When defining reading fluency, many people automatically say that it's how fast you read. While this is true, in part, fluency is much more than reading speed. Reading fluency is the ability to read with comprehension, accuracy, speed, and expression.
I like to refer to reading fluency as CASE: Comprehension, Accuracy, Speed, Expression.
Fluency is imperative to reading success. It should be a part of daily reading instruction. Many students can decode words correctly, but if they aren't fluent, it will slow them down. Students who struggle with fluency spend too much time decoding words, leading to frustration.
Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (2007) says that, "Students must have achieved some level of fluency for reading strategies to be effective."
Comprehension refers to understanding. If students don't understand what they are reading, they are simply word calling. You can assess text comprehension by asking students to answer comprehension questions, having students tell/write a summary of what they read, or letting students have discussions about the text. If students can ready quickly, accurately, and smoothly, they will be able to focus on what they are reading, which leads to greater comprehension.
Accuracy means that students know words automatically as they read, without having to put forth much effort. Research suggests that students who miss more than 10% of the words in a text are probably reading a text that is too difficult. If students are mispronouncing, omitting, or inserting words more than 10% of the time (more than 1 out of every 10 words), it would be helpful to provide an easier text for that student.
Speed refers to the rate of reading. Usually we measure this is WPM (words per minute). Sometimes you will see this as WCMP (words correct per minute). There are many different ways to calculate and evaluate a student's reading speed. There are even formulas to use. No matter what you use, the way you count students' words is the same. You time them (usually for a minute) and see how many words they read. You count the words they read. If they missed a word (mispronounced, omitted, skipped, etc.) then you would subtract these from their total. For example, if a student read 150 words, but missed 5 of them, you would say they read 145 words correctly. If you would like a copy of the chart that I use for fluency goals, you may find that here.
Expression means that a student reads so that it sounds like they are speaking to someone. In other words, their reading is smooth. They use appropriate phrasing, pitch, and tone. This is also known as prosody.
How You Can Increase Fluency
So what does all this tell you, as a classroom teacher?
Fluency is important. It takes all of the components above to build fluent readers. There are many ways to strengthen your students fluency. Here are some suggestions:
give your students appropriate materials for reading instruction
model oral reading by reading aloud to children
provide time for students to read independently
provide audio recordings for students to listen to
let students read with partners
purchase or make "fluency phones" or "whisper phones"
provide students with reading fluency passages and encourage repeated readings