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Practice is Key – Unlocking Fluency

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Practice is Key – Unlocking Fluency

Written by: Stephanie Woods

June 14, 2024

When I envision a reader, I see a student who effortlessly attacks text and uses their cognitive skills to focus on the meaning. So why do we see students struggling with reading a grade level text? I see teachers work hard on phonics and morphology lessons but I’ve seen it in isolation while observing classrooms. Students practice decoding words, sentences but receive little guidance as they read grade level text or even decodable texts. I’ve heard teachers say students can do it during phonics lessons but they struggle on weekly assessments. Their test low scores show a struggle with reading accurately and fast enough to comprehend. So the question remains, how do we get readers to go from learning isolated skills to reading effortlessly?

Two children sitting on a couch and reading.
Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels

Practice. The key is truly practice. As educators we are teaching students phonics skills, morphology skills, vocabulary, background knowledge and the list goes on. However, if we don’t allow students opportunities to apply their knowledge (practice), then how does that benefit them in becoming a better reader? As teachers, we need to be purposeful in how we allow students to practice – the number of opportunities, the types of corrective feedback, gradual release – it all plays a role in creating an independent reader. 

Here’s a fun analogy. I have this adorable three year old Rhodesian Ridgeback named Leander who so happens to turn three years old today. I’ve trained him to be a running companion over the last couple of years. Did he start out effortlessly running 15 miles with me?! Absolutely not! We started small – learning the commands for running, working to create a team and slowly increasing mileage. We practiced short easy runs in local parks to introduce different stimuli. We went to trails and worked on off leash behaviors. You get the picture, right?! It took both of us hours upon hours to build up the skills needed to run as a team and then the stamina for him to run long distance. Constant and consistent practice.

“We have to provide intentional opportunities for students in the classroom to apply their knowledge and we need to provide immediate corrective feedback to support student growth.”

Reading is no different. We have to provide intentional opportunities for students in the classroom to apply their knowledge and we need to provide immediate corrective feedback to support student growth. What does this look like and what can we do as teachers to provide meaningful opportunities to practice and apply skills?

If we want to get to the nerdy parts of practice, let’s break down some ways to understand the science behind fluency. Practice can be broken down into type, time and support. This means we have to be intentional when it comes to practicing items that are all the same versus mixing it up with various skills (type). Or we intersperse the practice to require students to effortlessly retrieve information (time). Last, we gradually release our level of support to observe students, adjust instruction and provide appropriate scaffolding (support). We have to incorporate productive struggles in order to succeed.

“We have to incorporate productive struggles in order to succeed.”

Whether we are using repeated reading, structured partner reading, choral reading, it is all about providing students with opportunities in the classroom to practice. Consider these questions: When do you have students practice skills? Are they practicing in isolation such as blending lines or lists of words? Do they practice in decodable texts? Do students have opportunities to connect their learning with grade-level texts? Do students have opportunities to practice fluency outside of reading a text? Meaning- have students ever read a play, a script, filmed a commercial, read morning announcements? All of these provide real ways for students to practice fluent reading. Notice how this is similar to training my dog to run – I didn’t run the same route every day. We switched it up all the time to apply the skills he had learned so I could see if he actually learned the necessary skills and was able to perform.

So as you continue throughout your day, week and summer, start considering how you are giving students opportunities to read text authentically in your classroom. Reflect on the questions above and keep providing those opportunities to students!

Resources

International Literacy Association. (2018). Reading fluently does not mean reading fast [Literacy leadership brief]. Newark, DE: Author.

Peavler, J. (2023). What Do We Mean by Practice? Perspectives on Language & Literacy, 49(1), 20–23. 

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Contributor

  • Stephanie Woods

    Stephanie Woods is currently a Training Support Specialist for the Indiana Literacy Cadre supporting schools by implementing evidence-based practices in literacy instruction and student-centered coaching. She has been an elementary school teacher working with students in grades K-6th since 2009. Most recently she worked as a reading specialist and MTSS coordinator working with at-risk readers and developing professional development. Stephanie holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bethel University, a bachelor’s degree in speech and communicative disorders from Utah State University and a master’s in literacy from American College of Education. She is passionate about supporting all students to become lifelong learners and readers.

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