Five Evidence-Based Ways to Improve Reading Fluency in Elementary and Secondary Grades

Imagine this conversation between an instructional coach and a sixth-grade social studies teacher concerned about student performance on unit tests.

Instructional Coach: When we spoke last week, we decided that you would interview a few students to learn why they struggle with their social studies unit tests and talk to other teachers to see if they are noticing similar trends. What did you learn?

Teacher: I began by talking to colleagues, and they are experiencing similar things. I then spoke to a few students and learned that they often struggle on unit tests because they have difficulty reading and understanding the questions.

Coach: How do students perform when working on daily activities?

Teacher: Students usually do well and can answer the questions that I ask about what we are reading. This is why I am confused by their poor performance on the unit tests.

Coach: When students are reading during daily activities, what do you notice?

Teacher: Well, some have low reading levels, so I often read the material to them.

Coach: Do you read the material when it comes time for the test?

Teacher: No, I want to see what they can do independently.

Coach: What I heard you say is that students perform well on daily activities when you read the material to them, but they struggle when they are expected to read and answer questions on their own. We may need to dig into their reading fluency skills and help them develop their skills in this area in order to help them perform better on their social studies unit tests.

Teacher: I see what you mean, and I will need help thinking about how to better support my students’ reading fluency.

In this blog post, we focus on reading fluency in elementary and secondary classrooms. Reading fluency is a critical reading skill that facilitates reading for understanding and is our ultimate goal for teaching reading. It involves reading with appropriate rate, accuracy, and expression (National Reading Panel, 2002). Pikulski and Chard defined reading fluency as “efficient, effective word-recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of text. Fluency is manifested in accurate, rapid, expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension” (2011, p. 510).

The importance of reading fluency for students’ reading comprehension is further supported by a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report (NAEP, 2021). The NAEP study found that oral reading fluency was consistently and positively related to fourth-grade students’ performance on the NAEP reading test, which measures reading comprehension and is used to evaluate our nation’s progress in reading. In particular, students who scored low on the NAEP reading test showed difficulty with reading fluency, word-level reading skills, and text comprehension. Despite the importance of reading fluency, many teachers may be unsure how to best support the students they teach who struggle with reading. In this blog post, we share five evidence-based recommendations for improving reading fluency among struggling readers.

5 Recommendations for Improving Reading Fluency Among Struggling Readers

1. Develop students’ ability to decode words.

Many students who struggle with reading fall behind early in their education because they struggle with skills such as letter identification, letter-sound correspondence, or word recognition. These underlying word-reading skills are foundational for reading fluency. For students with significant reading difficulties, this word-level instruction is key to unlocking passage-level reading fluency.

When teaching these skills, it is important to deliver instruction that is explicit and systematic. Instruction should be explicit in the sense that the teacher must implement familiar routines, include many examples, and explain each skill in ways that are clear, visible, and consistent for students. Instruction should be systematic in that it should move from easier to more complex, build on higher-utility skills and what students know, and be appropriate for the task or lesson goal. The “I do, we do, you do” model is often used to plan an explicit and systematic lesson.

What foundational reading skills are important to teach in each grade? Here are some examples (The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk [MCPER], 2016) of specific activities teachers might use when teaching one or more of these skills (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list):

  • Kindergarten: Introduce new and review previously learned letters and sounds; make or build words; introduce new and review previously learned high frequency words; use fluency practice with skills.
  • Grade 1: Review phonological awareness skills; introduce sound, spelling partners, and morphemes; make or build words; introduce new and review previously learned high-frequency words; use fluency practice with skills.
  • Grade 2: Make or build words; introduce new high-frequency words; use fluency practice with skills.
  • Grades 3–5: Make or build words; use fluency practice with skills.

2. Ensure that each student reads connected text every day to support reading rate, accuracy, and expression.

Students may be proficient enough at reading lists of individual words, but they must also practice their skills in books or passages (i.e., connected text) to become fluent readers. Reading familiar books or passages allows students’ skills to become more automatic, which enables them to free up their attention to connect ideas in the text to background knowledge and increase their reading comprehension.

