When my kids were learning how to read, they went through the phase of thinking that "reading fluency" meant rattling off words at Warp 9, without regard to understanding what they were reading, or caring that they sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk on Red Bull.
Adults do this too - equating 'reading fluency' with reading speed, that is. I remember a few years ago there was quite an emphasis on speed reading in the homeschool community, and recommendations for programs to help children read faster.
If we are using speed as goal and guide to our child's reading ability, we may be missing out on reading fluency altogether.
What's worse, we could be causing our child to lose confidence and desire instead of inspiring them to read more.
Let's take a step back and think of our experiences as listeners. Who is your favorite speaker or audiobook narrator? Do you enjoy listening to them speak and read because they are fast or because they use voice inflections, pauses, and a pace that is comfortable for you as the listener?
If it is difficult for you to understand someone who is speaking/reading quickly, or you have trouble digesting what is being said, do you think it is helpful to your child to emphasize speed reading while they are still in the decoding phase?
Reading fluency is not about speed. Speed comes naturally with experience, and should be allowed to develop over time.
The building blocks of fluency are:
- Phonemic awareness
Phonemic awareness is the understanding of how sounds work together to make words. You can help your early learners are becoming aware of the relationships between letters, sounds, and words by reading rhyming books (Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are great for this) and playing word games with flashcards and alphabet blocks. Nothing fancy here, and don't get ahead of yourself trying to raise a prodigy who is reading Charles Dickens at age three. If learning is fun, kids will desire to do more of it.
Phonics is a method to teach the mechanics of reading and writing. Letters and letter patterns make up words in a predictable manner that allow for speech and decoding of words both familiar and unfamiliar. Any basic reading program based on phonics will accomplish this goal, but allow your child to spend time at this phase, and don't rush it, or they will be constantly focused on decoding instead of moving on to vocabulary, comprehension, and expression.
Vocabulary is not just the words you understand, but the words of one's language. English is a very difficult language to learn, being a melting-pot of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon root words and international influences. Children cannot always discern the meaning of words from context in the early stages of reading. They must first use their cognitive energy to decode a word, pronounce it, and then try to attach meaning within the context. Homophones and homographs add another level of complexity to vocabulary building.
When your child is reading for pleasure, let them read below their 'age/grade level', but don't be afraid to introduce and challenge them with more complex reading. Include variety of books - from comics and graphic novels to biography and memoir to classic literature - and read these out loud to them.
By the way - this is where your fluency will get a workout, and is one way homeschooling parents have to lead by example. This practice will stretch both student and parent.
Comprehension goes far beyond decoding. It is when a child can process the words into information and then into application. There are many reading comprehension strategies, but the simplest are always best:
- Before reading, discuss what the child already knows about the topic/book in question, and talk about questions the child might have that the book might answer -whether it's learning about a specific topic or finding out how the story ends.
- During reading, don't interrupt constantly to 'teach'. Whether you are reading out loud or listening to your child read, let them experience the flow of words.
- After reading, ask the child to summarize main points, explain the sequence of events, and then re-read words and sentences the child didn't understand.
Comprehension and fluency is also strengthened by repeated reading. Once the child can decode words and attach meaning within the context, a repeated reading allow them to more deeply grasp story structure, or the information presented in the book.
Expression is a combination of accurate reading of words and punctuation, pacing, and the desired emotional response or purpose of the text. It's how we connect words on a page to ideas, and then engage with those ideas. Expression can be difficult for children, because there is an element of role-playing in expressive reading some kids are not comfortable displaying. Start working on expression with simple exercises in accurately interpreting punctuation and using pacing to indicate the ebb and flow of action, reaction, and emotion of a text. Move on to voice inflection when there is an exclamation point or interjection, or a saidism (also called 'dialogue tags' or 'speech tags') such as "whispers" or "shouted". Don't expect a performance on par with Gone with the Wind - just help them move from robotic reading to being able to infuse words with meaning.
Expression is also improved with repeated reading. Increased comprehension of and familiarity with a passage creates confidence, and this helps kids relax. When they understand a text, they can accurately assign meaning and then express that meaning with their voice.
The last component of fluency is speed, but I haven't mentioned it because if we are doing all the above, speed will be a natural by-product.
Remember: our teaching methods should lead us to our learning goals.