My father taught me to read with fluency and expression. He didn’t know he was doing it. Every Sunday afternoon, my brother and I would sit with him by the heater or on the porch and he would read us the Sunday comics. Characters such as Beetle Bailey, Charlie Brown, Dennis the Menace, and the Wizard of Id each had their own voices.
If you walk into a Lower Primary grade classroom, you’ll likely see students reading aloud to teachers who explicitly teach them to read more smoothly and read with expression. Do Upper Primary and Middle School teachers need to focus on oral reading fluency? If so, how can upper grade teachers explicitly instruct students on fluency without it feeling “childish”?
How does Oral Reading Fluency Fit into Common Core Standards?
The Common Core standards include oral reading fluency as part of the Reading Foundational Skills. Until grade 2, foundational skills focus on students understanding print features, translating print features into words, syllables, and sounds. Until grade 6, foundational skills comprise phonics, word analysis, accuracy, and fluency as they support comprehension.
Does this mean teachers can stop teaching oral reading fluency after grade 6? Probably not. While Common Core Reading Foundational skills are discontinued at Grade 6, Middle School teachers still need to know the following:
- Are the students recognizing at least 95% of the words they are reading?
- Do students use phrasing, punctuation, and italics to pick up on author’s intent?
- Do students differentiate between characters by hearing the characters’ different “voices”?
Oral reading fluency does not necessarily align with silent reading fluency, but oral reading fluency can indicate what happens in students’ heads when they read silently.
When students read fluently, they are better able to analyze of the impact of word choice on meaning or tone. Students who read fluently can better analyze poetic and musical tools in poems and stories (Grades 6 and 7 Reading Literature Standard 4).
Students who differentiate character voices more easily analyze ways in which authors develop and contrast points of view of different characters. (Grade 7 Reading Literature Standard 6).
How to Teach Fluency Without It Feeling Childish
Comics and Graphic Novels: Almost all of my struggling readers gravitate to comics like Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. In the context of reading fluency, those books are a good place to start. How would Calvin’s voice be different from the voice of Hobbes? Have students record some of their favorite strips or pages. The listener should be able to hear the difference and the recorder should be able to defend why he/she chose the particular type of voice. Let the student “ham it up.” Then move the student to graphic novels.
Plays: Like most other skills, fluency and expression come with practice. Plays allow students that practice. The difficulty is that, unless well-planned, play reading becomes another form of round-robin reading that can quickly disengage students. Also, cold readings of plays set up lower-fluency readers and second language students for public scrutiny. I recommend the following progression of activities:
- Before assigning parts or having anyone read aloud, have the students read the play silently. Ask about the characters. What type of person is…? What do you think his or her voice would sound like? How would specific characters sit? Stand? What kinds of clothes would the characters wear? Hairstyles?
- Find out if anyone is particularly “attached to a part”. If two or more people want the same parts, you can delegate in whatever age-appropriate way you deem best (rock-paper-scissors), dual recordings (multiple girls play Broadway’s Annie). Consider challenging higher readers to play (and understand) the character they identify with the least.
- Highlight the importance of practice. Line. By. Line. Model mistakes and re-takes until the line is perfect. Model how you decide which word in a sentence should be emphasized – and how sentence meanings change slightly based on the emphasis (let students help you decide which sounds best).
- Give students recording devices to record, listen, evaluate, repeat. They should keep/save recordings of the best “take” of each line or section.
- Pair up students who listen to each others’ recordings and offer advice.
- Then meet as a group to read the play orally. Record. Garage Band is a great recording tool. If someone makes an error, they can pause then read the line over again. Errors are easily erased.
If you’re teaching fluency to two or more groups, allow the groups to compare the line interpretations. How did someone else read the same part similarly? Differently? Why do you think they made those particular choices?
Modifications for English Language Learners
When listening to the podcasts above, you will notice that each podcast features a student who has limited English. Consider recording lines with the students who struggle with English pronunciation. Then, transfer the practice session to iTunes (or .mp3), and have students practice reading with the recording.
End With Reflection
When I started doing class news videos, I realized that students could easily tell me what they did, but had a harder time telling me what they learned.
Take the time to ask students what they learned about reading fluency. What was difficult at first? Which lines needed the most practice? Why do you think the [tongue-in-cheek mean/crazy] teacher would ask you to do this? How might these skills be valuable when reading other texts?
If you are unfamiliar with the workings of Garage Band, see this tutorial:
…but you don’t need Garage Band. Here is a tutorial on iPad Voice Recorder (also featured on iTouches):
In what other ways might older students practice reading fluency?
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