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.
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.
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.
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.