ELLs and Reading Fluency in English

Fluency is the ability to read words accurately and automatically with expression. Because fluent readers do not have to slow down in order to concentrate on decoding the individual words in a text, they can focus their attention on the text's meaning. In this way, fluency acts as a bridge between word recognition and comprehension, and this relationship is reciprocal. That is, when a student understands the meaning of the text he/she is reading, it is much easier to read that text with expression.

Fluency Strategies

Learn more in Reading 101 for English Language Learners.

Prosody is a term that is frequently heard in discussions of fluency. Prosody refers to the appropriate use of intonation and phrasing in reading. Prosodic reading involves paying attention to punctuation signs like commas and periods, assigning appropriate stress to individual words within a sentence, and raising or lowering voice intonation to match the meaning of the text (e.g., raising the voice at the end of a question). Paying attention to the elements of prosody allows us to quantify and measure what we refer to as "reading with expression."

How fluency relates to ELLs

Instruction in fluency can be particularly beneficial for English language learners because activities designed to enhance fluency in reading can also contribute to oral language development in English. As students practice reading English text accurately, automatically, and prosodically, they are gaining valuable information about the sounds and cadences of spoken English, and they are also developing vocabulary skills that can contribute to oral language fluency, as well as reading and listening comprehension.

Assessing reading fluency

As with any type of instruction, fluency instruction depends upon ongoing assessment to identify individual students' strengths and needs. Effective fluency assessment must include measures of all three components of fluency: reading accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. It is important to note that the accuracy percentages and the reading rate ranges described in this article are based on research conducted in English and should not be applied to reading in other languages. Even languages that use the same alphabet differ in such characteristics as phonetic regularity, syntactical complexity, and even average word length, all of which can affect reading accuracy and rate. Additional research is needed to determine appropriate accuracy and rate ranges for other languages.

Assessing reading accuracy

Accuracy refers to the percentage of words a reader can read correctly in a given text. Measuring accuracy allows teachers to choose texts at an appropriate difficulty level for each student. In order to improve their reading, students need texts that are difficult enough to require them to practice using the reading strategies they are learning without being so difficult that the student is overwhelmed.

In talking about text difficulty, reading teachers often refer to three functional reading levels, which represent the amount of difficulty that a particular level of text presents for a student. Text that is at a student's independent reading level is text that he/she can read with 98-100% accuracy. That is, the student misses no more than two words out of every 100 words of text. At this level, the student can read independently with no support from the teacher. Text that is at a student's instructional reading level is text that the student can read and comprehend, but only with some assistance from the teacher. The accuracy range for instructional-level text is 90-97% for Primer-level text and above and 85-97% for Preprimer-level text. Text that is at a student's frustrational reading level is text that he/she can read with less than 90% accuracy (less than 85% at Preprimer level). At this level, the student would have difficulty reading and comprehending the text, even with the support of the teacher.

Functional Reading Levels
Independent Level 98-100% accuracy
Instructional Level 90-97% accuracy
(85-97% for Preprimer)
Frustration Level Below 90% accuracy
(Below 85% for Preprimer)

Teachers should target a student's instructional reading level for classroom reading instruction. When students read text that they can read with 90-97% accuracy, they encounter enough challenges to require them to practice the strategies they are learning, but the text is not so difficult that students are overwhelmed. Independent-level text is good for independent reading and for practicing reading speed and prosody. Frustration-level text can be great for comprehension instruction, but only when the teacher is doing the reading! Students should never be asked to read text that is at their frustration level.

Here is a quick way to measure reading accuracy:

  • Find a short reading passage, and ask the student to read it aloud to you.
  • Make note of any errors the student makes while reading. Errors include: substitutions (substituting an incorrect word or a nonsense word for a word in the text), reversals (reversing the order of two words in the text), omissions (leaving out a word), or words you have to provide to the student. If the student self-corrects after making a mistake, count the word correct.
  • Divide the number of words the student read correctly by the total number of words in the passage. This number will be a percentage.

