4 Secrets To Improving Reading Fluency in First Grade

Text say "4 Secrets to Improving Reading Fluency in First Grade" with a photo of a teacher reading with a child.

Need tips and tricks for improving reading fluency? Keep reading to learn what to consider when it comes to reading fluency and ways to help your students improve.

Have you ever wondered what sets a good reader apart from a great reader? It’s all about oral reading fluency!

Not only does oral reading fluency make a reader more enjoyable to listen to, but it is also a strong indicator of reading comprehension. After all, it’s hard to read with expression if you don’t understand what’s happening in the text – or if you are having to pause to solve every third word.

This blog post will explore what fluent reading entails, focusing on key indicators such as rate, intonation and phrasing. You will also learn ways for improving reading fluency, such as using Readers’ Theater.

What is Fluent Reading?

It’s easy to think about reading fluency in terms of reading speed. That’s how it’s measured on many common assessments (like DIBELS and FastBridge, or any other CBM tool.) 

And, we’ve all listened to painfully slow readers and realized that they are definitely not fluent readers.

But, reading speed is only one piece of reading fluency.

It’s also important to consider phrasing, expression and intonation as part of reading fluency. Essentially, fluent readers use their voice to reflect and project what’s happening in the story (or text.)

That’s because fluency and comprehension are closely connected. The reason those words-per-minute assessments are considered helpful is because they do correlate to measures of comprehension.

Despite that, it’s important to focus on more than simply words-per-minute when teaching for oral reading fluency.

What are at the key indicators of reading fluency?

Rate:

Reading rate is what’s measured by words-per-minute assessments (like DIBELS or FastBridge.) This simply measures how many words from a story the child reads in one minute.

However, it’s easy for students to over-focus on speed, hoping for a “high score.” In reality, we want readers to read at an appropriate reading speed – one that is neither too fast nor too slow.

Clearly, reading too slowly is not good Many times slow readers are spending so much time solving words that they are unable to attend to the meaning of the text. Their reading sounds disjointed and is not enjoyable to listen to.

On the other hand, overly fast readers can be so focused on their reading speed that they race through the text, without paying attention to what the words are telling them. This becomes a bigger challenge when students are reading more complex texts with longer, complicated sentences (or less familiar vocabulary.)

Also, speedy readers don’t always use expression and phrasing in their reading, tending to sound robotic. This kind of reading is also not fun to listen to.

So, much like Goldilocks, we are looking for readers who read that the speed that is just right for the text they are reading.

Expression:

When readers read with expression and intonation, they vary the pitch, stress and rhythm of the words as they read aloud. Their voice rises and falls to reflect punctuation, use of bold words or dialogue, for example.

Reading with intonation conveys meaning and emotion to the listener. When a student reads with intonation, it typically indicates that they are aware of the meaning of the text.

When readers lack intonation, their reading can sound very robotic and monotone.

Phrasing: 

Phrasing is the ability to group words together to make them sound like speech. It involves reading words in groups, but also pausing in appropriate places, like at periods or commas.

When a readers engages in phrased reading, they demonstrate that they understand the sentence structure and overall comprehension of a text.

Reading without phrasing can either sound very choppy or rushed. Not only is this kind of reading hard to listen to, but it might also compromise comprehension for the reader.

Stress:

When we talk, we emphasize different words to emphasize our message. In terms of reading fluency, this is called “stress”. Often, a small shift in which word is stressed can create subtle shifts in meaning.

For instance, “Today I am going to make cookies,” emphasizes the day for baking. You will do it today, as opposed to tomorrow.

On the other hand, “Today I am going to make cookies,” implies that perhaps you are baking a different treat at a different time.

Why does improving reading fluency matter?

As described above, fluency impacts (and reflects) comprehension of the text. Since making meaning is the reason for reading, improving reading fluency is critical for struggling readers.

But, reading fluency also impacts enjoyment of text, for both the reader and the listener. Reading with expression (and all the other components of fluency) can really capture a listener’s attention, helping to engage the audience.

Generally, when readers are reading fluently, they are having more fun, and are more likely to spend more time reading. This is important because time spent reading helps improve overall reading performance.

What are ways for improving reading fluency?

Great news! There are several ways to improve reading fluency, and most of them are highly enjoyable to students!

My favorite ways for improving reading fluency involve modeling fluent reading, engaging in repeated reading, using readers’ theater, and participating in partner reading. These strategies involve social connections, which often make learning tasks more rewarding.

Modeling:

We can all remember listening to a parent or favorite teacher read aloud to us when we were little. We were often on the edge of our seats, waiting to know what happened next – and the adult knew it!

That adult was likely a fluent and engaging reader. Their ability to read with expression, phrasing and varied rate just pulled us right in!

