Do you have any students who have learned basic phonic rules relatively well and have good understanding of oral language yet still read connected text in a laborious manner to which you cannot help but feeling sympathy for them? Development of reading fluency for young learners in an EFL environment does not come easy. This small article aims to help EFL teachers understand what reading fluency is; why it is important for language learners; what materials we should use in fluency instruction and how we can help develop our students' reading fluency.
1. What is Reading Fluency?
"There are three components to fluency: Fluent reading should involve accurate and automatic word recognition, with appropriate prosody or inflection." (McKeena & Stahl, 2003, p.72) Fluency in very early grades also refers to the rapid and accurate naming of letters, sounds, words, and sentences. (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007) One of the quickest ways to assess a young learner's fluency is to have her read aloud a familiar text independently. If her reading is slow and choppy, this student will benefit from systematic reading fluency instruction.
2. Why Should We Provide Fluency Instruction to Young Learners?
The whole point in reading text is to understand the message and to achieve various and often personal goals, for example, expanding knowledge and communicating with the writer of a message. When a student reads text slowly, "memory is clogged with decoding tasks and is not available to assist with understanding reading." (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007, p.59) We need to remember that the goal in fluency is to have students improve accuracy and speed so that they read effortlessly, leaving a large enough cognitive space for comprehension.
3. What Materials Should We Use?
The best strategy for developing reading fluency is to provide students with many opportunities to read the same passage orally and repeatedly with explicit guidance. (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007) What materials should we choose for such fluency instruction?
The text should be at the students' independent reading level where they can read with about 95% accuracy. Such text allows children to engage in practice with a high degree of success and to construct meaning from the text. Be mindful that young learners' in Japan often lack vocabulary that is necessary to appreciate the reading materials whose target audience is young ESL learners.
The content of the text plays a major role in the effectiveness of instruction as well. If the content is not interesting to the students, beyond their real world knowledge, or immature for their age, it is likely that students will become less motivated in engaging in repeated reading. Learn your students' interests, their general knowledge and maturity level, so that you can make informed decisions in choosing reading materials.
We should also remember to use a variety of reading materials: graded readers with narrative and factual descriptions, simple authentic picture books, stories from a course book, song lyrics, etc. to familiarize young learners with different discourse types.
4. How Do We Help Our Students Develop Reading Fluency?
Research in reading fluency informs us that one of the best practices in reading fluency instruction is to give young learners opportunities to read aloud the same text again and again with guidance. This is more challenging than it may sound as young learners have a short attention span, and have not yet fully developed meta-cognition, the ability to be aware of their own learning. The key to success in reading fluency instruction in our teaching context is to implement meaningful and fun activities with appropriate level of support. Here are some useful fluency activities for young learners in Japan.
Revisiting a Big Book
"Revisiting" some big books that students enjoyed during shared reading, where the teacher had read aloud the story for students when they were younger, and letting them read from the text is an effective way to boost their confidence in reading aloud independently. The students' own audio memory of the story and illustrations in the book work to support recognizing the words in print. In a typical 'revisiting' activity, the teacher first reads the story aloud, and then with verbal support, the students engage in "choral reading" a few times while the teacher reduces her support gradually to zero. In choral reading, some students may have difficulty keeping up. However, they can follow along and participate whenever they can. They also benefit from hearing the text being read with good pacing and phrasing. As an extension, have some students pick their favorite page, and each read the page for the class.
In this activity, students practice reading aloud a dialog-based text with a clear story line until they become fluent with proper intonation and tone. One of the most easily accessible materials for this activity is a story included in a course book. First, play the CD or model "reading performance" so that students will hear it read with appropriate prosody. Then, students engage in choral reading described in the previous activity, while following the print with their finger. After that, students engage in "partner reading" where they practice reading aloud the text in pairs, offering help to one another. When practicing, each pair decides who reads which part of the text. This stage of practice allows the teacher to give individual students necessary support and assess their reading abilities. Finally, have some of the pairs 'perform' reading in front of the class. The anticipation of performing in front of the class provides students with a legitimate reason to reread text and to practice fluency.
Reading Song or Chant Lyrics
Using a familiar song or chant for fluency instruction is a great way to motivate auditorial students to read text repeatedly. Hand out the text of a song or chant lyrics to each student, making sure that you have used a large-enough print with an appropriate, easy to read font. Give students a moment to think what song or chant the text is from. Then, play the song or chant to help them recall how it sounded, and what the song or chant was about. After that, do choral reading, having students point to the words as they read the text. Finally, let them sing or chant along with the CD again, pointing at the words in text.
5. Final Comments
One critical aspect in reading fluency instruction, which was not mentioned above, is the importance for young learners to hear a range of texts read fluently and with expression. Make reading aloud an age-appropriate story to class a routine in your classroom – even before they start to learn the very basics of phonics. Reading aloud to students not only has them hear what fluent reading sounds like, but it also increases their interest in text, expands knowledge of the world and vocabulary, and nurtures the love of literature, all of which contributes to motivating children to engage in reading fluency activities.
I hope you have found this small article to be both informative and practical. Enjoy exploring new ways to develop reading fluency with your colleagues and students!
McKeena, M.C. & Stahl, S.A. (2003). Assessment for Reading Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Lenters, K. (2004) No Half-Measures: Reading Instruction for Young Second-Language Learners. The Reading Teacher. 58(4). 328-336
Linan-Thompson, S. & Vaughn. S. (2007). Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners Grades K-4. VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000) Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Excerpted in What Works in Fluency Instruction on www.readingrockets.org/article/72
Texas Education Agency (2002) Guidelines for Examining Phonics and Word Recognition Programs. Excerpted in Fluency: Instructional Guidelines and Student Activities on www.readingrockets.org/article/3416
Mari Nakamura, the co-author of English Land, has been giving numerous teacher training sessions all around Japan and writing educational articles while teaching young learners at her own school, English Square, in Kanazawa City. She has earned the MSc in TEYL program at Aston University, and is volunteering as the ETJ Ishikawa Group Coordinator.