The Bridge to Fluency (Part 1)

Building the Bridge to Reading Success

by Adam Meyersieck

The specific skills that establish reading fluency have been known and taught for decades. Phonological awareness (PA), grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs), decoding/sight word reading are thoroughly addressed early reading skills, and these are widely accepted as predictors of, and contributors to, good fluency. The more quickly and accurately we can perform these skills, the higher degree of "fluency" we are said to have.

What about students who can use these skills in isolation but struggle with combining them in their daily reading? What are the elements beyond PA, GPCs and word reading? How do we develop their reading fluency, and what types of interventions address these?

Crossing The Bridge to Fluency requires practice of each of the skills in isolation, and ultimately together, to work toward comprehension. Most of us perform these skills with little or no effort. When we were young, our teachers may not have been literacy specialists, but with enough exposure to books and language we were well on our way to crossing The Bridge.

Defining “reading fluency”

Most of us recognise oral reading fluency (ORF) when we hear it. Accuracy, speed, automaticity, expression and comprehension all have their place on this Bridge, and there are annals of evidence highlighting the importance of each.

Conversely, when one of these components is missing, it will affect ORF. These skills are the less-addressed areas of fluency, but by highlighting their importance we can ensure these are thoroughly addressed. In doing so, we can effectively build a student’s confidence, reading ability, and open up a whole new world to them, often only explored through written materials.

The Bridge to Fluency: how accurate is "accurate enough"? Recent research suggests independent reading accuracy is met when a student reads a text with 97%+ accuracy without support. Instructional level reading takes place between 93-97% accuracy, and anything below 93% is considered frustration level (Parker & Burns, 2014). Strategic teaching and scaffolded learning best takes place in this instructional level, which is often referred to as The Zone of Proximal Development.

While many adults are surprised to learn that <93% is considered frustration level (some have this statistic as low as <90%), a student missing one out of every ten or eleven words is likely making errors on key vocabulary that carry the most meaning in a passage, thus contributing to other achievement problems across the curriculum.

How fast is fast enough? According to Hasbrouck and Tindal (2017), by the end of Fifth Grade (age 11) a student reading comfortably within the average ORF range ought to read between 122-173 words correct per minute (WCPM) on a grade-level text. While their study did not provide a distribution curve, students reading below 91 WCPM are considered below the 10th percentile. This suggests that a 5th grade student (Year 6 in the UK) reading below 91 WCPM may have reading difficulties, particularly with fluency.

Does expression really matter?

Students who find comprehension difficult regularly struggle with expression. Expression skills including rhythm, flow, attention to punctuation, and vocal tone indicate a general awareness of story context, meaning, and require the mechanized use of metacognitive skills. In their study of oral and written expression on comprehension difficulties, Carretti, Motta and Re (2016) saw that children with poor comprehension skills often had oral expression difficulties. They also found that genre and prompts can positively mitigate these challenges, highlighting the necessity for high-interest topics as a key tool for developing expression skills.

Comprehension: the goal of reading

Without comprehension, reading becomes menial and aimless. Comprehension is simply making sense of what is read, including explicit and inferential comprehension skills that draw on background knowledge, contextual understanding, memory, and language-based skills (vocabulary, predicting, etc.). Comprehending more difficult texts requires higher-order thinking skills including metacognition, reasoning, analysing, and drawing on background knowledge/experience.

Many of us take for granted the ability to read fluently, and my next article will highlight a small number of strategies that can be implemented at home or in the physical or virtual classroom to support the development of the skills discussed here.

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Hasbrouck, J. and Tindal, G. (2017). An update to compiled ORF norms (Technical Report No. 1702). Eugene, OR. Behavioral Research and Teaching, University of Oregon. Retrieved from on 9th April 2018.

Parker, D. C., & Burns, M. K. (2014). Using the instructional level as a criterion to target reading interventions. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 31, 56–67

Carretti, B., Motta, E., Re, A.M. (2016). Oral and Written Expression in Children With Reading Comprehension Difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 49(1), 65-76