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How to Determine Reading Fluency Using Simple Math

Everyone reads differently. It’s a common misconception that a person can either read, or they can’t. There is no switch from non-reader to reader.

Does your student read slowly, but accurately?

Perhaps you are a student who reads quickly, but doesn’t always understand what you read.

Like most things in life, there are levels of reading. Reading levels are determined by fluency and comprehension. You can use this simple math exercise to determine if materials are at the correct reading level for you or your student.


What is Fluency?

Think of fluency as the ability to read conversationally. If something is read out loud, it should be the same pace and tone as if you’re having a conversation.

This simple exercise can determine reading fluency, word recognition.

  1. Select a reading passage and set a timer for 60 seconds.
  2. Read aloud. Mark any words that were changed, skipped, or caused hesitation — Problem Words. (Remember, reading should be the same pace and tone as a conversation.)
  3. Mark the spot in the passage when the timer stops.
  4. Count the words in the selection of the passage that was read. This is words per minute (WPM).
  5. Subtract the Problem Words from WPM to determine ACCURACY of words read.
  6. Divide the accuracy by the WPM.
  7. The resulting number is Fluency Percentage.

If fluency is less than 75%, the reader isn’t comprehending the passage because he is still struggling with basic word recognition.


Sample Passage and Fluency

Let’s look at the following example from a GED® social studies practice test.

This excerpt is from a speech given by Susan B. Anthony in 1873.

Friends and fellow citizens: I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

The preamble of the Federal Constitution says:

“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government — the ballot.

In the example above, the red terms indicate words that troubled the reader, the Problem Words. The reader was unsure what the words meant, couldn’t pronounce the words, or didn’t recognize them. Many of the words and phrases are dated, or just not used in every day language. 

The above passage was read in 60 seconds and contains 251 words, 251 WPM. There were roughly 29 problem words/areas.

251 total WPM
– 29 Problem Words
= 222 Accurate Words in a Minute

222 accurate words, divided by 251 WPM = 88% fluency of passage

“Anything below 75% fluency is what I call the frustration level,” explains Dr. Carmine Stewart, president and CEO of Aspire Consulting and Educational Services, and the program director for Seeds of Literacy. “This means a reader needs to increase their vocabulary in order to understand the concepts of what they are reading. There just isn’t enough word-recognition at this level.”

But what about the 88% level from the example?

“This is within the instructional level,” she continued. “Students aren’t reading independently until they have about 95% fluency or greater. Until that point, we need to work on vocabulary and comprehension to prepare them.”

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