Sunday, January 17, 2010

Reading Fluency and Vocabulary (Hasbrouck)

Dr. Jan Hasbrouck contributed the following post. Jan's research interests include fluency, educational leadership, literacy coaching, etc. Helpful guides for teachers include The Reading Coach: A How-To Manual for Success.
I have been involved with issues related to reading fluency for over thirty years. My interest in this topic started when I was a reading specialist, working with struggling readers in primary, intermediate, and middle schools. I was frustrated with the fact that while so many of my students could read—they could figure out what the words on the page were, and in most cases make sense of what they had decoded—most of my students couldn’t read well. Daily, I watched them struggle. They worked HARD to read text. It took them a long TIME to read sentences and passages. There clearly was little to no intrinsic MOTIVATION to read anything.  

Because this awareness began over three decades ago—long before the publication of the Report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000)—I had to do some exploring on my own to figure out what I needed to do to help my students become successful, motivated readers. My investigations helped me understand that a key skill that was missing in many of my students’ repertoire was fluency, which I have come to understand as “accurate reading at a minimal rate with appropriate prosodic features and deep understanding” (Hudson, Mercer, & Lane, 2000). I appreciate this particular definition because it includes all the key components of reading fluency—and lists them in what seems to me the correct order. Below, I will discuss these four components and their contribution to reading fluency. 

Accuracy. Fluent reading is first and foremost ACCURATE reading. We’d never consider a reader to be fluent if he or she made many errors. Nor would we expect a reader to never make a mistake. We are human after all! Acceptable levels of accuracy in reading would typically range from 97 to 98%. 

Rate. I also appreciate that Hudson et al.’s definition mentions RATE--but not a maximum rate. This is a common misunderstanding about fluency. But we understand that fluent readers do not read as fast as they can (although that can be fun to try from time to time! Ready, set, GO!!). As reading specialist, my question was: “So, what should the ‘minimum rate’ be for my students?” Without this information it is difficult if not impossible to set a reasonable instructional goal for students. I was surprised to find that in the early 1980s there was no answer for this question in the current research literature. When I mentioned this critical gap to my then doctoral advisor, Dr. Jerry Tindal at the University of Oregon, he suggested that we should do the research to provide this information for our professional educator colleagues. Together we compiled oral reading fluency norms that continue to be used today to help determine an appropriate “minimum rate” (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 1992; 2006).

 Prosody. Appropriate PROSODIC FEATURES means that when students read aloud, they should use “good expression” with appropriate rhythm, intonation, phrasing, and stress patterns of syllables. In other words, fluent reading should sound like speech (Stahl & Kuhn, 2002). The research is just emerging on the role of prosody in reading and at this point there is only minimal evidence that prosodic reading serves as a significant mediator of reading comprehension (Schwanenflugel et al., 2004).  

Deep Understanding. We care about the skill fluency because the point of reading is comprehension and many if not most of our dysfluent students have difficulty making sense of what they read. The information comes in inaccurately and/or too slowly for the brain to process correctly. Students who struggle with fluency also read significantly less than their more skillful peers and fall further behind in skill development. As Stanovich (1986) reminds us, in reading the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Vocabulary development is affected by reading fluency. Some struggling readers, especially those who have been diagnosed as having dyslexia, have an understanding of spoken words (listening vocabulary) that is at times even superior to their normally progressing peers (Wolf, 2002). However, in order for a student to apply their understanding of the vocabulary in text, they must be able to read that text accurately and at a reasonable and appropriate rate.

