The Critical Role of Oral Fluency in Reading Comprehension

oral fluencyBuilding a strong foundation for literacy early in a child’s education is imperative to ensuring continued growth and development. After learning simple letters and phonics, children learn to identify words. Then they are tasked with understanding the meaning of text—more commonly known as reading comprehension.

A significant component of reading comprehension mastery is oral reading fluency. While some students may find it easy to read words, they may have difficulty deriving meaning, stringing words together to create sentences, and ultimately, creating narrative. This is where oral fluency plays a key role.

What is oral fluency?
Oral fluency is defined as the ability to read with accuracy, speed, and appropriate expression1. While the word “fluency” also applies to silent reading, oral fluency is a more obvious indicator of reading pace and comprehension.

Students who can read fluently focus less on figuring out words and more on understanding and comprehension. Fluency not only reflects students’ decoding skills, but also builds confidence and helps them develop a love of learning and literacy. Think about it: the more effortless reading becomes for a student, the more enjoyable and interesting it will be. So, how can you tell if a student struggles with fluency?

Teachers and parents might notice that students who find it difficult to read fluently often avoid reading because it takes a lot of energy and results in frustration.

There are three main components of oral fluency that indicate and affect the child’s level of reading comprehension:

1. Accuracy
Words with complex syllabic structure, more letters, and less frequency in text tend to challenge students more—and can result in less accuracy and/or comprehension.

2. Expression
Also known as prosody, a student’s expressiveness is yet another indicator of how well a text is being understood. A student who reads with appropriate inflection and tone demonstrates an understanding of the text or narrative.

3. Speed
The speed at which a child reads aloud is another indicator of how well a child understands the text. Slow reading and frequent pauses signal that the student is having a difficult time decoding and/or comprehending the text.

Each component must be addressed to comprehensively evaluate a student’s level of oral fluency. Therefore, the following signs might indicate a fluency struggle:

  • Slow reading
  • Reading without expression
  • Stumbling on words often
  • Subvocalizing (mouth movement when reading silently)
  • Failure to meet words-per-minute benchmark
  • Difficulty explaining what was read

Why oral fluency matters
How significant a role does oral fluency play when it comes to reading comprehension? A study2 conducted by Florida State University and the Florida Center for Reading Research found that growth rate in oral fluency was the greatest predictor in a child’s ability to develop reading comprehension skills. The study also examined other skills that educators might focus on, including letter-naming, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and nonsense word reading fluency skills. However, findings indicated that oral fluency was the most important skill contributing to reading comprehension development and growth.

Additionally, a 2015 study3 of primary school children in third and sixth grade found that children who made inappropriate pauses, mistakes in content, and inconsistencies in pitch—all indications of an oral fluency struggle—were less skilled in reading comprehension.

Oral fluency solutions
It is now clear that oral fluency plays a significant role in how well children understand what they read. If you notice that your child or student struggles with oral fluency, there are many strategies and resources at your disposal. A few ways teachers and reading coaches can build oral fluency skills include:

  • Modeling: Teachers demonstrate appropriate phrasing, rhythm, and sound
  • Choral Reading: Reading aloud along with a student
  • Guided Oral Reading: Repetitive reading with guidance from a teacher or coach
  • Sustained Silent Reading (SSR): Reading alone quietly
  • Vocabulary Development: Learning and decoding words and deriving meaning
  • Audio Read-Along Books: Students follow along as they listen to books on tape

Connect the dots with Big Universe
In addition to these common classroom practices, digital literacy solutions with built-in oral fluency assessments and tools can be fundamental in evaluating fluency and reading comprehension. This year, Fuel Education’s Big Universe online literacy platform will offer users a robust oral fluency feature4, allowing teachers, parents, and coaches the ability to track and assess every student’s progress.

Whether you have a robust literacy program in place or are looking to begin implementing a digital solution, Big Universe addresses the ever-growing needs of diverse classrooms across the nation. In addition to oral fluency resources, the platform also features 13,000 leveled ebooks for K–12, along with built-in quizzes, interactive games, data analysis, and reporting.

Request a demo today or visit our website to learn more.


2Kim, Y S. Petscher, Y. Schatschneider, C. Does growth Rate in Oral Reading Fluency Matter in Predicting Reading Comprehension Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2010. 102:3. 652-667

3Álvarez-Cañizo, M. Suárez-Coalla, P. Cuetos, F. The Role of Reading Fluency in Children’s Text Comprehension. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015; 6: 1810

4Oral fluency feature is in development for an estimated winter release in SY18-19

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