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The IERI Research Community :: Projects

The Development of Fluent and Automatic Reading: Precursor to Learning from Text

Paula J. Schwanenflugel

Melanie R. Kuhn, Robin D. Morris, Barbara A. Bradley


Background: Being able to read fluently is a critical developmental step for all young children's education. Fluent reading is defined as reading that is quick, accurate, and, when oral reading is considered, expressive. Fluency is important for comprehending and learning from text. Children who do not develop fluency in the second and third grades will have difficulty learning from texts in later grades.

Purpose: The studies had three goals: (a) to develop and evaluate classroom practices for fluency-oriented reading instruction; (b) to develop effective remediation programs for children with poor reading fluency; and (c) to advance theory regarding the development of reading fluency.

Intervention: The study was designed to evaluate the relative effectiveness of wide- versus repeated-reading classroom interventions for reading fluency.

Setting: Studies took place in rural, suburban, and urban settings in schools serving racially diverse students from high poverty to middle class households in Georgia, New Jersey, and Kansas.

Research Design: Over five years, participants ranged from first to fifth grade children (N = 3327). Most studies focused on second and third grade children, their teachers (N = 133), and/or their families (N=61). All children received permission from parents to participate and verbally assented to their own participation. Adults signed their own consents. Controls were children and classrooms from demographically similar schools in the same geographical region.

For goal (a) and (b) above, children were assessed using the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE, Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1999), Gray Oral Reading Test -3 and 4 (GORT-3 & 4, Wiederholt & Bryant, 1992, 2001), Weschler Individual Achievement Test-Reading Comprehension subtest (WIAT, 1992), Gates-MacGinitie (GATES, MacGinitie, MacGinitie, Maria, & Dreyer, 2002) and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS, Kaminski & Good, 1998).Children were assessed at the beginning, middle, and end of second grade and one year later. For goal (c) above, children were assessed using two orthographic knowledge tests (Olson, Kliegl, Davidson, & Folz, 1985; Cassar & Treiman, 1997), a modified Stroop test (Schwanenflugel, Meisinger, Wisenbaker, Kuhn, Strauss, & Morris, in press), and a timed word naming test (Schwanenflugel et al., in press) as well as the GORT-3 & 4, WIAT, and TOWRE.

Findings: One of the goals of the project was to develop and evaluate the effects of instructional approaches to improving the reading fluency skills of children. One approach tested was Stahl and Heubach's Fluency-Oriented Reading Instruction (FORI) which involved scaffolded-repeated reading (using echo, choral, and partner reading) of grade-level texts during the course of each week. The second tested was a Wide Reading approach that also involved scaffolded instruction, but which incorporated the reading of three different grade-level texts each week. In one study, we found benefits of the FORI approach on some reading measures (word reading, comprehension), but the benefits of the Wide Reading approach emerged earlier and included benefits for children's oral reading fluency skill compared to children in control classrooms (Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, Woo, Meisinger, Sevcik, Bradley, & Stahl, in press). The FORI approach, however, was easy for parents to understand and showed benefits when they participated along with the classroom program by having their children read the texts at home for homework (Morrow, Kuhn, & Schwanenflugel, in press). However, the effectiveness of FORI by itself was rather uneven across years and, in large scale-up, did not improve children's reading fluency overall. Thus, we recommend a Wide Reading approach to improving children's fluency in which at least 20 minutes of scaffolded oral reading is carried out each day using a variety of grade level texts.

Another goal of the project was to advance theory regarding the development of reading fluency. There are two primary theories that have been advanced regarding the contribution of reading fluency to comprehension, each of which emphasizes one of fluency's component parts. The first and better known of the two theories stresses the contribution of automaticity to fluent reading, whereas the second focuses on the role of prosody. One study was directed at providing an empirically-based model regarding how fluency, autonomy, and freed resources (in terms of improved comprehension) operate together in early reading skill development. Children were assessed using a variety of psychometric and experimental measures of reading skill that targeted word reading fluency, text reading fluency, reading autonomy, and reading comprehension. Evidence was found for a simple fluency model that suggested that fluent word and text reading operate together with reading autonomy to produce good comprehension in young readers.

A second set of studies was directed at evaluating the role of reading prosody (or expressiveness in oral reading) in the development of reading fluency. Characteristics of children's reading prosody were measured spectrographically. It was found that, for simple passages, the development of reading prosody is unrelated to reading comprehension skills (Schwanenflugel, Hamilton, Kuhn, Wisenbaker, & Stahl, 2004). For syntactically complex passages, pauses are not related to comprehension, but large pitch changes at the ends of some sentence types are indicative of higher reading comprehension skill (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006). Importantly, as children gain speed and accuracy in their reading, they read with fewer, shorter pauses and larger pitch changes at the ends of sentences, and their reading prosody more closely resembles that of adults. Consequently, reading prosody is, indeed, a marker of the development of better reading fluency. Thus, it appears that, as children become fluent and automatic readers, they use their freed attention resources to produce prosodic reading and improved comprehension.

Kuhn, M.R., & Schwanenflugel, P.J. (under contract). Fluency in the Classroom: A Literacy Curriculum. NY: Guilford.

Kuhn, M. R., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2006). Fluency-oriented reading instruction: A merging of theory with practice. In K.A.D. Stahl & M.C. McKenna (Eds.), Reading research at work: Foundations of effective practice (pp. 205-213). NY: Guilford.

Ash, G.E., & Kuhn, M.R. (2006). Meaningful oral and silent reading in the elementary and middle school classroom: Breaking the round robin reading addiction. In Rasinski, T., Blachowicz, C., & Lems, K. (Eds.), Fluency Instruction. Research-Based Best Practices (pp. 155-172). NY: Guilford.

Schwanenflugel, P.J., Meisinger, E., Wisenbaker, J.M., Kuhn, M.R., Strauss, G.P. & Morris, R.D. (in press). Becoming a fluent and automatic reader in the early elementary school years. Reading Research Quarterly.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P.J., Morris, R.D., Morrow, L. M., Bradley, B. A., Meisinger, E., Woo, D., & Stahl, S. A. (in press). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research.

Kuhn, M.R., & Schwanenflugel, P.J. (in press). All Reading Practice Is Not Equal (or how can I integrate fluency instruction into my classroom?). Literacy Teaching and Learning.

Morrow, L. M., Kuhn, M., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (in press). The family and fluency instruction. Reading Teacher.

Quirk, M. P., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2004). Do supplemental remedial reading programs address the motivational issues of struggling readers? An analysis of five popular programs. Reading Research and Instruction, 43, 1-19.

Meisinger, E. B., Schwanenflugel, P. J, Bradley, B.A., & Stahl, S.A. (2004). Interaction quality during partner reading. Journal of Literacy Research, 36, 111-140.

Schwanenflugel, P. J., Hamilton, A. M., Kuhn, M. R., Wisenbaker, J. & Stahl, S. A. (2004). Becoming a fluent reader: Reading skill and prosodic features in the oral reading of young readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 119-129.

Miller, J., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2006). Prosody of Syntactically Complex Sentences in the Oral Reading of Young Children. Manuscript submitted for publication. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

Schwanenflugel, P. J., Strauss, G., Morris, R. K., Sieczko, J., Kuhn, M. R., & Stahl, S. A. (2005). The influence of word unit size on the development of Stroop interference in early word decoding. Manuscript submitted for publication. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

Quirk, M.P., & Schwanenflugel, P.J. (2006). An Examination of the Causal Relationship between Motivation to Read and Reading Fluency Skill in Second Grade Children. Manuscript submitted for publication. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

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