According to the U.S. Department of Education, two out of three children in the 4th grade are not fluent readers (1). To put that in context, if a class has 35 kids, 23 of them will not have age-appropriate fluent reading skills.
More worrying still, children who are not fluent readers by the time they reach the end of fourth grade are:
- Four times more likely to leave school without graduating.
- Two to three times more likely to end up in jail or on welfare.
However, it’s not difficult to help children reach goals of fluent reading. A study of reading habits looked at third-grade readers who were struggling at the beginning of the school year. The study found that:
- Those who ended the year at, or above, the third-grade reading fluency level read for only six minutes a day more than those who did not (2).
- Children in third grade who hit age-appropriate reading fluency benchmarks read for an average of 20 minutes a day.
Reading fluency activities can help put your child on a solid path to success.
- Read aloud to your child every day.
- Have your child read aloud to you.
- Listen to audiobooks and follow the words in print.
- Practice choral reading.
- Use readers’ theater.
- Create reading fluency games.
What Is Reading Fluency?
Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, at an appropriate speed, and with suitable emotional expression (3). This means to be considered a fluent reader, when a child reads aloud they must:
- Read most words correctly.
- Be able to quickly work out unfamiliar words.
- Correctly address punctuation.
- Read the text at a speed slow enough to understand but not so slowly that the words do not “flow.”
- Use appropriate emotional expression and emulate the rhythm of speech.
Why Is Reading Fluency Important?
It allows us to concentrate on the content of the text, rather than the individual words themselves. A child who is not a fluent reader will be:
- Concentrating on individual words.
- Breaking up the flow of the text by stopping to decode words.
- Misinterpreting the meaning of a text because they miss punctuation or apply emphasis to the wrong words.
What Causes Poor Reading Fluency?
The reasons for poor reading fluency are many and varied.
We Do Not Teach Fluency
We teach our children to read, but most children learn the fluency component of reading without any specific instruction. We give lessons in sounding words out and phonetics. We do not give lessons in reading aloud in the same way we speak, with natural rhythm and expression (4).
As a result, children who do not pick it up naturally may have problems with fluency.
Little Early Exposure To Reading
Children who struggle to read fluently often start school with little, if any, exposure to books or other regular forms of reading. When we do not read to our children, they have limited opportunities to hear how reading should sound.
Children who are not exposed to books are also at a disadvantage because they have not had the opportunity to see written words, learn some sight words, or associate the sounds of letters with written letters.
Consequently, these children are in danger of falling further behind their peers.
Many children who face challenges with reading fluency have learning disabilities. These disabilities do not necessarily have any relation to a child’s intelligence. Instead, they impact the ways in which a child is able to learn (5).
Think of it as a journey across the country that most people will take by airplane. A child with a learning disability is like a person who cannot fly. There is nothing wrong with their ability to travel, or arrive at the same destination, it is just the mode of transport they use that is different.
Unfortunately, children with learning disabilities may be undiagnosed or they may not have access to specialist teaching methods to help them achieve fluent reading skills.
Children who struggle with reading may begin to view it as a stressful activity. As a result they will avoid reading, which prevents them from developing reading fluency.
Identifying Reading Fluency Problems
A child who is struggling with reading fluency may (6):
- Find it difficult and become frustrated by reading aloud.
- Avoid reading altogether.
- Speak negatively about reading.
- Score poorly on words-per-minute tests at school.
- Move their lips when reading silently.
- Know how to sound out words, but be unable to explain the meaning of the text they have just read.
Reading Fluency Activities
There are many fun and engaging ways to help boost a reader’s fluency.
Many of these activities are used in the classroom, but they work equally well at home.
Read Aloud To Your Child
The best thing you can possibly do to help your child improve their reading fluency is to read aloud to them. Sitting together with a book and reading to your child demonstrates the sounds, rhythms, and emotions of fluent reading.
Read aloud to your child, running your finger along under the words as you say them. Use plenty of expression and emotion while you are reading. This will help draw your child into the story and capture their interest.
Concentrating on the content of the story will also help your child view the text as a whole and not focus on individual words.
Don’t break up the flow by pointing out particular words and:
- Asking your child if they know what the word says.
- Talking about how you are reading with emotion and rhythm.
Do interrupt the flow of the book when:
- Your child asks about a word or the content of the story.
