Teaching Reading Fluency and Phonics

In educational language, "fluency" is a buzz-word that gets thrown around with great weight. What is fluency? Reading fluency encompasses the speed or rate of reading, as well as the ability to read materials with expression. Meyer and Felton defined fluency as "the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly, and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading, such as decoding" (1999, p. 284).

Teaching fluency is necessary for skilled reading and comprehension. It is often a misconception that if people are reading at a faster, more fluent rate, that they simply "know" the words they see. This is actually not what is really happening. When we simply read and reread a passage with our students so that they "memorize" the visual representation of the word, helping them to read the passage faster and with fewer errors, it is not necessarily helping them to improve overall fluency. Their success will be with this passage only, and they will go back to slower reading when new material is presented to them. We need to become more aware of what is actually happening during the process of reading fluently.

"The remarkable advances in neural imaging research allow scientists to look closely at the process of fluent reading and how fluent reading is developed. Researchers are learning fluent or 'fast' reading utilizes a neural 'expressway' to process words. This 'fast reading area' of fluency is different from the slow phonologic processing pathways used by beginning readers. With fluent reading, a quick look at the word activates a stored neural model that allows not only 'fast' reading but also includes correct pronunciation and understanding of the word."

"Importantly, the neuroscientists are learning more about how this fluency is developed. Fluent reading is established after the individual reads the word at least four times using accurate phonologic processing (slow accurate sounding out). Fluency is built word by word and entirely dependent on repeated, accurate, sounding out the specific word. Fluency is not established by 'memorizing' what words look like but rather by developing correct neural-phonologic models of the word. Repeated accurate phonologic processing is the essential precursor for developing 'fast' neural pathways. In simplified terms, the repeated accurate phonologic processing engraves a neural model of the word that then is stored in the 'fast reading area' available for rapid retrieval. We now know fluency is not the apparent visual recognition of an entire word but rather the retrieval of the exact neural model created by proper repeated phonologic processing."

(Gagen, Miscese."Reading Fluency Explained."
Article taken from www.righttrackreading.com. © Gagen, 2007.)

The important information gained from this research is that although "fast" or fluent reading is different from slow decoding, it is still based on initial phonological processing. When an individual uses the correct phonological processing pathways to sound out words, repeating that process and building fluency one word at a time to move to the 'fast reading area' then true fluency is happening. The decoding is happening, but it is now automatic.

The key components to teaching reading fluency are:

  1. Ensure that students are reading using proficient phonologic pathways by teaching them with an effective, direct and systematic phonics program .
  2. Teach the students all of the necessary sounds and strategies so they can process print proficiently.
  3. Sufficient practice with strategies such as rapid word recognition, guided oral reading, speed drills, and/or choral reading.

After teaching reading fluency, reading will rely rely primarily on the letters in the word rather than context or pictures to identify familiar and unfamiliar words. They also use letter-to-sound correspondence to identify words and have reliable strategies for decoding words. Once they phonologically process the words a sufficient number of times it becomes automatic, and they can then move onto comprehension. Reading fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension and is vital to reach that end. For that bridge to be solid and effective it must have the phonological foundation of automatic decoding. This is the foundation for success.


  • Mather, N., & Goldstein, S. (2001). Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors: A Guide to Intervention and Classroom Management (pp. 235-242). Available on the LD OnLine Store; Copyright 2001 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; posted by permission. All rights reserved.
  • Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level, by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. Copyright 2003
  • Hasbrouck, J. E., Ihnot, C., & Rogers, G. H. (1999). "Read Naturally": A strategy to increase oral reading fluency. Reading Research and Instruction, 39(1), 27-18.