Understanding Fluency Tables for Progress Monitoring in Reading

Checking for reading fluency by using a fluency table takes only a few minutes. http://www.gettyimages.com/license/724229549

Listening to a student read, even for a minute, can be one of the ways a teacher determines a student's ability to comprehend text through fluency. Improving reading fluency has been identified by the National Reading Panel as one of the five critical components of reading. A student’s oral reading fluency score is measured by the number of words in a text that a student reads correctly in a minute.

Measuring a student's fluency is easy. The teacher listens to a student read independently for one minute in order to hear how well a student reads accurately, quickly, and with expression (prosody). When a student can read aloud with these three qualities, the student is demonstrating to the listener a level of fluency, that there is a bridge or connection between his or her ability to recognize words and the ability to comprehend the text:

“Fluency is defined as reasonably accurate reading with suitable expression that leads to accurate and deep comprehension and motivation to read” (Hasbrouck and Glaser, 2012).

In other words, a student who is a fluent reader can focus on what the text means because he or she does not have to concentrate on decoding the words. A fluent reader can monitor and adjust his or her reading and notice when comprehension breaks down. 

Fluency Testing

A fluency test is simple to administer. All you need is a selection of text and a stopwatch. 

An initial test for fluency is a screening where passages are selected from a text at the student's grade level that the student has not pre-read, called a cold read. If the student is not reading at grade level, then the instructor should select passages at a lower level in order to diagnose weaknesses. 

The student is asked to read aloud for one minute. As the student reads, the teacher notes errors in reading. A student’s fluency level can be calculated following these three steps:

  1. The instructor determines how many words the reader actually attempted during the 1-minute reading sample. Total # of words read ____.
  2. Next, the instructor counts up the number of errors made by the reader. Total # of errors ___.
  3. The instructor deducts the number of errors from the total words attempted, the examiner arrives at the number of correctly read words per minute (WCPM).
Fluency formula: Total # of words read __- (subtract) errors___=___words (WCPM) read correctly

For example, if the student read 52 words and had 8 errors in one minute, the student had 44 WCPM. By deducting the errors (8) from total words attempted (52), the score for the student would be 44 correct words in one minute. This 44 WCPM number serves as an estimate of reading fluency, combining the student's speed and accuracy in reading.

All educators should be aware that an oral reading fluency score is not the same measure as a student’s reading level. To determine what that fluency score means in relation to grade level, teachers should use a grade level fluency score chart.

Fluency data charts 

There are a number of reading fluency charts such as the one developed from the research of Albert Josiah Harris and Edward R. Sipay (1990) which set fluency rates that were organized by grade level bands with words per minute scores. For example, the table shows the recommendations for fluency bands for three different grade levels: grade 1, grade 5, and grade 8.

 Harris and Sipay Fluency Chart

Grade Words per minute Band

Grade 1

60-90 WPM

Grade 5

170-195 WPM

Grade 8

235-270 WPM

Harris and Sipay's research guided them to make recommendations in their book How to Increase Reading Ability: A Guide to Developmental & Remedial Methods as to the general speed for reading a text such as a book from the Magic Tree House Series (Osborne). For example, a book from this series is leveled at M (grade 3) with 6000+ words.  A student who could read 100 WCPM fluently could finish A Magic Tree House book in one hour while a student who could read at 200 WCPM fluently could complete reading the book in 30 minutes.

The fluency chart most referenced today was developed by researchers Jan Hasbrouck and Gerald Tindal in 2006. They wrote about their findings in the International Reading Association Journal in the article Oral Reading Fluency Norms: A Valuable Assessment Tool for Reading Teachers.” The major point in their article was on the connection between fluency and comprehension:

“Fluency measures such as words correct per minute has been shown, in both theoretical and empirical research, to serve as an accurate and powerful indicator of overall reading competence, especially in its strong correlation with comprehension."

In coming to this conclusion, Hasbrouck and Tindal completed an extensive study of oral reading fluency using data obtained from over 3,500 students in 15 schools in seven cities located in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York.”

According to Hasbrouck and Tindal, the review of student data allowed them to organize the results in average performance and percentile bands for fall, winter, and spring for grades 1 through grade 8. The scores on the chart are considered normative data scores because of the large sampling. 

The results of their study were published in a technical report entitled, “Oral Reading Fluency: 90 Years of Measurement,” which is available on the website for Behavioral Research and Teaching, University of Oregon. Contained in this study are their grade level fluency score tables designed to help instructors to assess the oral reading fluency of their students relative to their peers.

