How to Improve Your Child’s Reading Fluency

What is oral reading fluency?

Reading fluency is the ability to read

  • accurately
  • smoothly
  • with expression

But the focus should always be on reading fluently with good comprehension. I think it’s also important to remember, that for most of us, fluent reading happens much more frequently as a silent process in our heads.

Fluency Speed: How fast should my child read?

There are many fluency charts that provide a general guide to what good fluency looks like for each particular grade level.

Speed is just one measure of fluency and it’s measured by wcpm (words correct per minute).

However, I think it’s more accurate to say that a student should be able to read grade level text at an appropriate speed to maintain good comprehension, because that’s really what it’s all about.

Timothy Rasinski, a literacy professor, longtime education researcher, and reading fluency expert, has developed many helpful fluency tools. Here are just a couple:

What does fluent oral reading sound like?

Fluent reading sounds comfortable, like conversation.

If a student is struggling to sound out words or isn’t strategic as they’re reading, then meaning gets lost. Again, fluent reading isn’t just focusing on pretty sounding reading. It’s about reading fluently to understand.

I’ve worked with some beautiful sounding readers (word callers) who can decode anything, but since they’re not interacting and pulling meaning from text, their comprehension isn’t usually any better than the child who struggles painfully to decode words.

How do you help a disfluent reader become a more fluent one?

First, really observe your child as he or she reads.

Does it seem that your child is struggling with decoding (sounding out) words?

Insider Tip #1: Build Decoding Skills for Better Fluency

For building decoding skills, do what Reading Recovery teachers do: “Make and break” words with magnetic letters. When kids can quickly manipulate letters into common word patterns, they are learning “how words work”.

It’s important to focus on the words that generally follow the rules, rather than all of the weird exceptions of English.

As a reading teacher, next to having a large library of leveled books, magnetic letters are something I just couldn’t do without.

If you already have the more common multi-colored magnetic letters, they work just fine for word work. However, I have a strong preference for the ones with blue consonants and red vowels because they help kids recognize common phonetic patterns for both vowels and consonants (Examples: ee, oa, ar, th, st, etc.).

image using magnetic letters for decoding

Word work is meant to be very quick, only 5-10 minutes a day. That’s it.

One example of how to use magnetic letters in a quick word work lesson:

Say to your child…

Make the word at

Now add one letter to make the word bat

Now turn bat into cat

Now turn cat into can

Now turn can into pan

Now turn pan into pen

Now turn pen into pin

More complex word patterns are built over time.

Magnetic letters help a student look at the beginning, middle and ending of words to build their phonics skills. Building phonics skills makes for faster decoding which directly affects fluency.

Write the words you make & break 

Once you make and break words, then have your child write these words on a small dry erase board. Reading and writing are reciprocal skills, so one always helps the other.

Write the word at.

Now make it into bat.

Now change bat into cat,

and so on…

Consider reading one of the Making Words Books by Patricia Cunningham.

They are the go-to books for making & breaking words. There seems to be one for just about every grade and ability level now. I like them because they are very user-friendly and not full of educational jargon.

Insider Tip #2 Build Oral Reading Fluency with Repeated Reads of Short Text

Instead of allowing a student to struggle through a long painful reading of a book, it’s much more effective to have a them master one short piece of text by reading it multiple times.

Reading is a skill. And just like learning any other skill, the more you practice it, the better you get. I would often remind my students that absolutely no one starts off as a professional baseball player, or pianist, or chef.

Just as a musician plays one piece of music over and over and over again to master it, the best way to be a more fluent reader is to read one, short piece of text over and over and over again to the point of mastery.

One of the great benefits to re-reading short text to mastery is that it’s also a wonderful confidence builder.

Confident readers want to read more and readers who read more, become even better readers. It develops a wonderful synergy.

What are some examples of short texts that build fluency?

Short Poems

Short poems that have a very predictable rhyme scheme are fantastic for fluency building, so there are many, many poems that make good fluency builders.

One of my favorite forms of poetry for fluency building would be Limericks because they’re short, often silly, and follow a predictable rhyme scheme (AABBA). With their rather sing-song cadence, they’re a great choice. But there are so many good collections of poems for every interest.

Here’s just one limerick example:


Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky have been classic favorite children’s poets for decades, but there are many other fantastic contemporary children’s poets now.

