Teaching Fluency through Choral Reading


One of my memories as a seven, eight, and nine-year-old involves reading to my little sister for hours at a time. Naomi was five years younger than I and must have been a remarkably patient listener. I remember reading many of the Thornton Burgess and Laura Ingalls Wilder books to her. Apparently, I’ve forgotten all the other books I read to her because my mother says that when Naomi began to read to herself, it was years before she read many books that she hadn’t already heard.

As I observe some of my third and fourth graders stumble and sweat while reading aloud, I wish each of them, too, had an eager little sister to listen to them for hours on end. When I read to my sister for the sheer delight of enjoying the stories together, I didn’t realize that these experiences were also preparing me for rapid, comprehension-filled, independent reading. These are the precise skills I’m hoping to build in my third and fourth graders.

I can’t replicate with each student the same rich oral reading encounters I enjoyed, but I can encourage them to read at home to their little siblings by sending home fun read-aloud picture books. In my classroom, I can offer other opportunities that are especially helpful to my challenged readers, such as choral reading, the practice of reading aloud together as a group.

As I’ve listened to students read orally by themselves, I’ve learned to predict which students will struggle with choral reading. They’re the hesitant readers who misread small words, struggle to chunk bigger words, and read in a choppy manner. During choral reading, these same readers may mumble along and not follow the text with their eyes. These behaviors indicate that these students are not gaining desperately needed reading skills through the practice of choral reading. These are precisely the students who need focused, intentional choral reading the most.

I’ve found that poetry reading, Bible Memory practice, and reading directions are three simple ways to integrate choral reading in my class. The mundane practice of reading directions orally offers an opportunity to grow hesitant readers into confident, expressive, and smooth readers.

Following are three engagement techniques for reading directions that help me to pull in those hesitant readers. You will need to adapt and adjust these techniques to your situation, but I offer the specific language and techniques I use for two reasons. Firstly, I want to emphasize how consistent and explicit your instructions need to be. And secondly, I want to be clear about how critical it is to require 100% participation of your students. The benefits go way beyond reading class.

  1. Rhythmic Beginnings

I make sure students are sufficiently cued to focus in on the directions before we begin. It can be more complex than you would think for some students to engage their eyes, voices, and minds all at once, but that’s what’s required to read and absorb directions. I find that when we start together, we can stay together. So I say something like, ““Let’s read the directions for number one aloud together. Rea-dy, begin!” I try to be very predictable, saying the same thing at the same rate each time. I explain to students that when I say “ready, begin” they should be taking a breath so that their voices are ready to start immediately.  We read the directions with my voice slightly leading theirs, both in volume and pace. In a week or two, I can abbreviate my instructions to “Number One, REA-dy, beGIN!”

Without a rhythmic beginning, I would estimate that only about half of my class is ready to read the directions. When I include a rhythmic beginning, I find that typically about 80% of the students are with me as we read the directions. The problem is that this still leaves 20% who are somewhere else, and this last 20% of the class is the group of students that most need choral reading to develop their reading fluency. They won’t benefit from this critical reading activity unless I can engage their minds, eyes, and voices as well.

  1. Nonverbal Prompts

As I say, “Let’s read the directions…” I move toward a student who is disengaged and I point to the directions in the book to focus the student’s eyes and mind. As we begin reading, I listen for that student’s voice. Unless I can hear that voice, I take my nonverbal prompt a step further, leaning down and reading into the ear of that student. Usually at that point the student engages, which results in a big smile and thumbs up from me. It only takes a few weeks for these nonverbal prompts to pay off. My consistent awareness of that student’s engagement and my nonverbal prompts, which consist of pointing to the text, reading in their ear, and responding with great joy when I see improvement, results in almost 100% of my students engaging in the process of reading directions together.

  1. Individual Conversation

But there are still a few students who either do not read my cues accurately or do not understand the necessity for complying. In either of these situations, a private talk is probably necessary. I usually start by saying something like, “I’m so excited by what happens to our minds and to our ability to read aloud smoothly and well when we all read directions together. I’ve been concerned though that you’re not getting a chance to grow as a learner in these ways because I’ve been noticing that I can’t hear your voice and I can’t see your mouth moving when we read directions. Can you tell me why that is?” After giving time for a response, in which some students will insist that they are helping to read directions, I will reiterate that the only way I know if they’re helping is if I see their mouth moving and am able to hear their voices when I bend down close to them.

After this, I find that these students learn to comply over time especially if I do two things. First, I gently remind them of our conversation by commenting to the whole class about the value of reading for fluency.  “Class, I like how I’m hearing each voice helping with the directions. That tells me you’re growing as a reader. Over time, you’ll find that you can read aloud more smoothly and quickly and that’s because of these little things we do like reading directions together. Great job! Be sure you’re always ‘Jonny on the Spot’ and ready to read!”  Secondly, I follow up with that student by “inclining my ear” towards them as I am commanded to do in Isaiah 55:3.  This reminds the student that I’m listening for their voice. In response, the voice of the student rises in volume, focus improves, and mumbling stops.  Now the student can begin the process of gaining better oral reading habits.

A recent study recorded sixth grade students making progress in gaining smooth, expressive, and rapid oral reading through engaging in as little as sixteen minutes of choral reading per week.

This study and others have profoundly impacted my thinking about choral reading, causing me to experiment with ways to increase the effectiveness of my students’ choral reading experiences. We don’t have hours to sit on couches and read aloud to patient little sisters, but I’m learning to maximize the oral reading we’re doing throughout the day, creating richer, more engaging opportunities for practice, without needing to carve extra time from other subjects.

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Anna Zehr

4 years ago

Great questions, Brenda. Once I know the answers, I’ll write another post.? Off the cuff, I would say that one thing I do is to refuse to repeat what we just read together. So, if more support is needed, I might say, “What do we do first?” If the student doesn’t know, then I require the student to read the relevant section again. “Are we done when we’ve completed that?” “Ok, then what’s next?” In addition, we don’t always read directions together. Many times students are required to read and complete work on their own. When they miss parts of the directions, I resist the urge to say, “You forgot to do ____.” Instead, I say, “You completed the first part. Now reread those directions to yourself and find out what else you need to do.”I think in both examples I just gave, the message I’m sending them is, “You’re accountable for your own thinking. The teacher will not do your thinking for you.”I realize I’m not answering the last question you asked, the question of what skills can be taught to help them comprehend. There’s certainly more to be said on this topic.

Brenda Fall

4 years ago

I agree that the choral reading of the instructions/directions is good reading practice for the student and a good way for the teacher to gauge which students are engaged and following along, but what can be done to help the students unpack what they have just read, and be able to follow those instructions/directions? What skills can be taught to help them actually comprehend what they have read?

Carolyn Martin

4 years ago

You’ve detailed this well. And another piece fell into place for me with your thought of reading in the ear of student along with the recognition of them. I’ve read directions chorally for a while, mostly thinking it was one way to keep most students engaged with what was going on. It’s nice to also hear that it helps build fluency. Thank you for these thoughts.

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