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Academic reading: Reading fluency

What is reading fluency?

You might already be familiar with the word ‘fluency’. When someone speaks a language without hesitations or long pauses and without having to think much about the words or grammar they would like to use, we call that person a ‘fluent’ speaker of the language.

In reading, fluency is something similar. Fluent reading involves reading texts at a suitable speed while understanding them to an adequate extent. It also implies reading texts skilfully with a particular goal; for instance, you might first read the abstract of a research report to see if you expect to find the answer to a question in it. In other words, a fluent reader reads a text fairly quickly, understands most of it and knows how to read efficiently. When you read a text and have to stop often, for example, to reread a line, or to look up a word, this breaks your flow of reading. You can imagine this can become rather bothersome with all of the reading you are expected to do at university.

Watkins (2018) distinguishes three types of reading fluency. The first is at the word level. The faster you can link a word you read to a word in your vocabulary, the faster you will understand a text. The second level is that of the sentence. When you read, you need to identify grammatical information so that you know what the combination of words in the sentences exactly means. The final type is text-level fluency. You use your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar for a longer period to make sense of a complete text.

Why improve reading fluency?

There are several reasons why you would want to improve your reading fluency. The first is that the faster you become at processing the information in one text, the more texts you can work through within a given amount of time. As a university student, you are required to do a lot of reading; there are many textbooks, articles, and other sources that you are supposed to read for a course, sometimes several of these at once. You can see how being fast at dealing with large amounts of information can come in helpful.

Besides becoming faster, improving your reading fluency means you understand more from a text. Earlier, we established that fluent reading not only involves matching words you see to words you know but also understanding the information hidden in the grammar and doing this for a longer time. When your reading fluency increases, all of these processes become more automatic. And if you have to spend less energy on deciphering words and grammar, you can dedicate more effort to interpreting less obvious information like the relations between ideas, the author’s attitude or your own reaction to a text.

This makes sense when you think about the amount of information you can remember at a given time. When you read, the words, grammatical information and what it all means can only be stored in your memory for a short time. The space in your working memory is limited, so there is only so much information that can be stored there at any given time. When reading becomes more automatic, without needing to temporarily store information about words or grammar in your working memory, there is more space for other types of information from the text that will help you understand more.

How can I improve my reading fluency?

There are many ways to become a more fluent reader. Foremost, you’ll become a better reader by reading more often; it’s as simple as that. In fact, this type of practice is so important in becoming better at reading, we’ve dedicated a whole other section to it. There are, however, other activities that can help you increase your reading fluency. These train you to become faster at processing information from a text. Below are our favorites: