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Most tested, least taught: What is silent reading fluency and how can educators help students master this critical skill?

September 14, 2022

0min Read


Starting the journey: Learn to read through oral reading fluency

Before we define silent reading fluency, it may be helpful to understand that before students can approach silent reading fluency, they begin their reading journey with oral reading.

Oral reading is generally the focus of grades K – 2. Students build foundational skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics skills. During this exciting time, they learn to decode words, put sentences together and make it through their first books. This is often referred to as the learn-to-read phase.

During this phase, it's easy for teachers to track their students' speed, accuracy and expression as they read aloud. It's immediately apparent when a student doesn't read a word or sentence correctly, and a teacher can intervene appropriately and quickly.

Continuing the journey: Reading to learn through silent reading fluency

Around grade 3, there’s a dramatic shift in the reading journey. Around this time, the expectation is that students will be ready to use reading to learn grade-level content. This is the reading-to-learn phase.  Students will continue to hone and sharpen these skills as they move through school and will read and understand increasingly complex texts. This ongoing phase will continue throughout each student’s academic career and beyond. This work is mostly executed through silent reading.  

What is silent reading fluency? 

Silent reading fluency is the ability to comfortably read silently with concentration, at appropriate reading rates and with clear understanding. This skill bridges the gap between word recognition and comprehension. Silent reading is a combination of three types of skills that actively work in concert as a student reads. It is: 

  • Physical: When students read, their eyes move across each word of a sentence in a specific order and an efficient manner.
  • Cognitive: Once students have moved their eyes across the text, they identify the vocabulary of each word and string the sentence together to comprehend the meaning.
  • Emotional: When students finish reading their feelings contribute to the outcomes. If students feel confident about reading and have interest in the content, they are more likely to continue to read.

What does strong reading fluency look like? 

Students cannot achieve fluency without the ability to recognize and understand words immediately and decode unfamiliar words. Strong fluency is created by automaticity, language comprehension and a solid vocabulary. It allows for improved text comprehension and empowers readers to build their vocabularies, which enables greater comprehension of more complex texts. 

When fluent readers read silently, they: 

  • Recognize words automatically
  • Group words quickly
  • Gain meaning from text

Students must continually master all these skills while engaged with reading to become proficient silent readers. However, unlike oral reading fluency, effective silent reading fluency is difficult for teachers to monitor and intervene if students need support. Silent reading fluency is an unseen and unheard skill, and it is undeniably necessary to become a proficient reader.

Silent reading fluency is the skill that is taught the least yet tested the most.

Students use silent reading daily  – when students take quizzes and benchmark tests, complete assignments, study for an upcoming discussion or simply follow directions in class. They also use the skill during high-stakes exams, such as end-of-year assessments, standardized tests and entrance exams, like the ACTs or SATs. Students use silent reading skills every day, across all areas, and as a result nonproficient reading affects the ability to learn in ALL subject areas.  

Data has indicated that silent reading fluency is a common struggle for many students.  Seventy percent of nonproficient students are not fluent in silent reading, and 30% of proficient students are not fluent in silent reading.

Proficient vs not fluent students in silent reading fluency

Why is silent reading fluency overlooked so frequently?

Teachers are trained to listen to students for struggles during oral reading. However, students who struggle to read silently may not demonstrate easy-to-spot signs.   

Early readers have a small visual span; that is to say, they only see a few letters at a time. They also haven’t developed eye movements that naturally move from left to right, knowing where to land on words. When researchers looked at eye-movement recordings of students reading, they noticed that students who read inefficiently make many extra fixations or eye stops. They move very short distances and make regressive eye movements. They’ll move backward to check words or confirm what they saw. The reader invests a lot of time trying to move their eyes to the right place within the text. Reading becomes exhausting and making sense of the content becomes difficult.

This example shows a nonfluent 7th-grade student reading at a pace of about 140 words per minute. This student is reading at a 2nd-grade level. As this reader regresses back across the text the words scramble, and the reader must reorder the words before trying to comprehend the content. This extra work leads to low comprehension levels and low motivation.

All of this extra energy is largely invisible to teachers. Without insight into these inefficiencies, teachers may not intervene, and students will continue to struggle in classes for years.

Three critical elements to drive reading fluency

Becoming a fluent reader allows a student to focus more deeply on comprehension, read increasingly complex texts and become a more confident and engaged reader. Educators can leverage technology to guide and support this work and provide each student with what they need the moment they need it.

  1. Targeted instruction: Reading solutions with embedded assessments can help identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses and what they need from the moment they start. This data should inform areas of fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, confidence and interest. With greater access to student data, educators have insight into exactly where a student is and what they need to grow further.
  2. Structured practice: Students must practice the right lessons to become better readers. Technology can match students with the right content for their fluency levels and adapt and adjust to ensure they remain within their zone of proximal development. As they build skills in every area, just-in-time technology should provide personalized scaffolds and support based on student behavior and needs.
    DreamBox Reading guided window scaffolding

    The DreamBox Learning Guided Window™ provides personalized, structured practices by moving according to the rate at which a student currently reads and adapts based on the student’s performance with comprehension questions. The Guided Window makes reading comfortable by scaffolding the silent reading process, freeing up the mental energy needed for the ultimate goal of reading: comprehension.

  3. Student engagement: Every student should have the choice and control to pursue knowledge. By allowing students to select the content that interests them most, educators empower them to build their skills in the most meaningful way and motivate them to become lifelong readers. This means providing diverse content with mirrors, windows and doors. Students can see themselves and others within the text and learn about new experiences.

Fluency is a gateway to comprehension and motivation. When the eyes can take in text at a comfortable, adequate rate, energy is freed up for comprehension.  When students understand material, they feel confident and motivated to continue to read.

Interested to learn more about how DreamBox Reading is the only reading solution to directly address silent reading fluency?



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