- There is a natural break in the flow and use this pause to discuss the story with your child. The end of a chapter is a great time for this.
- Your child indicates they do not want to read anymore.
Make Use Of Audio Books
You don’t have to shell out money for expensive books and recordings to make use of audio books. You can read aloud to your child and make your own recording of a book you already own.
You can borrow some from your local library. Alternatively, you can find free audio books for kids online.
Most of these come with a printable version of the book so you can follow along.
There are a number of ways to use audiobooks to help with reading fluency.
- Use the recording without the accompanying book. Then, when your child is familiar with the story, introduce the book and ask them to read to you. To prevent your child reciting the story from memory, ask them to read from a page other than the first.
- Sit with your child and, in the same way as you would with straightforward reading, follow the story with them in the book.
- Allow your child to listen to the recording alone, following the story in the book as they go. This is most appropriate when your child has become more engaged. If they are not, chances are they will listen to the story and not follow in the book.
- Create a book to go with a recording they already have. You can make comic books together, use favorite songs, or even write the script of a favorite movie or TV show.
Practice Sight Words
You don’t need to purchase packs of flashcards and sit holding them up for your child to read.
- Make your own cards and use them to create simple sentences together.
- Print out, or write out short paragraphs and ask your child to highlight particular words.
- Play games such as Sight Words Battleship, Dot Sticker Sight Words, or one of the many other homemade games you can find online.
Have your child memorize some short books or stories. This will help them become familiar with the words and the story. This will also give them confidence when they begin to read the written words.
Memorization also helps your child become familiar with the rhythm of the written word, recognizing words in other texts (7).
Does your child have a friend or sibling they enjoy spending time with? If they do, and this friend or sibling enjoys reading, try buddy reading.
Buddy reading gives your struggling reader the opportunity to listen to a story read aloud, in a comforting, familiar environment. They will hear the speech patterns of a more confident reader and may be encouraged to try reading aloud themselves.
Buddy reading can also expose your child to books, other reading materials, and genres that they might otherwise not consider.
Echo reading is exactly how it sounds. You read aloud and have your child read the same piece back to you.
Echo reading allows your child to model their “reading voice” based on yours. It gives them the opportunity to practice tone and rhythm without worrying about what the words say.
Start by reading one short sentence at a time. Then slowly build up the amount of text you read before your child repeats.
Once your child shows some confidence, have them point to the words as they say them.
Choral reading can be a little more difficult for some children. But for others, it works well.
With choral reading, you both read the words of the text aloud, at the same time.
In a classroom setting, this can help a child who feels self-conscious when reading aloud alone. On the other hand, it can help a child cover-up their lack of reading fluency skills because they become lost in the group.
Choral reading at home can be fun for your child. Place emphasis on voices for different characters and have your child do the same.
Simple poetry and books with a distinct, repetitive rhythm are excellent for use in choral reading.
Phrase reading, sometimes called scoop or scooping reading, does not place emphasis on individual words. Instead, a child is encouraged to read an entire phrase or group of words.
This doesn’t mean long sentences. Instead, they read short groups of two or three words.
Again, short poems and stories with a clear rhythm work well for phrased reading.
To help your child improve reading fluency with phrased reading, you only need some paper and colored markers.
Write out a line or two of a favorite book or song. Then read the phrases aloud, making note of where you make a natural pause. Then, draw a “scoop” under each phrase.
Next, your child can “swoop” under the phrase as they read it aloud.
This technique is excellent when you have a child who struggles with reading aloud with natural speech patterns. The visual of the scoop provides a clear indicator of where to pause. This gives your child the confidence that they are “doing it right.”
In repeated reading, your child reads the same text over and over. They do this until they can read the text fluently.
Repeated reading can be used in conjunction with other strategies such as paired, choral, and phrased reading.
By having your child repeat the same text, they will have the chance to build fluency. It works like this:
- The first time reading the text, your child falters because they are trying to work out individual words.
- The next few times your child may still falter as they learn to recognize the words.
- Eventually your child reads with confidence because they recognize the now-familiar words.
Some children enjoy this technique. They thrive on the opportunity to read and reread until they are fluent. This is an excellent confidence booster and encourages children to read more.
Other children may not enjoy repeated reading. They become bored with reading the same text multiple times.