Little did we know that the highly enjoyable task of listening to a story was also setting us up to become fluent readers. The modeling of fluent reading helps children develop of sense of rhythm, pace and expression. (It’s a great way to support vocabulary and oral language, too!)

When you are working with dysfluent readers, make sure you spend time modeling fluent reading for them. This could be at another time in the school day (such as read-aloud time). 

Photo of a teacher sitting next to a young reader in front of a book.

But it could also be within a small group lesson. You wouldn’t have time to read an entire book during that time, but you could read a page from their book, modeling how to read it with expression (or phrasing, or stressing a particular word). Then have the child reread the same page back to you, applying this fluency skill.

When using modeling to support a particular child, it is helpful to have one fluency component in mind. Draw the readers’ attention to how you use that fluency strategy in your reading. Here are a few things you might point out:

Rate:

Notice how I put my words together when I read. I don’t have a big pause between words. If I know a word (like the) I say it quickly and keep going. Listen.

Expression:

Listen to how I make my reading sound like talking. I change my voice to show if the book is exciting or sad. When the characters talk, I make them sound like people talking.

Phrasing:

(3 options) Readers put groups of words together to make their reading sound smooth. Look how I read all the words on this line together, without a pause. 

Listen to how I read from the beginning to the end of the sentence without pausing.

Notice how I take a slight break at the period and the comma. This helps you better understand what’s happening in the book.

Stress:

Do you see this bold word? The author wants you to say that one a little louder, because it’s an important part of the story. Let’s try it.

Repeated Reading:

Repeated reading has been hailed for a long time as a way to improve reading fluency. This strategy can take many different forms.

In one type of repeated reading, the adult reads the text to the child, then has the child read it for several days. This allows the teacher to model fluent reading prior to the repeated reading practice.

In other repeated reading structures, the child rereads a book they read in an earlier lesson. This can be done within the small group lesson structure, as independent reading, or as homework.

When focusing on fluency, it is often helpful to use texts that are short and relatively easy for the student. This allows them to focus their attention on the desired aspect of fluency (phrasing, expression, etc.), rather then spending significant energy on solving unfamiliar words.

As a teaching point before rereading a text, you may prompt the reader to pay close attention to one of the components of fluency, using some of the prompts in the “modeling” section of this blog.

Readers’ Theater:

Readers’ Theater is a simple dramatization of a story. Students read from a script, but do not fully perform a play.

However, students are encouraged to read their lines with phrasing and expression (similar to actors.) This makes readers’ theater a perfect strategy for improving reading fluency. Plus, kids love it!

Photo of a script for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as a paper crown to identify the Goldilocks character.

Kids love practicing fluency with familiar stories and readers’ theater scripts.

One big reason readers’ theater supports fluency is because the scripts tend to involve a great deal of dialogue. Students can be encouraged to read their lines in a way that sounds like that character.

Because students enjoy readers’ theater so much, they are excited to read the scripts again and again. (You can easily build in some repeated reading with a purpose this way.)

They also enjoy reading them to friends or family – in addition to performing them within the classroom. Students have a reason to read with expression when they perform.

This set of readers’ theater scripts are based on familiar tales, like The Three Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man. They are written with beginning readers in mind, using simple text and an easy-to-read font. 

Partner Reading:

Kids love reading with a partner! The social aspect of partner reading is highly engaging and rewarding to students.

During partner reading, students can reread familiar books, building fluency as they go. (Once again, a simple way to encourage rereading.)

Partner reading can take a few different forms:

  • choral read (both read at the same time – best for shorter books)
  • alternating pages of the same book
  • each partner reads a full book
  • echo-reading (the more fluent partner reads the pages, modeling fluency for the less fluent reader)
  • narrator-dialogue (one partner reads all the narration, the other reads all the dialogue) 

Because of the social interactions, partner reading can get noisy and unfocused. It is critical to intentionally introduce this routine.

First, be clear with students about the reason for partner reading (to practice reading and build fluency).

Next, carefully model the process of partner reading. Spend a few days on each format your students will use (choral reading, alternating pages, etc.)

Describe and demonstrate what it looks like, then have volunteers model for the class. 

Then allow everyone to practice partner reading (emphasizing the need for quiet voices.) Start with brief amounts of time and build up to longer periods.

Spend time revisiting the routine until students are consistently applying the routine.

Learn more about how text selection can support fluency in this blog post.

Make Fluency Fun

Because of its role in supporting comprehension, it’s critical that students become fluent readers. How lucky that so many practices to build fluency are actually fun for kids!

When thinking about fluent reading, it’s important to help students consider reading rate, expression, phrasing and which words to stress.

Some of the best ways to support fluent reading include:

  • modeling
  • repeated reading
  • readers’ theater
  • partner reading

Add some of these fluency routines to your daily reading time tomorrow. Help your students on their journey to reading fluency, knowing that it unlocks the door to a world of successful and enjoyable reading!

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