Strategies to teach Reading Fluency

If your child is struggling with reading fluency this post is for you!

Reading Fluency is made up of 4 parts:

  1. Speed
  2. Accuracy
  3. Prosody (expression)
  4. Comprehension

Good fluency is big kid reading stuff.

What I mean is fluent readers showcase YEARS of reading practice & instruction in flawless or nearly flawless oral reading.

But how do readers gets to be speedy & accurate, read with expression and understand what they are reading?

I’m glad you asked my friend because the answer is really simple… build strategies & skills with systematic reading instruction paired with lots & lots of practice!

NOTE: This is a lengthy post. Book mark it for your refence.

Fluency Strategies & Skills

Reading instruction is based on acquiring a set of skills & strategies (developing a “tool box” of reading strategies they can rely on to help kids as their reading skills grow).

The rules of learning to read (especially in English) are very simple sounds put together make up words we say and letters put together make up the words we read.

The tricky part about teaching kids to read fluently is helping them learn to recognize the differences between spoken English (phoneme- for single sound) and written English (grapheme for letter or letter combination to make that sound). I can say the sound “f” but the words could be spelled with a /f/ or or /ph/.

Strategies to build a more fluent reader

Here are a few strategies that help (all kids) at a variety of levels:

  1. Consistent practice Reading Aloud
  2. Modeling (near level peer or teacher read aloud)
  3. Vocabulary Preview ( Isolate this experience before reading)
  4. Picture Walk (preview the story by “reading the pictures” include any vocabulary that might be tricky)
  5. Practice tracking word-by-word with finger
  6. “Just Right Books” (see below) children should read books that directly relate to reading instruction
  7. Practice reading aloud (record it or make PVC “reading phones” for independent reading practice)
  8. Repeated Reading (the child rereads the same passage until the child is fluent in that passage)
  9. Sight word study
  10. Decoding & direct phonics instruction or mini lessons

Pick a strategy that your struggling reader could immediately benefit from. Beginning readers need to focus their energy on learning one skill at a time.


Let’s say you picked strategy #4, tracking word by word with finger, for example.

Practice it for a week with your child and then decide where to go from there. If they still need more practice at it keep going. HINT: Younger children and beginning readers often need more time to grasp basic reading strategies & skills. They will also need a lot of patience from their grown ups!

How To Set Up a Tracking Mini-Lesson

First (you) model reading by pointing to each of the words as you read in a slower but fluent pace. Observant, reading ready children will automatically “try it on” (pick up your modeled behaviors). They may or may not be 100% correct but reward the effort by noticing aloud what they did well and notice (for yourself) what to work on next.

Keep it simple and only work on one thing at a time, the entire time you are reading together, ideally over a couple of practice sessions until they have a sense of mastery (can do it independently).

“Wow, Sariah! I noticed you are using your finger to point to each word as you read. That’s what good readers do, how did you know how to do that? Remember to slow down as you read. When I read too fast I get mixed up too.”

If your reader doesn’t “try on” the reading skill, strategy , behavior you are modeling then just tell them. Ask them to read and touch each word with their finger as they read. Show them an example of what you mean and give them a turn to try it out.

NOTE: If they are still not grasping the skill you are working on is not a good fit (it is too hard or they are not ready) and you’ll have to set it aside and try again another time.

Next Steps

Offer positive reinforcement for the effort and even more if you see them using the skill independently. Encourage them to use their new strategy by themselves, next time they read.

You will notice when your child has had sufficient practice because they will be trying to apply the strategy on their own. Now they are ready for the next step.

On your next read as you are enforcing practice with a review strategy (pointing word-by-word) and slow down and model using it with a skill you have recently learned like decoding. (blending /fl/ or recognizing /at/ at the end of the word (a word family you have already practiced, for example.)

“look!, I see /at/!

We learned about that word family. Remember we changed the beginning sounds to make new words?

I wonder what word it makes if /fl/ is in front of it… can you help me?”

(You) go back and re-read the beginning part of the sentence and leave out the word “flat”. Let them solve that tricky word.

It will take time to build up to this but modeling for our kids how we use reading strategies AND skills at the same time to improve our reading is always time well spent!

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Decoding with Science of Reading Strategies

Repeated Reading to build expression in Fluency

Another technique that research has shown significantly builds reading fluency is repeated reading. In fact, the National Reading Panel says this is the most powerful way to improve reading fluency. This involves simply reading the same material over and over again until accurate and expressive.

Think about a favorite song you had that you played over and over again until you got the lyrics right. This works with reading as well. I try to stay away from reading passages or re-reading passages for fluency practice since they are often dry and unrelatable. Instead allow the child to choose their favorite (just right book) or a book from a series that is appropriate for their reading level.

Local Library

Go to your local library and check out different beginning reader series you think your child will like. I selected most of my sons early readers for him based on the skills he was learning. He would pick books that were too hard for him to read independently but I read them aloud for him. If you want to involve your child ask them to help you pick a few books too.