Example: The student read a 200-word passage and missed 14 words.
200 — 14 = 186 words read correctly
186 ­ ÷ 200 = .93
The student read the passage with 93% accuracy, which is within his/her instructional reading range.

Assessing automaticity

Automaticity is usually measured as reading rate, or the number of words a student reads per minute (WPM). You can measure rate at the same time that you assess a student's reading accuracy. Here's what you do (you'll need a stopwatch):

  • Select a short reading passage, and have the student read it aloud. Begin timing as soon as the student reads the first word of the passage, and stop the stopwatch as soon as he/she reads the last word. (To measure silent reading rate, let the student know that you will begin timing as soon as he/she looks down at the passage, and you will stop when he/she looks up at the end. Students should not be expected to read silently until they are reading at second-grade level).
  • Convert the time on the stopwatch to seconds by multiplying the total number of minutes the student read by 60 and adding the number of additional seconds.
  • Multiply the total number of words in the passage by 60, and divide by the student's reading time in seconds:

Example: The student read a 200-word passage in 2 minutes and 32 seconds (2:32 on stopwatch).
2 minutes x 60 seconds each = 120 seconds
120 + the remaining 32 seconds = 152 seconds
(200 x 60) ÷ 152 seconds = 79 words per minute (wpm)

Many different researchers have suggested guidelines for how many words per minute students should be reading at particular stages of their reading development. Although there is no one accepted scale, the following ranges, developed by Dr. Darrell Morris at Appalachian State University, can be used as guidelines:

Average End-of-Year Reading Rate Ranges (Grades 1-8)
Grade Oral rates (wpm) Silent rates (wpm)
1 45-85 50-90
2 80-120 95-145
3 95-135 120-170
4 110-150 135-185
5 125-155 150-200
6 135-160 160-210
7 145-160 170-220
8 145-160 180-230

Source: Morris, D. (2008). Diagnosis and correction of reading problems. New York: Guilford.

Note: Reading rate is not assessed until students are reading in Primer-level text and above. Students reading below primer level are still reading word-by-word, focusing all of their attention on decoding the text.

Assessing prosody

Teachers often use rubrics to assess whether students are reading with appropriate pitch variation, intonation, phrasing, and expression. One such rubric is the Oral Reading Fluency Scale created for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). To use this rubric, simply have a student read a short passage of text, and assign a score of 1-4, based on the descriptions below.

NAEP Oral Reading Fluency Scale
Fluent Level 4 Reads primarily in larger, meaningful phrase groups. Although some regressions, repetitions, and deviations from text may be present, these do not appear to detract from the overall structure of the story. Preservation of the author's syntax is consistent. Some or most of the story is read with expressive interpretation.
Level 3 Reads primarily in three- or four-word phrase groups. Some small groupings may be present. However, the majority of phrasing seems appropriate and preserves the syntax of the author. Little or no expressive interpretation is present.
Nonfluent Level 2 Reads primarily in two-word phrases with some three- or four-word groupings. Some word-by-word reading may be present. Word groupings may seem awkward and unrelated to larger context of sentence or passage.
Level 1 Reads primarily word-by-word. Occasional two-word or three-word phrases may occur — but these are infrequent and/or they do not preserve meaningful syntax.

SOURCE: U.D. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2002 Oral Reading Study.

Comprehension caveat

Even though fluency instruction is important, teachers must remember that many ELLs can be deceptively fast and accurate while reading in English without fully comprehending the meaning of the text they are reading. That is because reading comprehension depends upon a variety of complex skills that are not as important to word reading. These include deep vocabulary knowledge, syntactical knowledge, and background knowledge of the subject discussed in the text. For this reason, it is always important to pair fluency instruction with good instruction in comprehension.

For some great ideas on both fluency and comprehension instruction with ELLs, see Reading 101 for English Language Learners.

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