To get better at reading requires more time reading. When developing lesson plans, it is important that teachers identify opportunities for students to practice reading. This can, of course, happen in English and language arts classes, but it also should happen across content areas. Students often are motivated to read more when they are interested in the reading material and when they have adequate support.

At home, parents can encourage more reading each day by scheduling dedicated time for students to read independently (i.e., reading material independently with 95% to 100% accuracy) and by establishing a purpose for reading. For example, children can select a book to read that is of interest to them, and each day they can document what they read in a reading log. Daily entries in this reading log might include recording progress toward achieving a goal (e.g., increasing the number of words or pages read each day), brief summaries, connections made, difficulty vocabulary encountered, etc. Entries could be used to create a presentation to be shared with a student’s peers. Schoenbach, Greenleaf, and Murphy’s Reading for Understanding (2012) provides additional recommendations for reading logs (what they refer to as metacognitive logs).

3. Model reading fluency for your students.

Read-alouds are a powerful and useful instructional tool that model important foundational skills (i.e., prosody, vocabulary, and that print conveys a message) for children in a way that explicitly and unambiguously teaches something (Roberts & Burchinal, 2001; Trelease, 2001). When paired with think-alouds, teachers can promote vocabulary acquisition and help students make sense of or make connections between ideas beyond the classroom (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013; Gold & Gibson, 2001; Massaro, 2017).

Read-alouds can be used to model reading fluency. For example, before reading a text, a teacher might say, “Follow along as I read. Listen to how I read the words at a steady pace and how I pause to take a quick breath at each period.” Modeling reading fluency has been found to be an effective tool for improving reading fluency. Teachers or parents who are interested in incorporating this modeling within their read-aloud routines may find this read-aloud resource, developed by The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, to be helpful.

4. Take advantage of repeated reading routines.

Repeated reading is reading and rereading material to match the (a) purpose of the lesson and (b) student’s reading ability. For example, if the purpose is to enhance reading rate, then select a text that is appropriate and at the student’s decoding level. The teacher and student can monitor the number of words read correctly and can discuss the story to check comprehension. Discussions after each read can change to focus on a different reading element (e.g., character, main idea).

Teachers who are interested in this routine can find lesson plans here that show how this routine can be taught following an explicit instructional approach (see page 59 of the PDF, which is page 196 in the original resource book).

  1. Students select a passage.
  2. The higher-performing student reads the lower-performing student’s passage first to provide a model.
  3. The lower-performing student practices reading through the passage three times with their partner. The partner marks student errors on a copy of the passage and provides feedback on student errors.
  4. Students read the passage a fourth time as quickly as possible. Partners time the student reading for 1 minute. This time is referred to as the “first timing.”
  5. Students record progress on their individual graphs in their workbooks.

5. Set fluency goals and use progress-monitoring data to inform instruction.

The combination of reading accuracy and rate (automaticity) is considered a student’s oral reading fluency (ORF). Beginning in the middle of first grade, ORF is a complex skill that develops gradually, measures accuracy without regard to reading rate, and is one way to screen students quickly to monitor progress and determine whether additional support is needed. Measuring ORF provides valuable information about the child’s ability to read connected text fluently. Below are a few resources to use when setting fluency goals and monitoring student progress:

Tracking or monitoring progress is important to determine student reading growth and is closely linked to both screening and diagnostic assessment. Progress monitoring, administered weekly or biweekly, is a systematic process to formatively track the progress of student growth of an intervention skill (e.g., fluency). It additionally provides information about the appropriate levels of text to use (The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2002). Progress monitoring can help you answer a number of questions, such as: Is learning happening? Is my teaching helping students make progress?

