How to measure and discuss fluency in reading

Fluency is the key to literacy and yet we too often concentrate on errors or issues with reading, says this specialist teacher

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I often ask teachers to describe how a child reads, or more specifically whether they are fluent or not, but it can be very hard to find the words to describe a child’s reading.

Instead, we usually end up discussing the mistakes a child makes, the parts they have failed to learn or their lack of understanding.

Although these are important things to notice, it is not what I am looking for – I want to know what they can do and how it sounds when they are reading aloud. I am looking for a diagnostic analysis – a place to start from and the strengths on which to build.

Fluent reading is essential. It supports reading comprehension and without being able to read fluently, young readers will lack the reading stamina to tackle longer, more complex texts. As with everything in reading, if one part of the process doesn’t quite work smoothly, it can result in trouble somewhere further down the line.

Fluency definition

So what does it mean to be able to read fluently?

The EEF improving Literacy at Key Stage 2 Guidance report suggests that fluent readers “can read quickly, accurately, and with appropriate stress and intonation”.

But, what does that look like in practice?  

The Multi-dimensional Fluency Scale by Professor Tim Rasinski is a useful tool to help. The scale is a simple rubric that isolates four distinct elements that contribute to fluency: pace (fast/slow), volume (quiet/loud/modulated), phrasing (word by word/phrased) and smoothness.

For each element, there are four stages, each describing a step in its development.

If we consider pace, for example, a child might start off with limited pace, with reading that is very slow, hesitant and laborious (1). With repeated reading, the speed increases to slow (2) and then to the point the child only slows down to slow at points of difficulty (3). Eventually, the child will be able to read at a "conversational" speed, with a pace that is equivalent to their normal talking speed. Literally, we might describe their reading as sounding like talking. This would be considered to be a fluent pace (4).

Phrasing and accuracy

Fluent phrasing is essential for effective inferential comprehension, but often children higher in KS2 are still reading word by word, in a choppy, machine-gun manner. They may read quickly, but lack the attention to clauses and sentences – including punctuation – that a reader with fluent pace would have.

Children with a fluent phrasing read words and phrases together smoothly, using an appropriate intonation and stress. I have met children who read with a fast pace, but without the smoothness of a fluent reader. They may frequently stumble and repeat words, or stop for extended periods of time while they are working something out – but read quickly when they put it all together.

Of course, none of this is going to happen if the child isn’t reading with a good degree of accuracy. Professor Richard Allington suggests that children should be regularly reading books at 98-100 per cent accuracy to be able to orchestrate the range of skills and knowledge needed to make progress in reading.

When all the elements of fluent reading work together, the child has the greatest chance of being able to understand what they read, to learn from reading and to learn about how to read. All of these elements can be modelled, discussed and taught.

So tuning into fluency when we are teaching children to read, can help us tune into being more effective teachers. Let’s start talking about fluency more and pay it the attention it deserves.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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