Every teacher and every parent wishes that every child will learn to read and love to read. Paying attention to the skill of fluency can help us all achieve that wonderful goal. Help children read fluently, and they will be more apt to enjoy books and other print media. Fluent readers gain word and world knowledge from texts and websites. Ultimately, a natural byproduct of frequent and fluent reading is improved vocabulary and comprehension.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. Please share your expertise! What tools, tips, or techniques have you found effective in building students’ fluency with words, phrases, sentences, and/or passages? What tools do you use to measure fluency? How well is it working? Drop us a line! I am happy to respond to any comments or questions you may have on this topic. 
  • Hasbrouck, J. E. & Tindal, G. (Spring, 1992). Curriculum-based oral reading fluency norms for students in grades 2-5.Teaching Exceptional Children, 24(3), 41-44.
  • Hasbrouck, J., & Tindal, G. A. (2006). Oral reading fluency norms: A valuable assessment tool for reading teachers. The Reading Teacher. 59(7),636–644.
  • Hudson, Mercer, & Lane (2000). Exploring reading fluency: A paradigmatic overview. Unpublished manuscript. University of Florida, Gainesville.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Schwanenflugel, P. J., Hamilton, A. M., Kuhn, M. R., Wisenbaker, J. M., 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(1), 119-129.
  • Stahl, S. A. & Kuhn, M. R. (2002). Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement: Making it sound like language: Developing fluency. The Reading Teacher, 55 (6), 582-584.
  • Stanovich, Keith E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.
  • Wolf, M. (April 2002). Reading difficulties - A major health problem. Radio broadcast Monday 1 April 2002. Retrieved January 5, 2010 from href="">


  1. Thank you, Jan. At a recent conference I heard that poor prosody can be an indicator of a language-based disorder such as autism, especially if accuracy is "normal." The student reads the words correctly but without the expressive ebb and flow of language. Have you seen this?

  2. I have very limited experience with students with autism, but what I have experienced would confirm that these students' prosody would frequently be affected. How that might affect their comprehension-- I could only speculate.

    1. I have a lot of experience with autism and reading. I think that kids with autism do have a hard time with prosody (in both oral language and oral reading). However, in the absence of other autism symptoms, this wouldn't be my first go to issue. Kids with autism have a very hard time comprehending socially and autism impacts comprehension in MANY ways. I could write a lot about it!

  3. Thanks for you post Jan.

    I do have a question with regard to fluency that I'd like to ask you about that always bugged me as a classroom teacher.

    It seems to me that it is certainly the case that students who could read aloud fluently were very frequently students who also had strong reading comprehension. However, I'm not sure that the reverse is as commonly the case. An issue that has always bothered me is that the "aloud" part of reading aloud is an important confound in terms of marking how well a child reads.

    Compared to silent reading, reading aloud demands extra cognitive processing involved with pronouncing the words, and any additional stresses that this may cause. Pronouncing words aloud in a classroom or testing situation while reading, and any stress that may cause a child may differ greatly between children. I understand that it is hard to measure fluency without listening to a child read aloud. But it is also the case that mature reading for understanding by mature readers is almost always done silently.

    In your work have you found ways of measuring whether students can INTERPRET short passages of text accurately and quickly while reading silently, and if some students are able to do this well who might perform poorly on oral reading tasks?

  4. Peter-- thank you for your comment/question. The findings are clear about the strong relationship between fluency and comprehension with the general finding that students with adequate to strong fluency skills are more likely to also have good comprehension skills, but certainly there are children whose oral reading fluency does not appear to be strong, but who have adequate to excellent comprehension of text. Most fluency studies of children have involved ORAL reading. Too many teachers have misinterpreted this as meaning that we need to PUSH students to ever-faster reading. NO! If we have a student who appears to have good comprehension but his/her oral reading fluency is measured as below expected levels, we do need to explore more. Teachers can do some informal assessments, such as having a student read a piece of text silently and then retell what has been read, answer some questions, etc.

  5. Anonymous2/03/2010

    Thank you for your concern for children who struggle to read. As a parent of a fourth grader whose fluency is "fine"....her comprehension is very weak. She can read most anything, but ask her a question and she gives you a blank look. Does the comprehension part..."kick in" at a certain point. Or if it hasn't kicked in by a certain point, then what? I ask this question at every parent-teacher conference, but have yet to get a confident answer. Help!!!

