vocabulary. It comes from the Sisters of The Daily Five.

Much respect,


Alyssa Zelkowitz

Hi, Angela,

Your blog is such an amazing resource... I have adopted and adapted so many of your strategies successfully for my own general education and inclusion classes! My fifth graders who are still learning to decode especially love the "animal tips" you provided (minus the Beanie Babies). In the process of adapting for their decoding needs (like the Word Ending Elephant... NEVER FORGETS to look for endings like -ing, -ly, -er, and ed!), I came up with our "Fluency Friends." I share these with my students and we represent them as visual 12" by 18" posters next to our decoding strategies. Here they are:

The Reading Robot: If. You. Sound. Like. A. Ro.Bot. Your. Book. Is. Too. Hard.

The Just-Right Rabbit: If you hop along in your oral reading but take time to "land and understand," your book is just right.

The Cheatin' Cheetah: If you zoom through your book when you read out loud, you're cheating yourself of its meaning.

These are quick and easy ways for children to remember what they should sound like when they are reading. My kids loving having these and their decoding strategies all connected, and they are originally inspired by the animals on YOUR C.A.F.E. board!

Thanks for your great work,

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Angela's 4th Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.