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NAEPFact: Listening to Children Read Aloud: Oral Fluency (August 1995)

Listening to Children Read Aloud: Oral Fluency

Vol. 1, No. 1

August 1995

(NCES 95-762) Ordering Information

Fifty-five percent of fourth graders were considered to be fluent; 13 percent met the criteria for the highest rating in their oral reading. Fluent fourth-grade readers tended to read with greater understanding, accuracy, and rate. Implications for instruction are discussed.

This edition of NAEPfacts highlights findings from the first attempt by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure elementary students' oral reading on a large scale. judgments about reading ability are often made on the basis of students' oral reading fluency. Therefore, the relationship between fluency and other aspects of reading ability must be clear. This issue presents data on fourth graders' oral fluency and its relationship to three other aspects of reading ability: comprehension, accuracy, and rate. Measures of oral reading fluency were taken from a representative sample of fourth-grade students who participated in the 1992 NAEP reading assessment (Pinnell et al. 1995).

What Is Fluency?

NAEP defines fluency as the ease or "naturalness" of reading. The key elements include (a) grouping or phrasing of words as revealed through the intonation, stress, and pauses exhibited by readers; (b) adherence to author's syntax; and (c) expressiveness of the oral reading-interjecting a sense of feeling, anticipation, or characterization. Table 1 describes the NAEP fluency scale. Students at levels 3 and 4 are generally considered to be fluent, and those at levels 1 and 2 non-fluent.

Two other aspects of oral reading measured in the NAEP assessment are accuracy and rate. Accuracy was determined through an analysis of students' oral reading deviations from the words in the text (misread words), and rate was measured in terms of words-per-minute.

How Was Fluency Assessed?

A representative sample of 1,136 fourth-grade students who participated in the study were initially asked to read aloud a brief passage from Highlights magazine. The process served both to familiarize the students with the tape-recording process and to enable the interviewer to determine whether the student should be asked to read aloud from the more difficult assessment passage later in the interview.

Following the introductory session, students silently read a complete narrative passage titled The Hungry Spider and the Turtle, which they had read during the main NAEP assessment. Narrative text was chosen because the use of dialogue and narrative structure was deemed more appropriate for eliciting expressive oral reading. Students answered three comprehension questions about the passage orally and then read a portion of the passage aloud. Thus, students' oral reading of the passage took place after they had read the passage twice silently once previously as a part of the main NAEP written assessment and once before answering the comprehension questions. Students were instructed to read the story as if they were reading to someone who had never heard it before. The oral reading was audio-taped and later analyzed for overall fluency.

The information obtained from these oral reading sessions was linked to data from the main NAEP reading assessment, including the overall reading proficiency of students participating in the study, and their reading experiences both in and out of school.

What Did We Learn?

Oral reading fluency. As shown in table 2, 55 percent of the fourth-grade students read at the higher fluency ratings of levels 3 and 4. However, only 13 percent of the students met the criteria for the highest rating, level 4, even though they had read the passage silently twice before. These students read in larger phrase groups that consistently preserved the author's syntax, and they read some or most of the story with expressive interpretation. Those students who received lower fluency ratings read primarily in one- or two-word phrases with little or no recognition of the text's sentence structure.

Higher levels of fluency were associated with higher average reading proficiency (table 2). For example, students who were rated as the most fluent (level 4) exhibited an average reading proficiency of 249, whereas students who were rated as least fluent (level 1) had an average proficiency score of 179. The main NAEP reading scale ranges from 0 to 500. In NAEP, reading proficiency is determined by the ability of students to provide an initial understanding of text, develop a more complete interpretation, connect knowledge from text with their own personal background knowledge, and to stand apart from the text and demonstrate a critical stance (National Assessment Governing Board, 1994).

Accuracy, rate, and fluency. The study also examined the role of accuracy and rate in the observed relationship between reading fluency and reading proficiency. Accuracy was defined in terms of the number of misread words (omitted, inserted, or substituted), and rate in terms of words per minute. As shown in table 3, students who read more fluently read the passage considerably faster (126 to 162 words per minute) than those who read less fluently (65 to 89 words per minute). These more fluent readers were, on average, somewhat more accurate (96 to 97 percent) than less fluent readers (94 percent).


