Get ’em UNSTUCK! – Fluency

Do you have students who sometimes get stuck at something in reading and in spite of your best efforts and amazing teaching, they just don’t get unstuck? We have students like that, too. Students who get amazingly great instruction in the classroom and who receive intervention help each day as well. But they still get stuck at things and just can’t seem to get past them. After years of working with students with these issues, we have gathered ideas that work, and we’d like to share them with you. Maybe they will help your students, too!

Today we are talking about students who get stuck with fluency issues and what to do about it.  All parts of fluency….accuracy, prosody and rate… are so important to quality reading.  What do you do though when students get stuck?  Let’s talk about rate.  From talking with teachers, the general idea is that rate is fairly easy to address.  Yes….and….NO!   That is the case for students who are making great progress and may need just a little extra boost to get their rate up. So we get out the fluency passages, the timers, the graphs, the repeated reading activities…and away those students go.  But, the students for whom these things don’t work, need something different. In those cases, rate is arguably the most difficult thing to address. What do we do? We need to analyze all of the student’s reading to pinpoint the cause of the issue and not just jump in with oral reading fluency passages and timings.  According to Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, Eric Mesmer, and Jennifer Jones in their book Reading Interventions in the Primary Grades,we need to look down the continuum of how fluency develops to find the problem for the student, then provide laser focused interventions for that need. If you have students that are stuck in fluency, check the following list of things to see where they fall out, then try some of the ideas listed.

1. Decoding Errors and/or High Frequency Words –  Most students stuck at a slow rate have issues with decoding or HF word automaticity.  Sure they can probably decode and read many words, but the key here is automaticity.  If they cannot recognize and read words extremely quickly, their rate in text reading will be slow.   Do this:  focus on automaticity in decoding or HF word reading (make sure you pinpoint the specific words they are struggling with that also match their text level: vc, cvc, multi-syllabic, HF words etc.) and get them to master them with automaticity. Then move on to the next set of words. Provide an intervention that solely focuses on this one thing, and get them to really master it!  It takes time, but it is the most important thing to be able to do with automaticity and is the number one thing that causes rate issues.

2. Repeating Words – Several students we have worked with over the years repeat words many, many times while reading.  Their reading often looks like this.  “The horse…horse…jerked his head… head, then pushed Mark over…over… the railing…railing.”   Students often will repeat a word when they are trying to check for its correctness of course, but some students do it so many times within one sentence that their rate is highly impacted (and their comprehension, too.)  It is as if their brain is “stuttering” while they are reading.  Do this: Check to make sure it is not an automaticity issue with decoding or HF word reading. (If it is, then address that.)  If a child is unsure of words, they will do this.  But if it is not an automaticity issue, then make the student aware of it by gently explaining what the child is doing and how it impacts his or her reading.  You can model what they sound like and then model the correct way, or you can try recording them and playing it back for them.  We have had great success doing this with students over the years and once the habit of too much repeating is broken, the students soar.

3. Reading Word by Word: This is a normal thing to do when you are an early reader, but….not so good when you are reading at the middle of first grade level or beyond.  Students need to be reading in phrases!  This is nothing new and definitely an oldie but goodie, but maybe just a reminder of how we have to directly teach many students what a phrase is, and how to read them.  Do this: Use a passage that can be marked up and that is at the easier end of the student’s reading level.  Teach what a phrase is and mark the phrases in the passage with pencil lines like this:  /Then Hare decidedto take a nap./ Then model and practice, model and practice.  Reading by phrases requires learning to hear when it sounds right and that takes lots of practice.  (A good healthy dose of listening to readalouds everyday helps, too!)

4.  Slow Talker and Slow Mover: Oh boy is this one difficult!  Some students just have a personality in which they speak slowly and move slowly.  We have had several students like this over the years, and they are the most difficult to help to increase rate, because they talk at a slow rate. What to try?   Do this: Find something that motivates the student, then find a reader’s theater for it.   I am thinking of one student who particularly struggled with rate because he spoke slowly.  He did reader’s theater in his 5th grade class and chose the part of Paul Revere. He was very interested in the this time in history, so his motivation to try went way up. After talking about why rate was important and how it affects everything he reads (and some modeling), he practiced his parts in class every day. After all, you have to say, “The British are coming, the British are coming!” with enthusiasm and urgency, right?   When he came to intervention groups we practiced again.  Some days, we walked around the school practicing his lines for anyone we could find…the Principal, the Dean, the Admin. Assistant….and all of that applause finally clicked with him.  Did he always read at a faster rate?  No, but he made great improvement in rate, understood the importance of it, that he was capable of doing it, and he felt good about himself.  Now he knows he can do it when it is needed the most.  That was the most challenging case of slow talkers/slow readers over the years, but there have been many more.  Moral of the story?  Try reader’s theater on a topic that is motivating.  It has worked for ALL of our slow talkers/slow readers over the years. 
So there you go.  If you’ve got some students who are really stuck in fluency, give these things a try. Happy Reading! 


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