In Part One, I introduced you to our heroine, Astrid. When I met her, Astrid was a second grader reading at a high-Kindergarten level. She was obsessed with the Harry Potter series, but it was beyond her ability to read because it was appropriate for an older student. Her family had fostered her love for J.K. Rowling’s magical characters by reading to her, and they were excited that she craved to read for herself. But they knew she had been struggling with reading at school and the whole family was saddened that she could not read the book she cherished.

I was fascinated by the fact that Astrid thought of herself as a reader even though she couldn’t read well, and I admired her spirit. According to her parents, Astrid had seen the first Harry Potter movie once, and they had read her the first two books of the series. Her Mom reported that Astrid “read” the books to herself by scanning the words like she was reading for meaning. But they observed that, rather than actually reading, Astrid spent her time studying the illustrations, which triggered her memory of the movie. She couldn’t give details beyond what was in the first movie.

I loftily set the end of the year goal for her to independently read and spell two-syllable words such as with common affixes (e.g. -tion, -ture, -tive). However, by the end of the year she was able to read four- or five-syllable words well. Because of her documented reading challenges, and the fact that even in November of the school year she was still decoding simple one-syllable words one sound at a time, this was a very ambitious plan for the next few months.

Astrid was stuck in an instructional zone I nicknamed “Slow Going.” This is a stage where a reader slowly and methodically sounds out every word whether it is phonetic or not. I’d bet some teachers and parents reading this are familiar with this type of reading. Like other students in the Slow Going zone, Astrid was not recalling sight words, and she tripped over words that were similar to those she had just read, not catching the the familiar letter patterns.

Since English is a language that borrows from other languages and our spelling changes over time, learning English is more frustrating than learning a more consistently phonetic language, such as Spanish. As a result, I frequently find that English-language readers can also struggle with the transition from the safety zone of sounding everything out to reading sentences with beautiful fluidity. This is the case with all types of students, not just dyslexic ones. I believe the key to reading and spelling English with smoothness, comprehension, and fluency is by boosting the learner’s Visual Processing skills.

Astrid needed to improve her recognition of whole words instead of deconstructing each one phoneme-by-phoneme. Then we needed that recognition to positively impact her reading fluency. As educators, I feel we skip a very important piece needed for gaining fluency–”Symbol Imagery.” This is the ability for someone to make a mental image of letters, words, numbers, or other orthographic symbols. Improving Symbol Imagery skills unlocks speed because the more we recognize full words by sight, the faster our fluency and comprehension skills become.

To develop stronger Symbol Imagery in all students, I have them think of words as shapes.

“Every time you see the shape of was it will say /wuz/. It doesn’t ever change. So I see a spikey beginning with a round middle and a snake shape at the end. Do you see that, too? Show me that shape on your desk with your finger or whole hand.” By working this way, the students stop laboriously decoding phonemes. Instead, they start to recognize the whole word, or syllable, and start looking at language in larger increments.

Despite our efforts, Astrid’s progress stagnated.

I realized that I had focused her so much on my goal of improving her Symbol Imagery that she wasn’t feeling the connection to her goal of reading Harry Potter. She was bored, and it was my task to re-charge her progress.

I discovered that Astrid would tackle challenging tasks if at the end she could have a “Potter” moment, which could be playing a decoding game that included her favorite Potter character (Hermoine Granger), or if we put her weaker sight words on the table and a Potter-like “wizard wand” pointed to a word that she needed to remember. I had to get creative to include enough of a “Hogwarts” feel to her lessons, but in doing so she felt like her goal of reading the book was honored. Her motivation and progress increased.

We practiced spelling sentences using characters and plot lines from the books. “Your next word is enough. Harry had enough of ‘He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’.” We created a sight word game together that divided sight words into Houses with a Sorting Hat if she got them on the first try.

I saw more success in her motivation and progress when we designed games where creative power came to us equally, and on some days I allowed her to co-construct the lesson planning. Astrid later told me she wanted to be a teacher when she was older so she could do this with other students because it put her in an empowering position that was new to her.

