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Developing Reading Fluency with Nonfiction

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Developing Reading Fluency with Nonfiction: Have you ever noticed that young readers find it particularly challenging to read nonfiction texts fluently? If so, then you are not alone.

Complex syntax, vocabulary and concepts

Nonfiction texts become increasingly complex as children progress through school. They present new concepts and vocabulary or use familiar language in unfamiliar ways. It is entirely possible that a reader can be fluent when reading about one topic (dinosaurs) but disfluent when reading about another (evolution). Fluency will be determined by interest, the experience of the subject and exposure to reading material. Furthermore, readers may be able to decode words automatically without having any understanding of their meaning. Accuracy and automaticity are both important factors to developing fluency, but in this brief article, I am spotlighting prosody, the patterns of stress and intonation, that lifts the printed words from the page, creating magic and musicality from text.

What does the research say?

Some research suggests that information text is read less quickly than narrative. Complex or new, ideas take longer for children to read.

Consider your own reading for a moment. What was the last nonfiction book you read? For me, it was the excellent House by the Lake by Thomas Harding, which I thoroughly enjoyed but found I was reading more laboriously than when reading the latest novel by Belinda Bauer, Exit. (Highly recommended, by the way!) When a topic is unfamiliar, there is likely to be more technical vocabulary, and if the context is challenging too, then support for understanding is limited. Readers may struggle to build a mental picture of the content if they do not have the background knowledge.

When reading nonfiction texts, it is critical to emphasize pacing, understanding, and knowledge building. Research tells us that adults read prosodically during silent reading: this is one aspect of inner speech (Abramson & Goldinger, 1997; Huey, 1908/1968.) It is through inner speech that we detect sarcasm and imbue characters with distinctive voices when reading a novel. When a reader has no internalised nonfiction voice then they may struggle to hear what the text should sound like and therefore how they should read it. This could explain why I find it more challenging to read nonfiction. My experience as a teacher bears this out too. In my Key Stage One class, children would often struggle with the nonfiction banded books when they could read the fiction fluently due to a lack of experience with the text type.  

Narrative – bridging the Gap

This all makes sense, especially when we consider the main purpose of informational texts is to introduce unfamiliar ideas. So how do we bridge this gap? 

First and foremost, harness the power of reading aloud. There are many examples of narrative nonfiction books that provide a supportive bridge from the familiar genre of fiction to nonfiction.

Recently published, Swim, Shark, Swim is a poetic retelling of a shark’s journey through the oceans. The author’s note acknowledges that this is fictional, but the sharks and other marine life encountered are real. Ice Bear by Nicola Davies is another excellent example of narrative non-fiction, as is Meredith Hooper’s  The Pebble in my Pocket. Both of these feature in Just Imagine’s Take One Book resource.

Take One Book

Take One Book is Just Imagine’s resource for teaching reading using high-quality children’s books. Starting with personal response, lesson sequences (made of flexible building blocks) integrate reading skills teaching using strategies that are engaging and purposeful. Fluency is woven into the learning experience so that children develop the skills they need in context with a wide range of texts of increasing complexity and challenge.

Exploring Emphasis

One way of drawing attention to prosodic elements is by exploring emphasis.

Young readers can struggle with which words or syllables to place emphasis on, and the following learning offers a supportive and engaging way of doing this.

You may be familiar with Planet Awesome by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by David Litchfield. The friendly first-person narration style makes this nonfiction book accessible and fun to read. Reading this information text is an excellent way of building comprehension of abstract scientific concepts. 

An example of practice

We begin this learning by telling the class that we are going to focus on reading with greater fluency and expression the display the following sentence from page 1: 

My name is Earth. 

Now show the sentence in four different ways:  

My name is Earth. 

My name is Earth. 

My name is Earth. 

My name is Earth

Read each sentence, placing emphasis on the word in bold in each sentence. Repeat, inviting the children to join in. Ask pairs to reread the sentences considering:

  • How does changing the emphasis affect the meaning of the sentence?
  • Which version works best do you think?

Some work better than others, but there is more than one answer. The important thing is to get the children listening, thinking and explaining their thinking.

Repeat with this sentence from page 2:

You can call me Planet Awesome. 

You can call me Planet Awesome.

You can call me Planet Awesome.

You can call me Planet Awesome.

You can call me Planet Awesome.

You can call me Planet Awesome.

Repeat the process. This time add a further question which moves the children into thinking about the author’s intention:

  • Which sounds friendliest?
  • Do any of these make Earth seem a bit boastful?

Finally, ask:

  • How does my voice help us understand more about what I’m reading? 

The learning can be applied through repeated reading of the pages studied in the session, which allows the children to master the material before moving on. Developing mastery over a text develops skills that transfer to the first reading of a new text. This particular short sequence was developed for Key Stage One children but can be adapted to different texts and age groups. 

Planet Awesome is featured in Just Imagine’s resource. You can freely download the teaching sequence for The Pebble in my Pocket for a limited time.

Forthcoming training

Just Imagine is running online Reading Fluency training starting on 20th April. 2 Online sessions. A few remaining places available.