Children with a low frustration threshold find this technique especially difficult. Repeatedly struggling with the same words in a short space of time can result in anxiety and insecurity about their abilities.
Reader’s Theater is a reading fluency technique that has children read out parts in a script. The children do not have to memorize the part, just be able to read the script aloud with appropriate emotion.
The advantage of this technique is that you can focus on the rhythm, flow, and emotion of the reading. This distracts the child from the negative associations they may have with reading aloud.
Parents can use this technique at home by writing their own silly scripts or adapting a book into a script.
Reading Fluency Games
If I could give just one piece of advice about helping your child to read, it would be to keep it fun.
Reading should be something your child enjoys or at least can tolerate without negative connotations.
It is easy to find reading fluency games that you can recreate at home.
However, the sheer number of search results can be overwhelming. So, here are a few of our family’s favorite reading fluency games.
1. “Oh Snap”
For this game, you need a marker, some popsicle sticks, and a container. You will also need to know common sight words or words your child is learning at school.
To make your own reading fluency “Oh Snap” game:
- Write a word on the end of each popsicle stick. Use common sight words or words you know your child is learning at school.
- On the end of three popsicle sticks write, “Oh Snap.”
- Place the sticks, word end down, into a container you cannot see through.
To play “Oh Snap”:
- Take turns to take one stick at a time out of the pot.
- When you remove a stick, you must read the word at the end, aloud.
- If you get the word right, you keep the stick.
- If you cannot read the word, or read it incorrectly, you put the stick back in the pot.
- When someone takes an “Oh Snap” stick out of the pot, they must put all of the sticks they have won back in the container.
You can choose to play the game one of two ways:
- For a set time of your choosing. At the end of the time, the winner is the player with the most sticks.
- The first player to a certain number of sticks wins.
2. “Swat The Sight Word”
To make the reading fluency game, “Swat The Sight Word,” you will need:
- A plastic fly swatter, spatula, or a similar item for each child.
Write some of the common sight words, or words with which your child is struggling, on pieces of paper. Make them large enough to see at a distance.
Place the words around the room, the yard, or even the park on a good weather day.
When you shout out a sight word, the first player to find the word and swat it wins the word.
This can be a fun activity on its own, or you can have a winner. The winner is the first player to X number of words in a set time period.
3. “Go Fish”
It’s easy to make your own reading fluency version of the classic children’s card game “Go Fish.”
To make a reading fluency version of “Go Fish”:
You will need:
- Marker pens.
Write a single sight word on one side of each card. To make the game more difficult for more advanced readers, you can use phrases. Ensure there are either two, four, or six of each word as you will be pairing them up.
- Deal five, seven, or nine cards, face down, to each player
- Place the rest of the cards in a single pile, face down on the table.
- The first player is the “fisher.” The fisher asks one of the other players, “Do you have….?” and inserts one of the sight words or phrases for which they have a card.
- If the player does have the match, they must hand it over to the fisher. The fisher places the pair of cards on the table in front of them. The fisher can then ask another play, “Do you have?” and so on until someone says, “No, I do not have that. Go Fish.”
- The fisher then takes a card from the top of the pile and the next player becomes the fisher.
The game ends when a player gets rid of all of their cards. The winner is the player with most pairs.
Other Tips For Improving Reading Fluency
- Don’t restrict your reading to books. Look for words while you are out and about. Encourage your child to read aloud the words they see on road signs, in the store, and wherever else you are.
- Choose reading materials that match your child’s skill level. Do not choose more difficult books to “stretch” your child. They are more likely to frustrate them and have the effect of putting them off.
- If they get a word wrong while reading, let them carry on to the end of the sentence. Sometimes the context of the word can help your child decode it. However, if you jump in as soon as they get a word wrong, your child will not have the chance to discover their mistake and correct it themselves.
- When your child makes a mistake, choose your words carefully. Don’t lose patience or tell them they are wrong. Instead, ask them to try the word again, or tell them the correct way of saying the word.
- Encourage your child to write their own story.
Reading is about much more than being able to decode a single word. To be a fluent reader your child must be able to read aloud with few mistakes, at an appropriate speed, and with emotion.
It is relatively easy to help your child improve their reading fluency by reading with them in a variety of ways. You can also play reading fluency games. This will ensure reading remains a fun activity and not something your child will come to dread.