Reading fluency involves the ability to read text smoothly and at a reasonable rate. When fluent readers read aloud, they do so effortlessly with speed, accuracy, and proper expression as though they are speaking. Because of the "automatic" nature of their reading, fluent readers are able to focus their attention on the ideas in the text and comprehend the author's message.

On the other hand, less fluent readers struggle along through text in a very labored, word-by-word way. They must focus most of their attention on decoding the words, so comprehension suffers. Comprehension can be virtually ignored when readers must devote most of their mental energies on decoding. Thus, fluency is important because it provides a kind of bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000; Rasinski, 1985; Reutzel & Hollingsworth, 1993).

What Skills Do Fluent Readers Possess?

There seems to be agreement among researchers as to the skills one must develop to become a fluent reader (Allington, 2001; Juel, 1991; National Reading Panel, 2000; Richards, 2000). They include the following:

  • Automaticity involves translating letters to sounds to words effortlessly and accurately.
  • Quality refers to the reader's ability to use proper intonation or expression (i.e., "prosodic features"-pitch, juncture, and stress) in one's voice.
  • Rate involves attaining appropriate reading speed according to the reader's purpose or the type of passage. What is an appropriate rate? 

Oral reading fluency end-of-year goals for grade levels 1-5:  Words per minute (wpm) - Instructional level (adequate) text

Grade Level Minimum Words per minute* (wpm) Fluent Oral Reading (wpm)
Grade 1 60 wpm 80 wpm
Grade 2 70 wpm 100 wpm
Grade 3 80 wpm 126 wpm**
Grade 4 90 wpm 162 wpm**
Grade 5 100 wpm 180 wpm

* Adapted from Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, 2002, at the Texas Education Agency Web site

**Source:  Listening to Children Read Aloud.  Washington DC, US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1995, 1/p.44

Armed with these three abilities, a fluent reader can decode words in a text accurately, with correct phrasing and intonation, and at a rate that facilitates text comprehension.

Reading Fluency "Standards"

In 1998, the federally sponsored Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children conducted an exhaustive study of evidence-based reading research. Included in its report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), were desired "benchmarks accomplishments" for kindergarten through third grade in reading and writing. They help us to better understand what we hope to achieve in our teaching of normally developing children at each of these grade levels.

Fluency Is Sometimes Ignored in Basal Reading Programs

For many years reading fluency has been acknowledged as an important goal in becoming a proficient and strategic reader (Allington, 1983, 1984, 2001; Klenk & Kibby, 2000; National Reading Panel, 2000; Opitz & Rasinski, 1998; Rasinski, 2000; Rasinkski & Padak, 1996). But as important as fluency is to reading success, it is often neglected in basal reading programs (i.e., published series adopted by each state-more on basal readers is found in Chapter 6). In fact, an analysis of basal programs during the 1990s (Stein et al., 1993) concluded that very few programs emphasized the development of reading fluency (Snow, et al., 1998). Since many teachers rely heavily on basal readers as the foundation for their instructional program, particularly in the first 5 years of their career, fluency instruction can be virtually overlooked. This is unfortunate, concluded the National Reading Panel (2000), because

if text is read in a laborious and inefficient manner, it will be difficult for the child to remember what has been read and to relate the ideas expressed in the text to his or her background knowledge. Recent research on the efficacy of certain approaches to teaching fluency has led to increased recognition of its importance in the classroom and to changes in instructional practices. (p. 11)

Our recent visits to many elementary school classrooms likewise reveal little attention to reading fluency in daily instruction.