The last few weeks I’ve seeing a number of whole-school literacy plans and initiatives being circulated on twitter. In addition to this literacy plans and initiatives, teachers have been asking about how to teach reading better in their secondary classrooms. Even though we might expect students to already be able to read when they come to our classrooms (and if you’re in a country that requires a phonics check, you can for the most part), fluency is a key lever for comprehension and is something we can attend to in all our classes.
Why Fluency Matters
In a recent document from Achieve the Core, they state that dysfluency is responsible for approximately 40% of the variation between meets/does not meet in standardized assessments. Upon further investigation and discussion, David Liben, renowned reading expert, wrote to me saying,
The amount to which fluency contribute to comprehension depends on many factors but is consistently in the 25-50% range and sometimes greater
It’s important to note that especially for developing readers, and even for “expert” readers, fluency can vary when a subject or particular syntax is new or foreign.
Consider Liben’s statements in the context of the following excerpt from Thomas de Quincey’s On the Knocking at the Gate.
Without priming of vocabulary or background, this is already a dense passage. The semicolons, the almost staccato reading of the “arrested, laid asleep, tranced”. It’s a beautiful passage, and also could be quite dense if you’re unfamiliar with the style of language. Dickens was my first introduction to Victorian era literature at university, and I encountered just this. I had no idea idea what I was reading because I wasn’t shown how to read the language. Now, however, I’ve read two other texts from the period and enjoy the syntax because I understand how meaning in created in the sentences.
Now, consider this from the perspective of the students in our classroom. We already know about how knowledge impacts reading, but imagine a passage where not only are the vocabulary words preventing you from accessing the text, but also all forms of punctuation, which are used to help with prosody, are gone. If a student is dysfluent (not even counting any potential difficulties with vocabulary or decoding), reading the above de Quincey passage might look and sounds something like this:
Syntax, vocabulary, and general background knowledge all impact reading, so just as we must teach the knowledge to access the texts, we must also explicitly teach them how to read various kinds of language. Otherwise we’re sending them into the wild to practice reading word soup.
Fluency DOs and DONTs
I want this to be clear as I think it’s easy to paint me as anti-independent reading: reading well and reading widely is a net good. We also know that knowledge is cumulative, so we can’t expect to see the impact of independent reading in 6-8 weeks (Marzano recommends having the SSR time as part of the daily schedule for years to have any effect). The issue that can come into play is when we expect academic gains or reading proficiency to develop from SSR/DEAR or other independent reading acronyms: Independent reading is not the same as teaching reading. While suggestions like round robin reading, where each child read a certain amount in a specific order, and popcorn reading where students read in a random order (and this can be student directed or teacher led) seem easy enough to implement, if students are waiting their turn while others read and then only get to read a few sentences per class, this is not fluency strategy. What differentiates a fluency strategy from other whole class reading is what differentiates the act of teaching from play: sustained practice and prompt feedback.
Shanahan recommends that fluency practice take approximately 30-45 minutes (or 25% of the reading out of the day). You don’t have to do all 35 minutes at one, and you can spread our fluency across disciplines, though naturally it would look slightly different in each subject. Without further ado, here are some suggestions to get the most of your reading time.
- What it is and How to Do it: pair up readers (high/low) and have them read from the whole class text alternating ~1 paragraph. One partner listens while the other reads: The partner that listens is there for giving feedback to their part.
- When to use: I used this one the most frequently because it’s the easiest to employ. I gave time in class to have students read our whole class text anyway, so this was the best use of time in that way (if you have children or young kids in your family, you can also read with them this way).
- Reservations: This strategy requires a few things to work: knowing the reading abilities of every student, teaching students how to give proper feedback to their reading partner (these letters make these sounds, break up the word this way etc), and having tight routines and systems around behavior.
- What it is and How to do it: Echo reading is another technique in which the teacher models fluent and expressive reading of a short segment of text (1-2 sentences) and then instructs students to re-read that text with the same (or similar) inflection and prosody.
- When to use it: I have found this to work best when dealing with particularly tricky sentences where the meaning is so central to the text, that if missed, will obfuscate meaning. Here’s an example I did with my 12th graders (y13) last year. I read it first, they read it after, then they worked with a partner to parse the language.
- Potential Reservations: Overuse of this technique can become potentially distracting if you are constantly stopping in the middle of reading a story, especially if you are trying to get through a large amount of a novel for a day. In practice I’ve found this to work better with nonfiction texts or with teaching vocabulary.
- What it is and how to do it: A choral read is where students and the teacher all read from a passage at the same time.
- When to use it: I liked to use choral reads for particular selections of poetry, or when characters speak in groups in (such as with the witches refrains in macbeth).
- Potential Reservations: Imagine reading several pages with everyone reading at the same time (yikes).
- What it is: Students read from the same text multiple times.
- When to Use it: How I adapted this for my students was to read from a selection of text to prime and activate their existing background knowledge. Then, I had them go back and read the text again with sentence stems embedded so they stopped and processed what they were reading. This works perfect for poetry and plays. Here is an example how I adapted it with literary critique.
- Potential Reservations: Depending on the particular reading task, students may feel little purpose in re-reading. In my experience, it was important to make the second or third read-through tasks different enough from the initial read so that students’ could see the purpose in the re-reading.
In the end,
You are of course always free to use a teacher read aloud and things like audiobooks. There is nothing better than a professional or expert reader putting the joy and enthusiasm into a text. But we also want to build strong and confident readers and these are a few of the ways that I’ve found useful in the secondary classroom.
Follow me on Twitter
Sources & Notes
A Short Guide to Placing Text at the center of Learning from Achieve the Core
Building Background Knowledge for Academic Success by Robert J Mazano (particularly the chapter on “Wide Reading and Language Experience”)
Isn’t independent reading a research-based practice? Timothy Shanahan
How To Teach Fluency Timothy Shanahan
I also wrote fluency before, with a bit more attention paid to the research base and pitfalls of independent reading as an instructional technique.
Paige, D. D., Smith, G. S., Rasinski, V., Rupley, W. H., Magpuri-Lavell, T., & Nichols, W. D. (2019). A path analytic model linking foundational skills to grade 3 state reading achievement, The Journal of Educational Research, 112(1), 110-120, DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2018.1445609