What Is Reading Fluency?

Little Girl Reading a Book
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Reading fluency refers to the ability to read quickly, smoothly, easily, and with expression. To read fluently, a reader must understand how the symbols on the page (the letters) are related to the sounds of the language, how those sounds are blended together to form words, what the words mean, and what the words together in a sentence mean.

Stages of Reading Fluency

In the initial stages of learning to read, a reader is so focused on decoding the words on the page, that he doesn't have much mental energy left to spend on meaning.

To decode the words, a beginning reader sounds out the words - he is connecting sounds to the letters he sees and is trying to blend those sounds together to form words. Then he must know what the word means.

If a reader encounters an unfamiliar word, the decoding is much more difficult because he then has to try to get the meaning of the word from the context, from the surrounding words. That, however, means that the reader must be able to decode those surrounding words - and remember them, and then figure out the meaning of the unfamiliar word. You can see that there is quite a bit involved in reading.

Decoding vs. Reading With Expression

As a reader becomes better at decoding the words, he'll be able to read words more quickly. But that does not mean that he'll be able to read with expression. Reading with expression means that a child is not reading in a monotone with all words getting equal emphasis.

Knowing which words to emphasize requires that a reader understands the meaning, not just of the individual words, but of entire sentences and even entire passages. He must also understand the significance of the words and sentences.

That means that if he is reading a story, he must understand the story.

Notice the difference between these two readings from The Three Little Pigs:

  1. "I'll. Huff. And. I'll. Puff. And. I'll. Blow. Your. House. Down."
  2. "I'll huff! And I'll puff! And I'll BLOW your house down!"

In the first reading, the child recognizes each individual word. That is one of the initial stages of reading. At this point, the child is able to decode the individual words, but he is not able to put the words together to generate meaning. This is not a fluent reading.

In the second reading, the child is not only able to decode the individual words but is also able to understand how the words work together to create meaning. He recognizes not just words, but word groups. He knows which words make a sentence and he knows where the emphasis goes.

To be a fluent reader, a child must be developmentally ready. That means that his brain must be sufficiently developed. It is why early reading is seen as a sign of giftedness.

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