I photocopied selected pages from the books and had Astrid highlight all the sight words she knew and then read them in order. Once I observed her getting more stable with sight words, I began to focus on stringing phrases together for greater fluency. I gave her sight phrases and short sentences on paper, integrating her favorite Potter characters. These included such snippets as “Harry lived,” “under stairs,” “with his wand,” “Hagrid is,” “a big man.” We would make short sentences by mixing and matching the Potter-centric phrases so she could hear her reading speed increasing.

More Ideas for Improving Reading Fluency:

  • Reading aloud to learners shows them a model of how fluency should sound
  • Practice sight words in fun ways with games
  • Have students do paired reading with a partner
  • Try Choral reading with the whole class taking sections
  • Model grouping words in 2-4-word sections and have them practice phrasing
  • Read often and in different types of text; take turns reading pages, if necessary
  • Ask predictive questions about the story to see if they are guessing what will happen
  • Repeat a paragraph or passage a second or third time with a timer to show improvement in speed and notate times on a graph to show evidence of improvement
  • Ask them to explain what just happened to you frequently to check comprehension
  • Have learners regularly show their understanding after reading in a variety of ways (act it out, draw it, write about it, create a different ending)

At the same time, we did daily fluency drills to smooth the spacing of her words and practiced grouping words in phrases while being timed to measure her speed increases. Every time Astrid read something Potter-related, her desire to participate increased, she tried harder, and she felt her successes much more. The instruction got a lot more fun when we were able to work with two-to-four syllable words.

Soon I had her syllable-spelling ‘horcrux’, ‘Dumbledore,’ and ‘Slytherin’. Her eyes would get incredibly wide and she’d squeal in excitement when she recognized words from the book.

Finally, it was important that I find a few books that Astrid could read that were at lower reading levels and were of a similar ilk as her beloved Harry Potter. We needed strong characters and rousing adventures, drawn with vivid imagination In the final installment of this series, I’ll share the list of books that Astrid and I compiled that served as her literary path to Potter! Stay tuned for Part 3 of 3!

The following are two specific exercises that helped Astrid speed up her fluency once she was able to spell and read two-syllable words with common prefixes and suffixes. Because the Harry Potter series requires reading longer names and breaking up three- and four- syllable words at a high frequency, we needed to help her confidently smooth out the syllables. Leave comments if you have other suggestions for increasing fluency as well!

Syllable Reading Drill – small group or 1:1 format

Supplies: 3×5 cards and black marker

Cognitive Target: speeding up the recognition of common beginnings and endings, and the practice smoothing out multisyllabic words so there are no pauses between syllables when read

Great For: Students challenged to jump into chapter books, who avoid breaking up larger words, and/or those who struggle with spelling similar patterns

Important Tip: Students need to practice a word until there are no gaps or pauses between syllables. The goal is smoothness!

Exercise Sequence: Practice common endings as flashcards and put them in a stack facing up. Then similarly review common beginnings. Finally, add a stack of “nonsense” syllables in between prefixes and suffixes. The student needs to blend the syllables into a singular word with no pauses in a drill format. The student or teacher can flip the cards to change a part of the word.

Highlighting for Fluency – small group, 1:1 format, full class

Supplies: photocopy of the text and a highlighter, (or similar format digitally, if possible)

Cognitive Target: Smooth fluency because unknown multi-syllable words have been recognized or pre-analyzed by having them break up the word with a pencil on the paper.

Great For: Students who avoid breaking up larger words, maintaining comprehension with tougher reading levels, building confidence in students who hate reading aloud

Important Tip: Students scan a given passage backwards, word by word from the end to the beginning, so they don’t read for meaning and highlight words they don’t immediately recognize.

Exercise Sequence: The student is given a copy of a passage and is asked to highlight words that are perceived as tricky or that they want to pay attention to from the end to the beginning (backwards) to avoid reading for meaning. Once the passage has been scanned and reviewed, the student either recognizes the word or analyzes it by pencil-breaking the word on the paper. Once all words have been discovered, the student reads the passage from the top, with an emphasis on reading for meaning and striving for smoothness.

What have you tried that works well for building Reading Fluency? Feel free to share your successes or frustrations in the comments.