Fluency: The Bridge to Comprehension

Part 4 of the Science of Reading Simplified Series

In part 4 of the Science of Reading Simplified blog series, we define fluency in simple terms and discuss why it is so important for young readers to read fluently in order to be able to comprehend what they read

Savvas Insights Team

What Is Fluency and How Can It Lead to Better Reading Comprehension?


Science of Reading research shows that fluency is one of the critical skills young learners need to be successful at reading, and that it is a vital piece of early reading instruction. Without the ability to read fluently, it will be difficult for readers to develop reading comprehension, which is the ultimate goal for young readers to achieve.

“I think of phonics as being a tool that helps kids become detectives,” said Savvas author and literacy expert Sharon Vaughn. “And they can readily solve the mystery of what a word is with this tool. It’s a superpower.”

The Science of Reading Simplified “If I’m not fluent, I’m spending so much of my effort on reading a word and reading so slowly, that by the time I get to the end of the paragraph I can’t possibly tell you what it was about,” said Savvas author and literacy expert Sharon Vaughn. “So fluency is the supersonic highway that takes us very effortlessly from reading words to understanding and comprehension.”

Fluency can be broken down into three parts that will help educators pinpoint what a student needs in order to read smoothly, at an appropriate rate, and with expression when reading aloud. By identifying where a student needs more support and then knowing how to provide that support, educators can help students cross that bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension.

What Is Fluency?

When a person is reading fluently, they are reading words accurately and at an appropriate speed with expression (prosody) that brings the text to life. They are showing that they recognize most of the words in a text and that they also know their meaning. Being a fluent reader means that students have the ability to start truly comprehending texts.

“When I have to read in a foreign language that I’m just learning, I use up way too much of my cognitive resources on reading the words,” said Sharon. “I can’t keep track of the meaning without rereading several times or keeping notes. So you need fluency in order to connect to comprehension.”

elementary students reading a book

Fluency can be broken into three elements: accuracy, rate, and prosody (expression). While these three parts are important on their own, a fluent reader will demonstrate each of them simultaneously when reading. Here’s a breakdown of what those terms mean:

  • Accuracy: When a reader is reading words accurately, they are reading words the way they’re meant to be read. They’re not making up words, substituting words, or deleting words.
  • Rate: When a reader is reading at an appropriate rate, they’re reading smoothly and effortlessly — not so slowly that it appears they are concentrating too much on saying the words instead of focusing on their meaning, nor so quickly that they seem to be racing to get to the end.
  • Prosody: When a reader is reading with prosody, they’re using inflections in their voice to show expression. This is a reflection that they understand what they’re reading. For example, if a reader is reading a question, their voice rises at the end. Sharon does, however, emphasize that not all children speak with a lot of expression or fluctuation in their natural speaking voice, so a teacher should take that into account when thinking about prosody.

When readers read fluently, they no longer have to slow down to decode words. They automatically recognize words as they read and their voices reflect that they know the meaning of the words that they’re reading out loud. When they show that they recognize words and their meaning, it allows them to better comprehend text.

What Does Fluency Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?

A teacher can teach fluency through modeling what a fluent reader sounds like by reading words accurately with appropriate speed and expression. But then it’s also important to provide students with a lot of deliberate practice through reading and rereading in many different settings.

“I cannot emphasize enough that deliberate practice is really critical to fluency,” said Sharon. “You model, you read together, students read by themselves, they read in partners, they read silently, and they practice the same long passage. So they get a lot of practice and it’s very deliberate.”

“... fluency is the supersonic highway that takes us very effortlessly from reading words to understanding and comprehension.”

The key to fluency practice is providing lots of opportunities for reading in many different settings, whether it be in small groups, whole class, partner, or independently. So, if the whole class is reading a particular passage, the teacher can model reading fluently and everyone can read that same passage together. Then, students can turn to a partner and read it to each other. And then they can read independently.

“You model, you read, and then you reread,” said Sharon. “Modeling with fluency is very powerful. It's a powerful practice.”

If a reader is reading slowly but accurately, it may be that they need more practice reading at a pace that is more comfortable. A teacher can support increasing the rate of reading by asking the student to read along, but tell them that this time they’re going to read a little faster. The teacher can say, "Okay read this with me, but we’re going to read it just a little faster." And rereading will often help pick up the pace.

Modeling and practice also help to teach prosody, but another good way to teach it is by pretending to act like you’re in a play and have them read the lines in a way so that the audience can understand.

Fluency and Comprehension

Connecting words in a fluent way gives students access to comprehension by freeing up space in their minds to think about what they are reading. They can think about what message the author is trying to convey, what lessons the characters are learning, and how the story connects with their own lives.

elementary girl reading a book

“Fluency is the mechanism to accessing comprehension,” said Sharon. “Because when we can read words accurately and at an appropriate speed, we can really release all of our cognitive processing to think about, ‘What does this mean? What happened before? How does this connect?’ We get to understand what we’re reading.”

Put Fluency Into Practice!

Now that we’ve learned all about fluency and why it’s such an important part of learning to read, below are some activities, information, and suggestions for educators to consider while planning instruction.

  • For Teachers

    Here are some tips to help you teach each of three elements of fluency (accuracy, rate, prosody) that you can use in your classroom right away.

    • Accuracy: Reading and practicing high-frequency words often with students, as well as teaching them how to decode words and learn letter-sound relationships, will help them recognize words automatically.
    • Rate: Having students read along with you while you model the appropriate rate of reading will help them understand that they need to read faster or slower.
    • Prosody: Choose a short play that students can read to their classmates and ask them to read the lines with expression and in a way that the audience can understand.

    Modeling, reading, and rereading are critical to teaching fluency. Be sure to also ensure that students are exposed to an expansive range of reading experiences and give them access to a classroom library that engages them with diverse and relevant books.

  • For Sharing with Families

    Here are a few activities that teachers can share with students’ families that will help extend learning beyond the classroom — in a fun way. Let them know that by helping their children with fluency practice at home, they will be giving them the skills they need to comprehend what they read. And when children are able to comprehend what they read, they are more engaged and they are better equipped to transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

    • When reading to your child, model fluent reading by using expression and accurate speed. Encourage them to read along with you so they can get the feel of what it’s like to be a fluent reader.
    • Have your child choose a favorite book and read it aloud two or three times. Reading and rereading are important strategies in teaching fluency.
    • Review high-frequency words with your child to make sure that they know these words automatically.
    • Read together often and provide a lot of access to books at home or at your local library.
  • For Administrators

    When looking for a reading curriculum, it’s important that it includes fluency instruction to ensure your students have the tools to be able to comprehend text. Here are some elements you can look for in reading program that includes sufficient fluency instruction:

    Fluency instruction should include:

    • Sufficient opportunities for practice with letter names and associated sounds, and that those opportunities include feedback to ensure accuracy.
    • Teacher-led modeling, oral reading by students, and immediate feedback.
    • An emphasis on reading accuracy and automaticity as the hallmarks of fluent reading.
    • Word-level fluency practice.
    • Connected text fluency practice.
    • Additional support for Multilingual Learners is included whenever possible to ensure students understand the meaning of words being read.

About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.