Don’t be afraid to read them aloud to your child if the reading level is too difficult. As they build their “reading muscles” (skills) they can re-read the above funny series suggestions to help them develop fluency. Kids instinctively pick up old favorites to re-read again and again. That is the ultimate goal, enjoyment of reading to whatever degree is possible for your child.

“In the 1970s, LaBerge and Samuels studied what happens when students read passages over and over again. They found that when students reread passages, they got faster at reading the passages, understood them better, and were able to read subsequent passages better as a result of the repeated reading.”

Read Naturally

Revisiting Reading Strategies

Something to note about tracking is that it is a super basic and necessary strategy & kids will reach a point where they feel they no longer need to point to each word (which is great) but be mindful that most kids need to use this strategy longer than they’d like. Their use of this skill should evolve as their reading skills grow.

Instead of going from tracking word by word to not tracking at all have your child start tracking line by line using a bookmark horizontally as they read. A super simple DIY bookmark is to take a piece of construction paper (8.5 x 11 cut into 3rds). Laminate it if you want it to last.

The next week move on to another strategy and repeat. Go through the strategies & then assess how they are doing independently with them.

  • Do they need a review?
  • Can you add depth to modeling by “noticing aloud” how you use a strategy to figure out a word
  • Are you ready to celebrate (when they notice they are at a tricky word & use a strategy to figure it out, al by themself!)

Reading Levels

Reading Rule #1 is that every child learns how to read in their own time.

Some kids need more time to develop the components of reading that lead to fluency. Reading leveled books can help tremendously with reading instruction. You are matching a budding reader to skills they already have AND immediate skills they are trying to build.

Reading levels are important to consider so that you know your child is trying to read appropriate material, it’s not too easy and not too hard. They way to determine that is using the 5 Finger Rule!

5 Finger Rule:

Put up one finger for each tricky word your child encounters while reading.

0-1 Finger= too easy

2-3 fingers = just right

4-5 fingers = too hard for independent reading but if super interested in the book or topic try guided reading or read aloud

Reading Skills

The reading skills that lead to good reading fluency are:

  • Phonics & decoding
  • Word recognition
  • Vocabulary

In most of the school districts I taught at reading fluency isn’t looked at as an area of concern until end of second grade/ beginning of 3rd. (Note: this is slightly controversial within the education community & If you have concerns about your child’s reading do not ignore them. Talk to a professional, let them know your concerns & get their about their opinion about how to address your concerns.

Additionally, please note I am only talking about general education developmental “norms” in this post however, some kids have biological or other issues that prevent them from reading at grade level. Dyslexia is a cluster of symptoms that cause kids to struggle with language, reading & writing. If you think your child may have Dyslexia, take the test.

Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.” 

International Dyslexia Association

Guiding your child through the early stages of learning to read

Now that you know reading strategies and skills that build fluency how will you use this to help guide them?

If I am going to guide my child on how to get there (fluent reading) I need to know:

  1. Know Where we are at (stage & level of reading)
  2. Where we are going (appropriate reading level & the skills they are currently struggling with)
  3. What books we will use to get us there?

What stage of reading is your child at?

5 Reading Stages:

1. Awareness and Exploration of Reading Stage (typically pre-K)
2. Emergent Reading Stage (typically pre-K to early Kindergarten)
3. Early Reading Stage (typically Kindergarten to early Grade 1)
4. Transitional Reading Stage (typically late Grade 1 to Grade 2)
5. Fluent Reading Stage (typically Grade 3 and higher)
Chall, 1983; Dorn & Soffos, 2001; Fountas & Pinnell, 1996; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998

Where is your child at?

The developmental reading stages are not to say that learning to read isn’t an emotional thing for kids. It is equally important to know where your child is at emotionally with reading. Kids internalize their early reading experiences and decide if they are a “good” reader or a “bad” reader before they have ever really tried reading. Some kids are super honest & will tell you “I don’t know how to read”. I tell them “… yet, you don’t know how to read yet. It takes a very long time and a lot of practice to learn how to read.”

How they feel about reading is sometimes the best place to start building fluency. This is the most commonly overlooked issue. Some kids with fluency issues have emotional blockages. Some have Dyslexia some have to go back and work on phonics. There is a laundry list of things that could be going on with your child’s reading and often it is more than one thing happening at the same time. I recommend you start with their feelings about reading and how you will work together to overcome the part(s) that feel tricky.

Nearly every child has a learning gap at some point or a subject that is difficult for them. If your child struggles in reading thinking in terms of development reading stages helps break up their learning into chunks (think of the stairs). There is a general outline of these stages above & they are helpful for parents to get a better understanding of how to support their children. Realistic expectations should be set where they are at developmentally NOT what age or grade they are in.

Learning as a Process

Learning to read is a process, for everyone. It takes a great deal of time and effort and as with anything worth learning there will be challenges. For some kids fluency is challenging. It helps break up their learning into chunks (think of the stairs) and match their behaviors

There is a great deal of research that supports the theory that there are 5 stages of reading development. The early stages of reading (1-4) are very delicate.