After reading a passage twice silently, about 13 percent of the fourth-graders in the NAEP study could read with expressive interpretation and consistent preservation of the author's syntax. Higher levels of fluency were associated with higher average reading proficiency. What does all this mean for instruction?

Some researchers (Anderson, Wilkinson, & Mason 1991; Hoffman and Isaacs 1991), assuming that fluency results from good comprehension, suggest that oral reading instruction should emphasize conveying meaning rather than simply reading accurately. Others (Reutzel and Hollingsworth, 1993) claim that fluency affects comprehension as well. The results reported here do not rule out the possibility that as students are asked to pay attention to elements of fluency such as phrasing, syntax, and expressiveness (and not merely to read aloud), they will become more attentive to the meaning of the passage.

Note that the relationship between reading fluency and good comprehension may be influenced by other factors such as reading accuracy and rate. The findings indicated that more fluent readers are substantially faster than less fluent readers, covering more text without sacrificing accuracy. Such information may have diagnostic value. It may be easier to detect poor comprehension from students' slower rate than from their degree of word accuracy.


Anderson, R. C., Wilkinson, I. A. G., and Mason, J. A. (1991). "A microanalysis of small-group, guided reading lessons: Effects of an emphasis on global story meaning." ReadingResearcb Quarterly, 26, 417-441.

Hoffman, J. V., and Isaacs, M. E. (1 991). "Developing fluency through restructuring the task of guided oralreading." Theory intoPractice, 30, 185-194.

Pinnell, G. S., Pikulski, J. J., Wixson, K.K., Campbell, J. R., Gough, P. B., and Beatty, A. S. (1 995). L.istening to children read aloud. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC.

Reading Framework for the 1992 and 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office).

Reutzel, D.R., and Hollingsworth, R.M. (1993). "Effects of fluency training on second-graders' reading comprehension." Journal of Educational Researcb, 86, 325-331.


NAEPFacts is a new series that provides brief summaries of NAEP results on background variables that may be related to student achievement. The series is a product of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Gary W. Phillips, Associate Commissioner for Education Assessment. This issue was written by Sheida White.

All differences reported are statistically significant at the .05 level with adjustments for multiple comparisons. For further information on standard errors or on estimating variance, see Pinnel et al.

For questions about the content of this report, please contact Sheida White at


Table l.-NAEP's oral reading fluency scale

Level 4     Reads primarily in larger, meaningful phrase groups.
            Although some regressions, repetitions, and deviations
            from text may be present, these do not appear to detract
            from the overall structure of the story. Preservation of
            the author's syntax is consistent.  Some or most of the
            story is read with expressive interpretation.

Level 3     Reads primarily in three- or four-word phrase groups.
            Some smaller groupings may be present. However, the
            majority of phrasing seems appropriate and preserves
            the syntax of the author. Little or no expressive
            interpretation is present.

Level 2     Reads primarily in two-word phrases with some three-
            or four-word groupings.  Some word-by-word reading
            may be present. Word groupings may seem awkward
	    and unrelated to larger context of sentence or passage.

Level 1     Reads primarily word-by-word. Occasional two-word or
            three-word phrases may occur-but these are infrequent
            and/or they do not preserve meaningful syntax.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics. Listening to Children Read Aloud, 15. Washington, DC:


Table 2- Percentage of fourth-grade students at each fluency level and their average proficiencies.

Fluency			Percentage		Average
 level		        of students	      proficiency
   4		            13                    249
   3                        42                    229
   2                        37                    207
   1                         7                    179
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics. Listening to Children Read Aloud, 22. Washington, DC:


Table 3- Percent accuracy and words per minute, by fourth graders' oral reading fluency

                       Nonfluent                        Fluent
                 --------------------          ----------------------
                 Fluency      Fluency          Fluency        Fluency
                 Level 1      Level 2          Level 3        Level 4
Percent accuracy    94           94               96             97
Words per minute    65           89              126            162
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics. Listening to Children Read Aloud, 44. Washington, DC: