Fluency and progress monitoring

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Building fluency is key to proficient reading and spelling. Fluency supports the mapping of words to long-term memory, which allows students to read and spell automatically and accurately.

This topic explores evidence-based approaches to fluency development, and ways to monitor student progress and evaluate instruction.

Learning objectives

By the end of this topic, you will understand:

  • how the mastery of phonics knowledge and skills supports fluency building
  • how to plan for fluency building
  • how to use a progress monitoring tool to track student development.

Download resources for this topic or view Australian Curriculum links.

1. Spotlight on fluency and progress monitoring

35 minutes reading and viewing 

Fluency is not an isolated skill. Reading and spelling fluency require explicit instruction, followed by students working towards mastery in a range of component skills.

Fluency relies on:

  • strong phonemic awareness skills
  • mastery of the major letter–sound correspondences.

These areas of skill and knowledge are needed for decoding and encoding new words but also for mapping the spelling and sounds of individual words to memory along with their meaning (orthographic mapping).

An evidence-informed instructional model (outlined in the Literacy Hub’s professional learning on explicit direction instruction for phonics – an instructional model) plus progress monitoring will help teachers target their instruction for fluency development.

What is fluency?

Fluency refers to both decoding (reading) fluency and encoding (spelling) fluency.

Decoding fluency is the ability to read aloud in a smooth, flowing manner. There are three main components that contribute to the development of decoding fluency:

  1. accuracy – reading and recognising words correctly, which relies on having a strong phonics knowledge
  2. rate – recognising words at a rate that makes reading sound smooth and effortless (can be measured by the number of words read correctly per minute)
  3. prosody – phrasing chunks of information into meaningful parts and reading with expression.

Encoding fluency is the ability to write letters, words and sentences automatically and accurately. Handwriting plays an important role in the development of encoding fluency.

Orthographic mapping is a key contributor to fluency development. Orthographic mapping involves mapping the spelling, sounds and meaning of individual words and storing them in long-term memory so they can be automatically and accurately recalled. Without this, fluency will not be achieved. Ehri (2022) and Peltier (2022) explain that building a bank of sight words through orthographic mapping develops automatic reading (fluency), which allows the reader to attend fully to the meaning of a text.

It is important to note that the term sight word does not refer to students memorising a word as a visual image of the word as a whole. Instead, this term refers to students mapping a word to memory as a string of letters and sounds linked to the pronunciation of the word so that it can be easily retrieved on sight. 

Read this 12-minute article that outlines the components and purpose of fluency, including the impact it has on comprehension.

Read more about orthographic mapping in the Literacy Hub’s professional learning topic on choosing and using decodable texts.

Why is fluency instruction important?

Fluency should be developed at the letter–sound, word and sentence level for both decoding and encoding. It is built in small steps.

  1. Students are taught new letter–sound correspondences and practise to mastery (until they can recall them and write them automatically).
  2. Students decode and encode words containing the new phonic code, and practise this to mastery.
  3. Students practise reading and writing sentences with words containing the new phonic code until they can do it fluently.

Once students can read and write easily and automatically, they can put all their effort into making meaning from a text or writing a text. This is why fluency is seen as the bridge between decoding and encoding skills, and the ability to comprehend and compose texts.

Read this 2-minute overview of fluency. This page also includes a 12-minute video with detailed examples of evidence-based instructional approaches.

How does a focus on fluency development support mastery learning?

Teaching to mastery at letter–sound, word and sentence level ensures that students can automatically recall what they have learnt and apply skills accurately and quickly.

Plan for fluency building

Teachers need to provide opportunities for students to apply their phonics knowledge and skills in both decoding and encoding. Repeated practice of skills promotes automaticity and helps students cement information into long-term memory, where it can be easily retrieved.

Pace your instruction

The pace of instruction should be determined by students’ progress. Allow enough time for students to practise and apply newly taught knowledge and skills before introducing new learning.

Ideally, wait until at least 80 per cent of your class displays mastery before teaching new letters and sounds. In this way, you are maximising the effectiveness of whole-class instruction, which reduces the number of students that need further support.

This 5-minute article explains some of the key skills students need to master, and some potential blockers to developing reading fluency.