    1. Allison12/16/2017

      I'm sorry to hear about your struggles. When I was a child, my brother struggled with this. I was older and a great reader, so I tried to help him by having him read a small amount--2 or 3 sentences--and then ask him about that. Then, I had him read a paragraph. Little by little, he was able to answer questions about the whole book. I hope this helps. Good luck!

  6. To Anonymous-- I'm sorry to hear about your struggles with your daughter's reading. Comprehension problems are complex and I cannot accurately diagnose what your daughter's issues might be without working with her directly. Comprehension does not "kick in" at some point. She should be understanding and able to discuss what she is reading. She may not be motivated to answer questions. She may have some auditory processing or memory issues. Try to move the task to something VERY simple. Have her read a simple sentence (example: "The house was big and red." Ask her "What color was the house? What was colored red in this sentence? Was the house big or small?" If she can answer those questions you can move to something more complex. You may need to ask for an evaluation from a reading specialist. Best wishes.

  7. Susan thanks so much for the information you have posted on your blog. I need a favor.......nothing like getting straight to the point!! I'm going to "tutor" my 4th grade grandson this summer. The school says his "issue" is in fluency. How do I proceed? Should I ask the school for materials for our work over the summer.......or are there materials and supports for this that you would recommend......or what? I'm not a reading teacher. I'm a retired sped director. HELP!! Sandy

  8. FOR SANDY---
    How great that you can work with your grandson this summer. You might want to look at the WONDERFUL fluency tutoring materials available from The Read Naturally Company: The One Minute Reader is fun and motivating and quite effective.
    I hope you have a great summer.

  9. Great tip, Jan! Sandy, I just checked out the One Minute Reader. It does look like a truly excellent summer program for fluency (all year, actually). Link should appear below:

    One Minute Reader

    (Published by Read Naturally)


  10. Anonymous11/11/2011

    I have just found this blog after hearing about it in LETRS training - thank you for hosting it!

  11. You're welcome! It's a group effort, and I learn a lot from the process.

  12. Anonymous2/12/2012

    Thank you Dr. Hasbrouck for all your work on fluency. I am the parent of a 10 year old fourth grader with developmental dyslexia. In addition to helping her, I would like to help other parents navigate this maze in order to help their children in a more expedient manner than I was able to help mine. Your reading fluency data and all your research have been extremely helpful. I am wondering why the numbers in the AIMSweb Growth Table Reading-Curriculum Based Measurement are so much higher than those from your research? Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words about my work. I know the different numbers associated with the different oral reading fluency assessments is confusing. However-- in reality the STATISTICAL difference between the numbers is minimal. When ORF assessments are administered correctly there is a wide variance in the scores due to what researchers call "measurement error". The scores reported by AIMSweb and DIBELS and easyCBM align statistically with the Hasbrouck & Tindal ORF Norms. This is complicated stuff but I hope my answer is somewhat helpful. If you want to really look deeply at the scientific answer, please see Christ, T. J., & Silberglitt, B. (2007). Estimates of the standard error of measurement for curriculum-Based measures of oral reading fluency. School Psychology Review, 36 (1), 130-146. A school psychologist at your daughter's school might be able to help explain this to you as well. Good luck!

  13. Sondra B5/06/2012

    Thank you Dr. Hasbrouck for your post and your work. I am working on my Masters in Special Education. This is a second career for me and I am truly enjoying working with my students. I worked a long term sub assignment last Sept-December where (for the first time) I had 2 EL learners. As a result, I became interested in helping these students with their fluency and reading comprehension. In fact, my masters project is on the role of vocabulary as an aid in building fluency and reading comprehension for English language learners. In reading your post, I came away a bit confused and asking myself the question, "Which came first the chicken or the egg?" If I understand your post, it seems as though fluency affects vocabulary more than the reverse??? I guess I was confused by your statement that vocabulary development is affected by fluency...shouldn't it be the other way around???For my English language learners, however, I would think it be more important for them to understand the meaning of the word and be able to pronounce it correctly first. Once they have mastered pronounciation and have an understanding of vocabulary they can then build their fluency which further develops their reading comprehension. Thank you for taking the time to read my comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

