I’m very excited to welcome four expert teachers of young learners, Chiyuki Yanase, Cynthia Akazawa, Laura Macfarlane, and Ruthie Iida, to share their favorite reading fluency activities in this article. All activities have proven to be very effective and fun in the contributors’ classrooms. Read on, and you will be inspired.
Chiyuki Yanase, university lecturer and storyteller based in Tokyo
Activity: Look It Up!
This is a reading activity using picture dictionaries or dictionaries for children. The purpose of this activity is to have children read the definition that the teacher writes on the whiteboard and find the matching words in the dictionary. Students can work either in groups, pairs, or individually. They write the words they find in their notebooks or the teacher can write the words on the whiteboard for the students, depending on the students’ writing level. This activity involves word recognition and reading as well as writing skills. It can also help children’s vocabulary building.
Cynthia Akazawa, the owner of Interact English School in Okayama
Activity: Phonics Fartleks
We have a phonetically and grammatically graded reading textbook that also has an audio CD. I use the books in second, third, and fourth grade classes. We read each passage for two weeks. In the first week, I introduce the passage and engage the students in conversation. I use the vocabulary or sentence structures that are featured in the text. Then we practice reading as a group. After that, the students go home and read it for homework with parental supervision. The next week, students get into pairs to read with a partner. This feature makes the students more responsible for the reading. I go around and support any weaker students and check for pronunciation issues. Then I do Q&A and have the students answer as a group in full sentences. This step is a way to work various basic grammatical patterns in context. The students then go home with the same passage for one more week, and this time they are asked to time their reading speed. I encourage them to read fast, but I am careful to emphasize that speed and accuracy are both necessary. Otherwise, some of the students will read so fast that they skip parts. I then give the students a writing component based on the text, and I introduce a new reading passage. The speeding up and slowing down effect of speaking, reading, then writing gives students an experience similar to the interval training of a runner’s workout that is called “fartleks” in Swedish.
I think repetition is important, but comprehension is also a necessary component. I like text with picture support and clear context so that students can guess meaning fairly easily. We usually do not work fluency this way with fifth and sixth-year students. By then we are using reading for building vocabulary and syntax, and for giving context to the language we use in class.
A word on timed reading: measuring reading speed is very motivating, but I do not require students to share their times with each other. Some students want to brag because they are fast. Other students are just more interested in accuracy, so speed is only one of their goals. Timed reading is not about competing with others, though some students want to treat it that way. It’s more of a way to challenge oneself. I try to encourage slower students by telling them that I value accuracy and improvement as well. In this way, no one knows who the “winner” is because accuracy can’t be measured so easily, nor can improvement.
Laura Macfarlane, the owner of EFL Club in Sapporo
Activity: Reading Lines
Students line up facing their partner in the opposite line. One line is designated the reading line, the other the listening line. The students in the reading line read their book to their counterpart in the listening line. The teacher stands next to one student and listens to them read. If there is an odd number of students, the reading line gets the extra student who reads to an empty spot. After 20 or 30 seconds, the teacher instructs everyone to move around one place. If you have an odd number of students, the student who moves from the reading line to the listening line skips over the empty spot. As a result of this move, one student moves from the reading line to the listening line, and the student at the other end of the listening line moves over to the reading line. The teacher doesn’t move with the students, so after after every student has moved, they will have heard each student read for a short period.
If there are eight students, four in each line, and the teacher calls change every 30 seconds, it will take four minutes to do one full round. During this time, each student has read from the same book four times and listened to four students read from their book.
The aspect of repetition is built into the activity. Pressure to go faster comes from the short period between changes. Provided you ensure that the students are reading a book they can already read quite well, then the activity meets three of the four criteria for a fluency development activity. The fourth criteria, that content be meaningful, comes from the fact that the students are reading story books. It’s active and interactive, so the children enjoy it a lot.
Ruthie Iida, the owner of Rainbow Phonics Children’s English School in Kanagawa
Activity: Word-by-Word Round Robin
With my junior high students, we sometimes practice reading a passage word by word, one word for each student, in a group arranged in a circle. It’s fun: they work for speed and rhythm, and also for intonation. The last student before the period must say his or her word with just the right rising or falling of the voice, and the one who starts the next sentence must give a proper pause before starting. This activity can continue for as long as interest holds up.
A variation of this activity is called “Untangler.” In this activity, the teacher first breaks up sentences into words, writes each word on a separate index card, and passes out the cards randomly. The number of words per sentence can be adjusted according to the number of students per group, so groups of five would work with five-word sentences, etc. Students then rearrange themselves to make a meaningful sentence and read their words to complete the task. This one is good for practicing grammar and working together to read a sentence fluently.
In the next issue, we will welcome Lesley Ito, the head teacher of BIG BOW English Lab in Nagoya, as a guest writer. She will discuss the reading program and library system at her school. Stay tuned!