Take Action

  • Review current or historical school and classroom data to determine how information and resources included in this blog might be used to further student learning.
  • Choose one of the resources, routines, or strategies to implement in your classroom. Write and share reflections. How did the routine improve or strengthen your current practices? How did students respond differently to this routine versus what you normally do?
  • Select one of the five recommendations about which to learn more. Based on this new learning, make adjustments in one of your current classes to target one or more student’s needs.
  • Review one or more of the additional resources below and choose one to add to your existing classroom practices.
Fluency Practice: Techniques for Building Automaticity in Foundational Knowledge and Skills Authors: Datchuk & Hier, 2019 Audience: ElementaryLearn about the components of fluency practice, gain access to a checklist of steps to use when implementing a fluency practice session (i.e., before, during, and after), and see examples of scoring and graphing oral reading.
FCRR Student Center Activities Author: Florida Center for Reading Research, 2004-2010 Audience: ElementaryMaterials to use during whole- or small-group instruction, centers/workstations, or for extended learning. Fluency materials include (but are not limited to) letter recognition, letter-sound correspondence, word parts, words, phrases, chunked text, and connected text.
Effective Fluency Instruction and Progress Monitoring Author: The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2004 Audience: ElementaryGain access to a presentation focused on fluency instruction, as well as strategy sets to teach letter sounds, regular word reading, irregular word reading, and fluency in connected text.
Essential Reading Strategies for the Struggling Reader: Activities for an Accelerated Reading Program Author: The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2001 Audience: Elementary, SecondaryLearn about and access supplemental literacy resources to support the five components of reading instruction. For fluency, activities include basic steps to teach reading fluency, partner reading, fluency word cards, page races, repeated readings, fast phrases, independent reading, and more.
Sight Word Fluency Lists Author: The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, 2017 Audience: ElementaryAccess lesson materials that focus on sight word fluency and word recognition. Use materials for routines such as reading words aloud as a group, partner reading, repeated reading, paired reading, and more.
10 Key Policies and Practices for Reading Intervention (The Key Strategies in Action 2: Use universal screening to identify students experiencing reading difficulties) Author: The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risks, 2020 Audience: Elementary, SecondaryLearn about policies and practices for reading intervention, as well as key strategies in action. Practices for reading fluency include (but are not limited to) text reading, partner reading, fast phrases, diagnostic assessments, progress monitoring, and providing feedback.


Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Datchuk, S., & Hier, B. (2019). Fluency practice: Techniques for building automaticity in foundational knowledge and skills. Exceptional Children, 51(6), 424-435.

Duke, N. & Pearson, D. (2008). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. Journal of Education, 189(1/2), 107-122.

Florida Center for Reading Research. (n.d.). FCRR student center activities

Glaser, D. (2002). High school tutors: Their impact on elementary students’ reading fluency through implementing a research-based instruction model [Doctoral dissertation, Boise State University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.

Gold, J., & Gibson, A. (2001, June 14). Reading aloud to build comprehension. Reading Rockets.

Iowa Reading Research Center. (n.d.a ). Oral reading fluency skills goal setting template.

Iowa Reading Research Center. (n.d.b). Oral reading fluency reflection guide

Massaro, D. (2017). Reading aloud to children: Benefits and implications for acquiring literacy before schooling begins. The American Journal of Psychology130(1), 63-72.

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (2014). Read-aloud routine for building vocabulary and comprehension skills in kindergarten through third grade.

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (2016). Sample literacy blocks, K-5

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (2017). Sight word fluency lists.

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. (2020). 10 key policies and practices for reading intervention

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2021). The 2018 NAEP oral reading fluency study.

National Reading Panel. (2002). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.

Pikulski, J., & Chard, D. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58(6), 510-519.

Reading A-Z. (2021). Fluency standards table.

Roberts, J., & Burchinal, M. (2001). The complex interplay between biology and environment: Otitis media and mediating effects on early literacy development. In S. B. Neuman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 232-241). The Guilford Press.

Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C., & Murphy, L. (2012). Reading for understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms. Jossey-Bass.

The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts. (2001). Essential reading strategies for the struggling reader: Activities for an accelerated reading program.

The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts. (2002). Effective instruction for struggling readers: Research-based practices.

The University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts. (2004). Effective fluency instruction and progress monitoring

Trelease, J. (2001). The read-aloud handbook (5th ed.). Penguin Books.