  14. Jan Hasbrouck5/06/2012

    Sondra. Welcome to the amazing profession of teaching! Your question about fluency, vocabulary and EL students is a great one. It is a confusing issue because fluency plays an interesting role in reading. It BOTH facilitates the acquisition of composite skills (such as vocabulary and comprehension) and, to a certain extent, requires composite skills (a truly fluent readers needs strong phonics/decoding, sight word recognition, AND vocabulary knowledge AND comprehension!) What is most important with fluency is the foundation-- which is accuracy. We get off track when we focus on RATE as the primary feature. When working with EL students we must help them learn to read with accuracy and confidence, to learn the structure of the language and the meanings of words. As we do that, we work to increase their rate to an APPROPRIATE level so that reading becomes automatic and effortless and enjoyable! I hope this helps explain my thinking a bit more.

  15. Anonymous5/30/2012

    "If we have a student who appears to have good comprehension but his/her oral reading fluency is measured as below expected levels, we do need to explore more."
    Hi Jan, I see your post was in January 2010 so I hope I can still reach you. I'm constantly finding some of my 1st & 2nd grade students comprehending texts with a high score even though their DRA timed portion is not within the range indicated as acceptable. According to the test, we are suppose to stop and drop back to a lower level. When the goal is to construct meaning and the kids are doing well with comprehension, I'm really having difficulty understanding why we wouldn't continue at that current level. With some students, I'm finding that their accuracy is fine and they are self-monitoring with a great self-correction rate. I do understand the research and for many/most kids we need to get the fluency under control which usually involves analyzing records more carefully to inform instruction for improved fluency and comprehension. This makes complete sense. However, we do have kids that do just fine across the board with accuracy, self-correction, and comprehension even though they have gone over on the time. If we don't give them more time [ particularly kids in grades 1 & 2] are we suppose to keep them at a level 18 in 2nd grade for a year just because the timer doesn't allow us to move on. I've had many conversations about this with our classroom teachers and would love your input. When reading some of the posts I must say, I would be very concerned about the child who is reading fluently but having great difficulty comprehending more so than the child who cannot read the timed portion of the text in the suggested range but does fine with the comprehension portion. Lynn

    1. Hi, Lynn. Thanks for taking the time to share your concerns. I agree with you that I, too, would be more concerned about a student who is reading fluently (as defined by Hasbrouck & Glaser, 2012: "Reading with reasonable accuracy, at an appropriate rate, with suitable prosody that leads to deep comprehension and motivation to read.") but having difficulty comprehending, than a student who reads a bit more slowly but maintains accuracy and does fine with comprehension.
      I am not an expert on the DRA so I cannot directly comment on how that assessment should be interpreted. BUT-- my reading of the research would suggest that it is essential to help students achieve ORF levels in the range of the 50th%ile on the Hasbrouck & Tindal (2006) ORF norms on unpracticed grade level material, which means no more than 10 wcpm lower than the 50th%ile. Students who read more slowly than this may not have difficulty with comprehension (and motivation) in the earlier grades, but with the increasing amount of reading required of older students (beginning in 4th grade) as well as the increased difficulty of the text, fluency becomes even more important. For your 1st and 2nd graders, please keep their long term fluency goals in mind and keep encouraging them to read carefully (Job #1 always!) but try to manage that with rate that makes it sound like speech (NO RACE READING!!!). Especially now given the requirements of the Common Core State Standards I would be inclined to let your students tackle more challenging text even if their wcpm score is slightly low. Working on fluency in highly challenging text (with lots of support to maintain accuracy) can be very effective (Hasbrouck, Ihnot, & Rogers, 1999; Stahl & Heubach,2005). I hope you find this information helpful.


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