Fluency is often discussed by elementary teachers simply as the rate of words read aloud per minute, although the full definition includes reading accuracy plus voice tone and inflection. It’s an important measure of student reading success, and as students move through grades, poor fluency becomes increasingly serious. To raise fluency levels, students need to practice reading in short bursts of effort, and they need to practice word attack skills that are used for frustration-level text, in which more than one out of 20 words are difficult to decode.
Independent reading is one way to help students build fluency, but we all know that they’re not necessarily going to focus if you simply hand them a book and tell them to read it. I’ve found that if I combine repeat reading, paired reading, and fluency trackers, students are more motivated to do that crucial work that builds fluency.
Building Fluency in the Classroom
In my teaching practice, I’ve long relied on two strategies to support my students’ literacy growth: repeated reading and fluency trackers (grids on which students record their fluency scores over time). Reading a passage multiple times (repeated reading) scaffolds the student’s ability both to decode and to remember familiar words and syllable patterns, building their fluency and comprehension; and fluency trackers give students agency and motivate them while giving me a quick read on their progress. When integrating repeated reading with fluency trackers, I often use a one-page passage: Students read the passage three times, graphing each attempt (first, second, and third) with a different-colored crayon.
That combination has always served me well, but once I added in a third component—paired reading—I noticed that not only did the atmosphere in the classroom get a boost, but engagement improved and students got their work done more readily. Repeated reading gives them the practice and reinforcement they need to build their literacy skills, the pairing creates a positive social element, and the fluency trackers simultaneously help them to self-direct, see their progress, and stay on track while working in pairs, when socializing is tempting.
Steps to Fluency Tracker Practice
Create a tracker folder for each student: Use a letter-size manila folder, and staple in a data tracker for fluency scores. (You can find fluency trackers in a number of places, such as these free ones, or you can create your own using graph paper.)
Locate and print out reading passages: Find passages that are somewhere between the student’s instructional and frustrational reading level. Often, reading passages of this type are available in the support materials to the grade-level reading program at your school. You’ll need two copies of each passage for each pair: one for the student reading and one for the listener/scorer.
Pair the students: Match students who read at about the same level. Consider sociability and distractibility as well. If one student is volatile or touchy, put them with a classmate who has a calm, steady personality.
Model paired reading and fluency tracker record keeping: To model fluency tracking, gather the class in a circle so they can watch you and a student as the two of you go through the process of doing a timed fluency reading. Set a timer and have the model student begin reading. After a minute, stop the timer, count the words, report the score to the student, and have the student record the result on the fluency tracker.
Send the students out to practice: After giving the students the names of their partners, review the behavior norms (voice level, where they are to sit, how to get help) and direct them to try using their fluency trackers themselves.
Debrief and continue to practice: Once your students have tried paired reading and fluency tracking, bring them together to answer questions and work out the kinks—for example, “Did anyone have trouble using the timers?” While they are working, walk around the class to see how the students are reading and to make sure they stay on task. Eventually, they will require minimal supervision.
Give students the opportunity to set their own goals: Make the goals specific; allow them to be personal, not public; and include a time for reaching the goal. Appropriate goals might be reaching a certain level of fluency (“I’ll be able to read 60 words a minute by the first of the next month”) or accuracy (“I’ll read for one minute with two errors or less by winter break”).
Once you’ve landed on a routine for fluency trackers, schedule them regularly for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
I used this strategy with a small group of second graders this spring, and three out of four students made significant gains in speed over four months with daily practice, while half of them doubled their reading speed. A colleague used fluency trackers with fourth graders who were reading significantly below grade level; in a group with a dozen or so students, all made significant fluency gains—and they enjoyed the activity. “They love it!” she told me. “When it’s time for fluency, they jump up to get their folders and get to work. It’s wonderful.”