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April 4, 2011

Developing Phrasing and Fluency in Young Readers

Written By: Wendy Cushing
X Developing Phrasing and Fluency in Young Readers

Developing Phrasing and Fluency in Young Readers

Since I’ve gone back to work, I’ve decided to put on my teacher hat for this post to write a little bit about developing phrasing and fluency in early readers.  Because listening to the average kindergartner or first grader read?  Well, it can be a painful process.  Their reading is likely slow and halting.  No inflection.  No attention to punctuation.  No modulation of voice.


Emergent Readers

All that is perfectly normal for early and emergent readers, of course.  After all, they’re just getting the hang of this whole thing, and they’ve got a lot going on in their heads:  decoding strategies, one-to-one correspondence, visually following text, and trying to figure out exactly what the book is saying in the first place.  Unfortunately, many older students continue to read with that same flat affect well after they have mastered decoding strategies.  Without proper phrasing kids miss out on mood, tone, humor, and the drama that books have to offer.  They aren’t able to truly appreciate the nuances of language that help them wholly immerse and transport themselves into the books they read.  And ultimately?  They miss out on fully comprehending what they are reading, too.

As teachers, we know that reading is about understanding and meaning, not merely calling out words.  A big part of being able to fully comprehend a book is to be able to read it fluently to fully appreciate its meaning.  This is why, in addition to whatever instructional level book we send home for a child to practice, we may likely send home some simpler, independent texts for a child to use to build stamina, confidence, and fluency.


This practice can confuse parents, who often wonder why teachers include some take home books they deem “too easy” for their children.  So, educating parents on the whys and hows of our guided reading practice becomes an important component of an ongoing dialogue we need to sustain with caregivers.  It’s important to share with parents that when kids feel confident in their reading, when they’re not bogged down with having to decode, they can better focus on how the words should be read.  With those simpler books, children also can begin to assimilate familiar words into their sight word vocabulary and quickly decode them expressively in future, more challenging reading passages.  And that’s all fluency really is:  reading expressively for meaning.

So, remember to remind parents that in those repeated reads children should focus on what is going on in the story, how the characters might be feeling, and how to read those words in response.  It also is so important for those superstar early readers and older readers to continue to read good quality picture books, the language and illustrations in which can assist these students in building fluency.

Model Fluency

As a teacher, I often tell parents that the best thing they can do to help their young readers develop these skills is to model fluent reading themselves.  At home and in the classroom, choose books with dramatic dialogue or that require great expression.  Try echo reading poems or simple expressive texts where you read a line and the child echos back the line with the same expression you used.  Read simple plays and talk about how each character is feeling and might express him/herself.  Choose books that have two characters and each take on the role of reading the dialogue of a character.  Delve into Reader’s Theater collections.  By playing off each other, students will really get a sense of how their character’s lines should be read.


Incorporate Humor

In order to help develop fluency skills further in students, there are some fabulous books on the market that really help students dig deeply into the drama, humor, and imagination of stories by using a variety of basic writing conventions.

But, my favorite author for helping develop these skills in early and emergent readers is Mo Willems, the award winning children’s writer of such classics as Knuffle Bunny, Knuffle Bunny, Too, the Elephant and Piggy books, and the Pigeon books.

As a literacy teacher, who has spent years working with struggling and reluctant readers from kindergarten through grade 4, here’s why I believe Mo Willems’ books are so fabulous for helping kids attain fluency:

* Fun pictures that emphasize the text and boldly show how characters are feeling and reacting help students understand how they should be reading the character’s lines.

* Text sized to meet the situation at hand.  Bold lettering for excitement, anger, outrage, frustration.  Small letters for timidity, whispering.

* Speech Bubbles highlight what characters are saying and help kids understand that someone is reacting specifically in relation to another character.

* Simple, humorous stories draw the reader in.  In short, Mo Willems really gets what will make the average 6-year-old crack up.

* Multiple punctuation marks (exclamation marks, question marks) emphasize how the words should be spoken.

