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The Single Best Trick to Boost Reading Fluency

by Sarah Forrest | 19 June 2019
It is so simple that you might already be doing it, without realizing. Or maybe reading this will cause a head slap, with an exasperated “of course!” directly following it.

Whether you have an early reader or a struggler who cannot seem to crack fluent reading, there is one trick that you have to try to promote this essential skill.

And it’s called “rereading”, or “repeated reading”.  The trick is how to optimize how you do it.

Why does fluency matter?

Fluency is one of the essential links between decoding (sounding out words phonetically) and comprehension (understanding the meaning). Without fluency, you have a frustratingly slow reader who may be very bright with an extensive vocabulary… but cannot demonstrate that through their labored reading.

We all begin as choppy readers, as our brains spend more time breaking apart words than recognizing them semantically.

As reading becomes more of an automatic, procedural skill rather than a working-memory, declarative one, our fluency naturally grows.

But some readers get stuck.

What causes poor fluency?

Most of the time, poor fluency in readers who are no longer beginners is linked to one of two issues:

  • They are sight-memorizing words, rather than decoding them. This leads to guessing, interchanging of words, and inevitable slow reading as the brain works hard to remember the visual shape of a given word.
  • They are excellent decoders, but get stuck decoding words over and over again, even common ones that they have just read in the previous sentence. This is something we call Fluency Block, which is caused by poor activation of a region of cortex called the visual word form area.

What is rereading and how do I do it with my child?

The amazing news is that the solution to most instances of poor fluency is the same: reread, reread, reread.

Many studies, like this one by Rasinksi (2015), show that repeatedly reading a phrase or paragraph boosts fluency (and often comprehension) significantly.

Practically speaking, the key to implementing this strategy is to strike a balance between rereading effectively and not annoying the child. We recommend a common-sense approach as follows:

When reading a paragraph, have the child reread any 3-5 word phrase that is choppy OR has a mistake in it. Any sentence or phrase that is read smoothly (for that child’s age or reading level expectation) does not need to be re-read. So if a phrase had a tricky word, the learner should go back 4-5 words and just reread through the phrase again before moving on to the next phrase.

We generally do not recommend rereading large chunks of text, which can be daunting for a struggler and lead to refusal. Instead, keep your rereads to the phrase or sentence level, before moving on.

And always – I repeat, always! – pile on the praise for every little success, or phrase well done. It makes a difference that can feel like magic, especially considering how little it costs us as parents!

Sarah Forrest is an Advisor for David Morgan Education, and contributor at Helping Children to Read. After studying Spanish literature at Yale University, she worked at Easyread HQ in Oxford, England for 4 years. She now lives in the sunny south of the United States with her two children, where she loves coaching parent and children through pictophonics.

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