How can I support fluency development?

When should fluency be taught?

Fluency instruction for both decoding and encoding should be included in your literacy block. Teach fluency using explicit direct instruction principles by following an 'I do, We do, You do' approach. This involves:

  • modelling decoding and encoding with fluency (I do)
  • supporting the class with guided practice of fluency (We do)
  • allocating students to independent practice (You do) or to a teacher focus group (We do moving to You do), according to their needs.

Repeated practice is key for fluency development, so this modelling and support should also be provided throughout explicit phonics lessons and daily reviews for decoding and encoding.

The Literacy Hub’s professional learning on explicit direct instruction for phonics – an instructional model covers phonics lessons and daily reviews.

What types of text should students be supported with?

Teachers should respond to their students' needs as shown through progress monitoring assessments and structured observations. Based on what this data tells you, you can provide fluency development tasks and support materials at the:

  • letter–sound level
  • word level
  • sentence level
  • passage and whole-text level (repeated readings of texts students have already decoded is recommended for building fluency).

Students may move between these levels as new letter–sound correspondences are introduced and words become more complex.

What kind of fluency resources should I choose?

When planning lessons for decoding and encoding fluency development, choose simple, familiar tasks so that students focus their full attention on content and skill development. Try not to use overly complicated games, over-decorated resources or new tasks.

A range of resources can be used to facilitate development including:

  • letter flashcards
  • word flashcards
  • sentence strips
  • text passages and decodable books.

For maximum impact, these resources should match your phonics progression (including the sequence of irregular words).

These fluency development slides are a ready-made resource to support decoding and encoding fluency development at letter–sound, word and sentence level.

How do I track my students’ phonics knowledge and skills development (including fluency)?

Students need phonics knowledge and skills before they can develop fluency. To support development in this area, teachers should collect and analyse student progress data. This data can be used to identify and evaluate:

  • the students’ next point of need for targeted instruction
  • the effectiveness and pace of instruction and changing teaching practice accordingly.

In line with your school's chosen phonics progression, you should assess students for the accuracy and pace at which they are able to decode and encode letter–sound correspondences, words and sentences.

Formal tracking

A progress monitoring tool can be used to assess knowledge and skills for decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) within each phase of a phonics progression. Students should be monitored for progress in both decoding and encoding at letter–sound, word (including irregular words) and sentence level. Data collected can be used to pinpoint individual student’s needs while also planning for whole-class instruction.

The Literacy Hub has free progress monitoring tools (with student sheet and teacher marking sheet) that align with the Literacy Hub phonics progression; see the resources section. If you are following a different progression, you may wish to adapt these progress monitoring tools to match your progression.

Note: The Literacy Hub’s progress monitoring tools include pseudo words (non-words) for decoding. These words enable assessment of a student’s true decoding skills. When decoding real words, a particular word may be familiar to students and may have already been orthographically mapped; in contrast, pseudo words must always be decoded.

When students have the knowledge and skills to read longer passages and whole texts, fluency can be monitored using the following word per minute (WPM) counts:

  • end of Year 1: 60 WPM
  • end of Year 2: 90–100 WPM
  • in Years 3–6: 100–120 WPM.

Structured observation-based tracking

Structured observations of students' phonics knowledge and skills, including fluency, can be done during daily reviews.

While conducting the daily review, select a group of students to focus on. To record observations in an efficient, structured way, use a name grid with tick boxes for letter–sound correspondences, words and sentences.

For more on daily reviews, see the Literacy Hub’s professional learning on explicit direction instruction for phonics – an instructional model.

How does teaching irregular words support early fluency development?

The teaching of irregular words, sometimes called ‘sight words’, is directly linked to early fluency development.

Irregular words are words that contain letter–sound correspondences that a student has not yet been taught. For example, ‘the’ is a word beginning readers will see often in reading and need to spell for writing before they have learned the digraph ‘th’ and 'e' as a schwa.

Irregular words need to be explicitly taught during phonics instruction, so that students can automatically decode and encode those words when they meet them in early texts. Once decoding and encoding are automatic, students can focus on using their phonics knowledge and skills to decode or encode the other words in a sentence. They are not interrupted when they come across the irregular word because they know it automatically.

