Do you have students sitting in your high school class who struggle to read fluently? Sure. We all do. The problem is that most teaching programs do not prepare secondary teachers to address this issue. How can educators focus on improving reading fluency issues in middle and high school? The answer is not black and white, but certain approaches can help.
It’s important to emphasize that issues with reading fluency typically originate early on in students’ lives. Many secondary students with fluency problems were not exposed to literacy-rich environments as infants, toddlers, and elementary students. High school teachers should not feel like they need to address fluency issues in addition to the rest of their already demanding curriculum.
Besides, poor fluency is not a dilemma that can be rectified with a few mini-lessons. It’s also important to note that it’s really not necessary to address fluency in the regular education classroom if it doesn’t impede students’ comprehension. Instead, teachers should recommend students who struggle with fluency for intervention services. If your school has a reading or literacy specialist or an RTI team, fill them in on your observations.
Still, some secondary institutes don’t have the luxury of employing specialists. So, what can teachers do in their classrooms to support students who struggle with fluency? What advice can we offer parents so that they can also work with their children at home?
CHOOSE APPROPRIATE TEXTS
When students have difficulty reading words out loud, it’s likely a vocabulary issue, or the reader is focusing more on the individual words than on trying to comprehend while reading. If you notice a student consistently struggles with fluency, try a text with an easier reading level. When students don’t have to work so hard on vocabulary, they can focus more on understanding.
The movement to include more choice reading in the secondary classroom should help teachers to match students with books that are appropriate to their independent reading ability. When teaching whole-class novels, stories, or articles, consider using sites like Rewordify to simplify complex passages. Online sites like Actively Learn, Scholastic Scope, and NewsELA also differentiate text levels for the same article.
When I teach Shakespeare in my co-taught classes, we only read short excerpts of the original play. For the majority of the study, we read adapted texts and supplement with the movie to provide the visual scaffolding many struggling readers need. If your school does not separate students into ability tracks, I strongly suggest making an adapted version of the text available to struggling readers.
READ TO STUDENTS
When teachers read out loud to students (or use audiotapes), students benefit from hearing what fluent reading sounds like. Many struggling readers weren’t read to outside of school as children, putting them at a disadvantage. While high school teachers cannot – POOF! – miraculously catch up a student who reads at a third grade level, we can make a difference by showing them the habits of good readers.
As teachers read out loud or play an audio tape, we can pause and model what to do when confronting difficult vocabulary. We can show students how we read a sentence differently by noting punctuation marks. Teachers can show students that readers tend to speed up the pace during suspenseful parts of the story and slow down during descriptive passages. We can show students how to use their finger to swipe under entire word groups to read them fluently instead of pointing at words as separate units.
Think about what good readers do without even being cognizant. Those are the tips we need to share with struggling readers as we read out loud.
I’ll never forget the times I’ve read texts to struggling readers. Mythology stories to my freshmen. Lord of the Flies to my seniors. Simply by modeling intonation, feeling, and fluency, my students are immediately drawn into these texts – captivated.
READ WITH STUDENTS
When trying to improve fluency, teachers can use different strategies during whole-class read alouds. During each of these strategies, remember that modeling multiple times might be necessary, and it’s important that students can see the text as they read. Use a document camera, or simply have students follow along in their own copy of the book.
Echo reading. The teacher reads a sentence and model appropriate tone, pace, and volume. Students echo your example.
Choral reading. Everyone reads together. Students will naturally fall in line with the group.
Repeated reading. Have students read a short text out loud over and over (I wouldn’t recommend using more than a paragraph). As they gain more confidence with the vocabulary and sentence structure, they will be practicing reading more fluently.
Phrased reading. Helping students to focus on complete phrases instead of individual words can improve fluency. My favorite way to do this is by pointing out how sentences are structured grammatically. Teachers can show students how an introductory prepositional or participial phrase is used to improve the flow of a sentence. Likewise, teachers can explain how dependent clauses function as a unit to lead into a main clause.
REDUCE THE PRESSURE
Readers theater. Allowing students the freedom to read out loud creatively and without concern for accuracy gives them a safe space to practice fluency. It’s fun to model how to read lines and then tell students just to have fun reading…not to stop and toil over a word if they think they mispronounced it. Just keep going!
One of my most successful units teaching struggling readers is when we create our own script of the ending of Romeo and Juliet and act it out. At-risk students love it, and it allows them the context to practice fluency in a memorable, effective way. Not sure what it is? Read more about readers theater.
Partner up. Sometimes students are reluctant to read in front of their peers. It’s easy enough to assign two students to a role. Both teens read the same lines at the same time, which takes the pressure off of individual kids.
Don’t surprise struggling readers. Unexpectedly calling on struggling readers to read out loud can be traumatizing for students with fluency issues. Teens can be judgmental. Always give students a heads up when asking them to read out loud, or allow them to decline your invitation.
It’s been proven that phonics instruction is not effective at the high school level. Rather than focusing on breaking down word parts, reading to and reading with teenagers is most effective at improving reading fluency problems. When possible, get help from specialists and intervention teams. Using a few of these strategies in the classroom can help to provide the interventions students need.