Reading in Second and Third Grades

Reading is a process of getting meaning from print. Early reading includes the direct teaching of words and sounds. Children must be able to distinguish between different sounds of oral language for the purposes of achieving understanding. They also need basic knowledge about the written alphabet, sound-symbol relationships, and concepts of print because these are the basis for decoding, reading fluency and the development of comprehension skills students will need in order to learn content in the upper grades.

Fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension. Fluent readers decode words accurately and automatically, and they also have the capacity to make sense of the text through prosody. Prosody is the ability to use the appropriate volume, tone, emphasis, phrasing, and other elements of oral expression. Prosody is the evidence that the student is actively interpreting or constructing meaning from the passage.

How reading fluency and comprehension relate to ELLs

English language learners (ELLs) have great difficulty attaining fluency in reading without the proper instruction on the four dimensions of fluency:

  • accuracy in word decoding
  • quick and automatic recognition of words in connected text
  • expressive and meaningful interpretation of text
  • a holistic comprehension of what they just finished reading

For ELLs, success in reading in English at second and third grade reading levels depends on assessing the student in several areas:

  • basic decoding skills in English or in their primary language
  • word knowledge in English (vocabulary)
  • prosody (their intonation, pronunciation of words, stress, pitch, and smoothness)
  • basic comprehension skills (rereading, self-correction, thinking about meaning)

After proper assessment, a second or third grade teacher can begin by teaching/building on these skills.

Classroom strategies: Fluency

Word knowledge

Fluency problems for ELLs begin with limited word knowledge. Some ELLs appear to read with accuracy in decoding but have poor comprehension. They buzz through a passage and read the words, but pay little attention to sentence juncture or other punctuation. When asked what they read, they usually respond, "I don't know." These students have developed decoding skills but may not know the meaning of enough words in the sentence or passage to understand it. If your students don't know the meaning of at least 90 - 95 percent of the words they are reading, they may not comprehend the text.

Other ELLs read in a slow and labored word-by-word manner. Their reading rate may be around 50-60 words per minute. These students need help not only with word knowledge but also with decoding.

You can teach word knowledge either before reading (highlighting key words and their meanings) or during your teacher read alouds by using an English as a Second Language (ESL) strategy (described below) when a potentially unknown word is encountered. You can preview the text to be read by you or the students themselves and select five to six words that are likely to stifle comprehension for ELLs. You can quickly highlight Tier 1 words (everyday words that all English speakers know, but not ELLs) and Tier 2 words (grade-level words that all students need to know) through ESL strategies such as:

  • Role playing or pantomiming
  • Using gestures
  • Showing real objects
  • Pointing to pictures
  • Doing quick drawings on the board
  • Using the Spanish equivalent and then asking students to say the word in English

If words are more abstract and do not lend themselves to these strategies (Tier 2 and 3 words), you can follow these steps for each word:

  • Select the word from the text or conversation beforehand.
  • Explain meaning with student-friendly definitions.
  • Provide one or two examples of how it is used.
  • Ask students to repeat the word three times.
  • Engage students in activities to develop mastery by using the word in similar examples.
  • Have students say the word again.

Listening comprehension

Listening comprehension is when you read aloud to your students and they listen. As you read aloud, model reading fluency and enrich the ELLs' receptive and expressive vocabulary. You can also introduce comprehension skills such as rereading to clarify meaning, finding the main idea, and thinking about cause and effect. This is a great opportunity for ELLs to learn these skills because they are not having to do the arduous work of decoding, learning new words, and trying to comprehend the story while also attempting to think about the messages of the story – all at the same time. They can learn these skills through discussions with you or by listening to you thinking aloud.

Partner reading for fluency and comprehension

After you model reading fluency and reading strategies, students can take turns reading the same passages aloud in pairs. Each partner takes turn reading one sentence. Alternating sentences between partners helps them focus on what they are reading. Reading with their partner also creates a safety zone where ELLs can feel comfortable through the trials and errors of reading aloud. After they read a paragraph or two, they should stop and summarize together what they read.

Other ideas

After students finish their partner reading, you can use cooperative learning strategies such as "Numbered Heads Together":

  • Ask students to sit in teams of four and number off.
  • Pose a question and ask students to put their heads together to discuss the answer.
  • All four students must be prepared to give the answer because they don't know whose number you are going to call.
  • Randomly select a number and ask students with that number to stand and give the answer (be sure to have at least four questions on hand so that every student has an opportunity to answer).


Adapted from: Slavin R. & Calderón, M. (2001). Effective programs for Latino students. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

And from: Slavin R. & Madden, N. (2001). One million children. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


I fully agree with many of the strategies posted on this page. Our school teaches fluency as part of a researched-based reading program (Success For All). Part of the of the program is not only grouping students by their individual reading levels, but also working constantly in cooperative groups. Partner reading and fluency reading with the teacher are key elements in this program. Further, SFA dictates every students from the youngest on up, reads aloud at home for a minimum of 20/ day with an adult or parent. Additionally, our school has a "Reading Olympics" where the students are partner reading a passage, initially as a cold read, then for fluency for four days, charting their individual successes. We do this drill daily for a period of ten minutes. Once per month the teacher performs a one-one assessment as cold read. The students are rewarded with "gold medals" if they move to the next reading level.

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