I don’t always have all of the answers but I do take the time to explain this to the children I teach in a simplified way. I use the analogy of a staircase. Learning to read is like a long staircase, each small step leads to a VERY big goal. In this case the top of the steps is a confident, fluent reader. I ask them If you are missing steps how will you get to the top?

Reading stages are a tool. A way to break down the reading skills necessary to become fluent, independent readers. Reading stages, levels & skills help you choose what types of books for your child to read.

For all stages it is important that kids have access to a variety of environmental print (practical use of written language like signs, posters, drawings, notes or lists) as well as many different types of written works like magazines, books, comics & newspapers.

Readers and Non-Readers

What’s interesting about the stages of reading is that most kids label themselves as a reader or a non-reader by the age of 5. This simple mental construct helps kids enjoy or avoid reading and this, for me, is the most important piece of teaching reading. Metacognition (thinking about your thinking) is a very important process that we all experience daily. Kids need to know from the start that readers aren’t born, they’re made.

Young children observe fluent readers (kids who have been listening to and practicing reading for years now) and know they are readers. Some see themselves in the process of learning to read and assume there is only one alternative to being a reader and that’s not being a reader.

3 Types of Readers

To simplify we will use 3 categories; Fluent readers, learning to read and not reading yet.

Guiding Fluent Readers

Most kids become fluent readers late 2nd or sometime in 3rd grade

  • Have mastery of letter sounds, sight words, phonics, vowel teams, blends, etc.
  • Understands story structure (every story has a beginning, middle, & end. Many stories have a lesson to learn or big idea of why the author wrote the story).
  • Understand vocabulary and can use the strategy “what makes sense” to solve unknown words.
  • Know their “just right” reading level (Use the 5 finger rule, more than 5 mistakes on a one page is not an independent reading book. Instead it is a guided reading book)

Learning Readers

Learning Readers (prek- grade 2)

  • Recognize letters in environmental print
  • Understand letters make sounds and memorizes the sounds letters make ( Common mistakes with learning readers are bp, qp, bd, and vowel confusion in any combination. these are developmentally appropriate at this level. Kids can reverse b & d up until 2nd grade and it is developmentally appropriate.)
  • May understand story structure, some vocabulary & sight words and basic phonics
  • Understands that letters joined together make words. May understand that words joined together make sentences.
  • Understands that we read from right to left in English & turn pages the same way.
  • Can identify the cover and or back of a book.
  • Uses one or more strategies to read (sounding out letters, read the pictures, look for parts of the word you know, see below for more ideas)

Not Reading… yet!

Not Reading… Yet or Emerging Readers

  • Do not recognize letters in environmental print
  • Do not know how to match letters with sounds to make a word
  • Can Identify photos, and “read” the pictures
  • May understand basic story structure or parts of the story

Consistent reading is important at every stage.

You may not be able to read 20 minutes everyday but as long as you are consistent in your weekly reading I wouldn’t worry about it. During the preschool years I think we read 5 minutes at a time before my son was done listening.

Reading aloud to kids is important at each stage of reading. Remember to keep reading aloud to fluent readers (books that are above their independent level) and encourage emerging readers to help you by “reading” the picture (a beginning reading strategy, “look at the pictures”).

Reading Strategies & Fluency

There are many reading strategies that I explicitly teach. I spend a week or more learning to use one specific strategy. These are the strategies I use to teach Kindergarten through Second Grade.

Good Readers (Kindergarten/ First Grade)

These are the beginning strategies (tools) that help kids become confident, fluent readers.

  1. Read the picture (look at the picture- only for books)
  2. Say the sounds
  3. Look for parts you know
  4. Read the Whole Word
  5. Think about what makes sense

Great Readers (2nd Grade Reading Strategies)

  1. Re-read
  2. Stop and check that they understand the story
  3. Make predictions
  4. Use bookmarks
  5. Go back & clean it up
  6. Read Chapter books

He chose Cat & Mouse & It’s Super Mouse for our first two reads.

First I read the story description.

Then we took a picture walk. We “read” the pictures by talking about what we thought the characters where doing. If there were tricky words in the text and the illustration, like fence, I made sure to point it out, if he didn’t notice to support him later when he was reading.)

He read by himself (with my help- when needed) Cat & Mouse. Our focus was to work on 1:1 letter sound correspondence (matching each sound correctly in a word and pointing to the words as we read).

Enter the growth mindset.
If you practice goal setting then it is helpful to choose one skill, or better yet have the child choose one skill they’d like to work on and make a plan on how to achieve independence in that area.

It’s important to note I do not have a problem with pre-packaged programs.

The ones that are written well (and support a wide variety of children) can be super helpful in saving time and money. Even then if you have more than one child it’s a learning curve (and the process of finding that just-right curriculum) that can be expensive & frustrating so for my homeschool I just make my own.

References& Related Posts:
Keeping gifted & struggling learners engaged…

Strategies to teach Reading Fluency

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