One of the best websites for children’s poetry is poetry4kids the website home of former Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt. He tends to write funny poems kids can really relate to.

Short picture books with a highly patterned text build fluency

Picture books with limited text, but that follow a repetitive, predictable pattern are also wonderful for building oral reading fluency.

A few examples of patterned picture books include:

Cumulative poems build fluency

One example of a cumulative poem would be “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.” Building on a repetitive pattern is a key element in the structure of a cumulative poem.

Yes, the repetition can sometimes get more than a bit tiresome by the end, but that’s also what makes it so effective for building fluency. Lots and lots of repetition.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

by Anonymous

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider.
It wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.
There was an old lady who swallowed a bird.
How absurd to swallow a bird!
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a cat.
Imagine that!  She swallowed a cat!
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a dog.
She was a hog to swallow a dog!
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.
There was an old lady who swallowed a horse.
She died, of course!

Cumulative picture book stories build fluency through repetition

Just like a cumulative poem, cumulative tales are longer stories, but their story structure is still built on repetition. In fact, many cumulative poems have been turned into picture books. The poem above is just one such example.

Some examples of cumulative tales include:

Reader’s theater scripts build prosody

Oral reading fluency isn’t just about building speed. Some readers read with an appropriate speed, but they aren’t very expressive readers.

I would remind my students that when they read aloud, they aren’t just reading for themselves, like when they read silently.

If you are reading aloud, you are reading for an audience.

Your prosody affects how oral reading sounds to others:

  • Does the reader read with good expression (using natural highs & lows in the voice, rather than in a robotic, monotone voice)?
  • Does the reader have good intonation or are the words slurred together and difficult to understand? (Speech & language issues should be always be considered here.)
  • Does the reader read loud enough to be heard?

For the quiet-as-a-mouse readers, and the monotone-Robbie-the-robot readers out there, it’s time to get dramatic!

One of the best ways to become a more expressive reader, is to help your child channel their inner thespian and read short readers theater scripts. And as any good actor will tell you, it’s important to enunciate!

Teachers Pay Teachers has lots of really good reader’s theater scripts written for many different grade levels and  several are FREE. 

Insider Tip #3: Teach Your Child’s Finger to Read Fluently

Readers often use their finger to track text as they’re reading. This is absolutely fine…if they’re doing it correctly.

What? There’s a right and a wrong way to read with your finger? Well, yes, actually there is.

If a student is jabbing at words on the page, lifting up their finger after every word…

They. will. read. every. word. like. this. 

This kind of tracking does not lead to smooth, fluent reading. The reading will sound choppy, and it actually makes the eye work a lot harder to track text.

So what do you do instead?

Teach your child to slide their finger or hand under the words across the page from left to right in a smooth motion, rather than as a bouncy jab. The finger should never lift up from the page. When you train the finger to read fluently, then smooth oral reading follows…almost like magic!

Insider Tip #4: Get Your Child’s Eyes Checked by an Optometrist

Do not rely on the very basic vision screening provided by your child’s school. They’re really not adequate.

Sometimes a fluency issue is not a reading issue at all, but your child might simply need glasses for reading. It’s difficult to be a fluent reader when you can’t see the words on the page clearly.

This easy fix could save so much unnecessary reading difficulty and frustration for your child at home and at school.

Insider Tip #5: Model Fluent Oral Reading by Reading Aloud to Your Child…Often

Of course you want your child to read fluently, so it’s important that they practice reading. However, children need to know what good reading sounds like, so it’s also incredibly important to model it for them. Reading to your child helps

  • build a love for reading
  • expose your child to higher level vocabulary (in context) they are not yet ready to read independently for themselves.

There is really only one book recommendation I make to parents and it’s The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.

In print since 1982, the book has sold over a million copies and its in its eighth edition. With this most recent one, the editorial baton has been passed from Jim Trelease to Cyndi Giorgis.

It’s a tremendous book about the importance of reading aloud to your children, and the message boils down to this:  Most children who are read to often, will become readers who choose to read.

Read aloud about things you and your child love.

Read about things you truly enjoy. Sure, there are the classic fairy tales and other fictional fare, but don’t feel restricted by them if they’re not your bag.

If you and your child are into baseball, read non-fiction biographies about a favorite baseball player, or even articles from the sports section of the daily newspaper.

Reading with a passion and a purpose makes all the difference.

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