My daughter Lily (aka the Guinea Pig for this blog post) is a first grader, reading above grade level–not crazy-genius above grade level, but slightly a year above benchmark.  However, she doesn’t always have the best phrasing on some of the books she reads.  She loves going back to Mo Willems’ stories to work on her intonation and vocal inflection.  You can find Lily reading the Mo Willem’s classic, “There’s a Bird on My Head” here.  As you’ll see in the text and pictures, Willems provides the young reader with a blueprint for how to read the story even if it’s only the child’s first read through.

No one had to teach or show Lily how to read these books with expression.  The pictures and text are just screaming to be read for dramatic affect.  You can hear that Lily “gets” the sense of surprise, frustration, and humor the characters in the story are experiencing.  And, in the end, being able to do so, helps her comprehension and overall understanding of the texts.

If you’re interested in Mo Willems’ stories to help your own students work on fluency or if you’re just looking for some great children’s literature, check out your local library, bookstore or his website.


Happy Fluent Reading!




About the Author

Wendy Cushing has been teaching for 28 years in grades Pre-K-3.  She currently teaches 3rd grade in Monroe, Connecticut.  In addition to teaching, Wendy enjoys pinning teaching ideas she will never use, party planning, freelance writing, and hanging out with her over 300 lbs. worth of dogs.  She is mom to two wonderful daughters, one living in NYC, and the other about to enter 7th grade.



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  • Laura
    April 9, 2011

    Cute book! I hadn’t seen that one before, but love Mo Willems and so does my class. Thanks for the reminder that his books would be great for working on fluency. I think I will pull some for one of my strategy groups next week or use them as an introductory read-aloud for paying attention to punctuation marks when reading. Thanks for the tip!

  • Kathy Law-Imperato
    April 5, 2011

    Thanks for this interesting column. Lots of good advice. I have a 5 yr old and an almost 4 yr old. I really try to be as expressive as I can when I read to them.

  • Sofia
    April 4, 2011

    Oh my, did I write this??? I feel like this is all about what I am experiencing as a first grade teache (also a first grade daugter and layoffs)

    I have a high cluster of students. When it comes to reading they know what to do (decoding, blending, etc) but are not enjoying the process because they want to read as I do (with all the inflection, mood, humor, etc) I remind them to keep that goal in mind as they continue to find their way. They want it so fast. The best part is when they discover that they can read as I do. I also tell them that you don’t just learn to read like this overnight and that even I have to continue to practice reading so that I can continue to see those clues in the stories that tell me how to read.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your article… I can truly relate.

  • Jennifer M
    April 4, 2011

    All good reminders! I also like to tell my ELL parents that practice with fluency and comprehension can be in either language. In third grade there is always concern that they are unable to help with the reading at home. It makes me smile to see the look of relief on the parents faces when I explain that thinking and questioning can be done in either or both languages. Thinking about reading is thinking about reading!

  • Lori A
    April 4, 2011

    I really like the article. I am going to share it at our next PD meeting.

  • Christiane Brossi
    April 4, 2011

    Wow, I have been working on a paper on exactly that subject and I had not thought about Mo Willems as an author to cite and experiment with my own readers. Thanks for the tip!

  • Jessica C.
    April 4, 2011

    I also enjoying reading stragies to help with reading.

  • Cindy Berenter
    April 4, 2011

    Hear, hear!

    I so frequently hear that refrain of a book being “too easy” for the 2nd graders I teach. It’s easy to blame it on the curriculum-that it’s part of what we are expected to teach. But your explanation is so much better! Thanks for passing it along!

  • Karla
    April 4, 2011

    I’m heading to the online bookstore now. I have even older students that are struggling with fluency. I try every day to help improve all of my kids’ reading skills.

  • Lisa
    April 4, 2011

    I was wondering if you have ever come across a child that will read a few words then take a big breath and then read a couple more words and then take another big breath. he continues on like this while he reads. He has no medical problem that we are aware of. This is a 2nd grade child. We have asked different people and no one has ever heard of this. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks! Lisa
    Great article

  • Penny
    April 4, 2011

    Love the tips. Sometimes I think we forget to tell parents some really important information.

  • Janae
    April 4, 2011

    This is great! I am working like crazy to get my firsties ready for state testing. I love new fluency ideas! 🙂

  • Maggie Capriola
    April 4, 2011

    I agree with Wendy on all points. For me I think the read aloud model works best. Kids naturally want to imitate me when I do that.

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