How to read a fluency table

Only three-grade level data selections from their research are in a table below. The table below shows fluency scores for grade 1 when students are first tested on fluency, for grade 5 as a midpoint fluency measure, and for grade 8 after students have been practicing fluency for years.

Grade Percentile Fall WCPM* Winter WCPM* Spring WCPM* Avg Weekly Improvement*
First 90 - 81 111 1.9
First 50 - 23 53 1.9
First 10 - 6 15 .6
Fifth 90 110 127 139 0.9
Fifth 50 110 127 139 0.9
Fifth 10 61 74 83 0.7
Eighth 90 185 199 199 0.4
Eighth 50 133 151 151 0.6
Eighth 10 77 97 97 0.6

*WCPM=words correct per minute

The first column of the table shows the grade level.

The second column of the table shows the percentile. Teachers should remember that in fluency testing, percentile is different from percentage. The percentile on this table is a measurement is based on a grade level peer group of 100 students. Therefore, a 90th percentile does not mean the student answered 90% of the questions correctly; a fluency score is not like a grade. Instead, a 90th percentile score for a student means that there are nine (9) grade level peers who have performed better. 

Another way to look at the rating is to understand that a student who is in the 90th percentile performs better than 89th percentile of his grade level peers or that the student is in the top 10% of his peer group. Similarly, a student in the 50th percentile means the student performs better than 50 of his or her peers with 49% of his or her peers performing higher, while a student performing at the low 10th percentile for fluency has still performed better than 9 of his or her grade level peers.

An average fluency score is between 25th percentile to 75th percentile Therefore, a student with a  fluency score of 50th percentile is perfectly average, squarely in the middle of the average band.

The third, fourth, and fifth columns on the chart indicate into which percentile a student's score is rated at different times of the school year. These scores are based on normative data.

The last column, average weekly improvement, shows the average words per week growth that student should develop to stay on grade level. The average weekly improvement can be calculated by subtracting the fall score from the spring score and dividing the difference by 32 or the number of weeks between the fall and spring assessments.

In grade 1, there is no fall assessment, and so the average weekly improvement is calculated by subtracting the winter score from the spring score and then dividing the difference by 16 which is the number of weeks between the winter and spring assessments.

Using the fluency data 

Hasbrouck and Tindal  recommended that:

“Students scoring 10 or more words below the 50th percentile using the average score of two unpracticed readings from grade-level materials need a fluency-building program. Teachers can also use the table to set long-term fluency goals for struggling readers.”

For example, a beginning fifth grade student with a reading rate of 145 WCPM should be assessed using fifth grade level texts. However, a beginning grade 5 student with a reading rate of 55 WCPM will need to be assessed with materials from grade 3 in order to determine what additional instructional support would be needed to increase his or her reading rate.

Instructors should use progress monitoring with any student who may be reading six to 12 months below grade level every two to three weeks to determine if additional instruction is needed. For students who are reading more than one year below grade level, this kind of progress monitoring should be done frequently. If the student is receiving intervention services through special education or English Learner support, continued monitoring will provide the teacher the information on whether the intervention is working or not. 

Practicing fluency

For progress monitoring on fluency, passages are selected at a student's individually determined goal level. For example, if the instructional level of a 7th grade student is at the 3rd grade level, the teacher may conduct the progress monitoring assessments by using passages at the 4th grade level.

To provide students the opportunity to practice, fluency instruction should be with a text that a student can read at an independent level.  Independent reading level is one of three reading levels described below:

  • Independent level is relatively easy for the student to read with 95% word accuracy.
  • Instructional level is challenging but manageable for the reader with 90% word accuracy.
  • Frustration level means the text is too difficult for the student to read which results in less than 90% word accuracy.

Students will better practice on speed and expression by reading at an independent level text. Instructional or frustration level texts will require students to decode.

Reading comprehension is the combination of numerous skills that are performed instantaneously, and fluency is one of these skills. While practicing fluency requires time, a test for a student's fluency takes only one minute and perhaps two minutes to read a fluency table and to record the results. These few minutes with a fluency table can be one of the best tools a teacher can use to monitor how well a student understands what he or she is reading.

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Bennett, Colette. "Understanding Fluency Tables for Progress Monitoring in Reading." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/fluency-tables-comprehension-4153586. Bennett, Colette. (2020, August 27). Understanding Fluency Tables for Progress Monitoring in Reading. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fluency-tables-comprehension-4153586 Bennett, Colette. "Understanding Fluency Tables for Progress Monitoring in Reading." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fluency-tables-comprehension-4153586 (accessed May 29, 2023).