How Reading Fluency Develops

Little Girl Reading a Book

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Reading fluency refers to the ability to read quickly, smoothly, easily, and with expression. To read fluently, a reader must understand how the symbols on the page (the letters) are related to the sounds of the language, how those sounds are blended together to form words, what the words mean, and what the words together in a sentence mean.

Stages of Reading Fluency

In the initial stages of learning to read, a reader is so focused on decoding the words on the page that they don't have much mental energy left to spend on meaning. To decode the words, a beginning reader sounds out the words—they are connecting sounds to the letters they see and are trying to blend those sounds together to form words. Then they must know what the word means.

If a reader encounters an unfamiliar word, the decoding is much more difficult because they then have to try to get the meaning of the word from the context, from the surrounding words. That, however, means that the reader must be able to decode those surrounding words and remember them, and then figure out the meaning of the unfamiliar word. You can see that there is quite a bit involved in reading.

Decoding vs. Reading With Expression

As a reader becomes better at decoding the words, they'll be able to read words more quickly. But that does not mean that they'll be able to read with expression. Reading with expression means that a child is not reading in a monotone, with all words getting equal emphasis.

Knowing which words to emphasize requires that a reader understands the meaning, not just of the individual words, but of entire sentences and even entire passages. They must also understand the significance of the words and sentences. That means that if they are reading a story, they must understand the story.

Notice the difference between these two readings from The Three Little Pigs:

  1. "I'll. Huff. And. I'll. Puff. And. I'll. Blow. Your. House. Down."
  2. "I'll huff! And I'll puff! And I'll BLOW your house down!"

In the first reading, the child recognizes each individual word. That is one of the initial stages of reading. At this point, the child is able to decode the individual words, but they are not able to put the words together to generate meaning. This is not a fluent reading.

In the second reading, the child is not only able to decode the individual words but is also able to understand how the words work together to create meaning. They recognize not just words, but word groups. They know which words make a sentence and where the emphasis goes.

To be a fluent reader, a child must be developmentally ready. In other words, their brain must be sufficiently developed. It is why early reading is seen as a sign of giftedness.

1 Source
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  1. Vaivre-Douret L. Developmental and Cognitive Characteristics of "High-Level Potentialities" (Highly Gifted) Children. Int J Pediatr. 2011;2011:420297. doi:10.1155/2011/420297

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.