How can irregular words be introduced?

The following steps outline how to teach an irregular word, such as the word ‘put’.

  1. Introduce the irregular word for the lesson. ‘Our irregular word for this lesson is “put”.’
  2. Use the word ‘put’ in a sentence.
  3. Say each sound in the word.
  4. Draw a short horizontal line for each sound in the word.
  5. Write the corresponding letter on each sound line.
  6. Circle the irregular part of the word.
  7. Spell the word orally, for example, ‘p-u-t spells put.’
  8. Students repeat these steps with teacher support.

This 5-minute read looks at the different ways the term 'sight word' is used and gives advice on how irregular words should be taught in line with current evidence.

2. Coaching webinar: Fluency and progress monitoring

Presented by Elaine Stanley and hosted by Kerrie Shanahan 

Register to view a recording of this free 60-minute webinar unpacking each of the Literacy Hub’s fluency resources. The webinar covers:

  • supporting fluency at the letter–sound, word, sentence and whole-text levels
  • using a monitoring tool to track progress.

3. Putting learning into action

Now that you have engaged with this topic, use the prompts below to reflect on your current practice and take action in response to your new learning.

Actions for Foundation to Year 2 school leaders

You may wish to:

  1. Lead your staff through Spotlight on fluency and progress monitoring and included links.
  2. Discuss the following questions with your staff (reflecting and evaluating): What is our current approach to supporting and tracking fluency development? What resources do we need to prepare to support our students' fluency development at letter–sound, word and sentence level? How will we track fluency development in line with our systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) progression? How do we ensure this is ongoing and informing our instruction? Where will we build fluency instruction into our literacy block?
  3. Support staff to explore the downloadable resources provided in this topic, including setting up or choosing a progress monitoring tool for phonics knowledge and skills.
  4. Establish a schedule for analysing progress monitoring data.
Actions for Foundation to Year 2 teachers
  1. Set up your progress monitoring tool and start collecting data in line with your phonics progression.
  2. Look for any patterns and mastery gaps that emerge from your initial data collection. How can this inform your instruction?
  3. Start using fluency building routines to support your students with encoding and decoding at letter–sound, word or sentence level.

4. Q&A webinar: Answering your questions about fluency and monitoring progress

Presented by Elaine Stanley and hosted by Kerrie Shanahan 

Our literacy specialists hosted a free 30-minute Q&A webinar to support schools in developing fluency and monitoring progress.

Sign up to view the recording.

Resource downloads

These slides support students to develop decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) fluency.

  • Progress monitoring tools

Student assessment Phases 1–5 | Tracker Phases 1–5

Student assessment Phases 6–10 | Tracker Phases 6–10

Student assessment Phases 11–15 | Tracker Phases 11–15

Student assessment Phases 16–20 | Tracker Phases 16–20

Student assessment Phases 21–24 | Tracker Phases 21–24

This set of PDFs and accompanying spreadsheets supports teachers to monitor individual and whole-class student progress in phonics. These documents align with the Literacy Hub phonics progression.

If you are using a phonics progression other than the Literacy Hub's phonics progression, this Word template will help you create progress monitoring tools to match. 

References, useful links and further reading

This short article summarises guidelines for improving student sight word learning (automatic word recognition), based on Ehri’s theory of orthographic mapping and studies around reading.

This comprehensive article provides an overview of the components of fluency, as well as a summary of how to assess fluency. It includes a detailed rubric to assess prosody and lists examples of strategies to develop fluency in the classroom.

This resource provides a thorough overview of fluency development and includes supporting short video clips.

This short article highlights some of the work of Linnea Ehri on orthographic mapping and phonics instruction.

This abstract outlines a 2014 research paper on orthographic mapping by Linnea Ehri, with a link to the journal article. (The summary of this article is free, but payment is required to access the full article.)

This article provides a thorough overview of fluency, how it is linked to attaining reading comprehension, and the implications of research into fluency development for reading instruction.

Australian Curriculum links 

Australian Curriculum – English: Literacy – Phonic knowledge and word recognition