The Dynamic Duo: Poetry and Fluency

Poetry and fluency are like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.  Their reciprocal relationship complimented one another and their dancing was expressive, emotive, fluid, easy to understand and a joy to watch.  It was a visual language.  Similarly, fluency in reading is pleasing to the ear and mind, so the text is easier to understand and allows one to create a movie in your head. 

Poetry has melody, rhythm, pacing and pitch that supports building fluency skills, especially prosody (expression, automaticity and comprehension).  Building fluency with poetry inspires and delights not only struggling readers, but all readers.


Using poetry to struggling readers is an authentic magical genre which supports their fluency development.  Fluency is the bridge between word learning, decoding, and comprehension (Pikulski & Chard, 2005).   When students are slow or robotic readers, they have less enjoyment in reading, so they read less and therefore are not learning new vocabulary and content as fast as their peers. 

There are many definitions of fluency, but two definitions I really like are: Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, and Meisinger (2010) definition of fluency, which embraces the complexity and influence of fluency:

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Fluency combines accuracy, automaticity, and oral reading prosody, which, taken together, facilitate the reader’s construction of meaning.  It is demonstrated during oral reading through ease of word recognition, appropriate pacing, phrasing and intonation. It is a factor in both oral and silent reading that can limit or support comprehension. (p. 240)

Hasbrouk & Glaser ( 2012) define fluency very similarly, but stated more simply, “Reasonably accurate reading at an appropriate rate with suitable prosody that leads to accurate deep comprehension and motivation to read.”

Today, I want to share how I use Fluency Folders and poetry with struggling readers.  I was on Twitter recently, and intruded in on a literacy chat about fluency.  I chimed in about the fluency folders I implemented with a group of students, and teachers were interested, so I thought, why not write about it?

why Poetry?

It’s a fun giant step on the moving walkway to progressing students forward, to good and independent readers.  Reading poetry is another platform to motivation while increasing prosody, which are the nuances of language that help convey the message; it’s reading with expression.

Using poetry is an excellent pathway to scaffold text with explicit instruction, modeling of automaticity (rate and accuracy), and prosody (expression).  Students receive guided practice, and teacher and student feedback.  Students engage in purposeful rereadings, and discussions, while sometimes closely analyzing and annotating the poems.  You can challenge your students with new and wonderful vocabulary and more complex poems.  And reading poetry is fun!

WHY Fluency Folders?

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I started using Fluency Folders and poetry with a small group of students because I found repeated readings of short passages with this group wasn’t giving results that were needed, even though repeated readings of connected text are one of the best instructional activities you can use for improving fluency (LeBarge & Samuels, 1974).  Some students were so focused on raising their number and moving up the graph, improving their speed of reading rather than expression, to the detriment of comprehension. Ugh! I sounded like a broken record, “Strong readers don’t read fast. They have expression and understand what they read...” Even with my modeling, this group just wanted to read fast.

I wanted the fluency folders to be an engaging connection for families,  and few students families really engaged in the process of reading together, but most didn’t.  So I decided to use the folders during their scheduled time to ensure students were practicing on a regular basis if they weren’t practicing at home.  You’ll see I also copied in color to make it more inviting and appealing.

In The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye states, “A writer….doesn’t create out of nothing” (p. 41). (Yes, I went old school on yah).  And often, we teachers also create out of nothing.  My fluency folder concept evolved from researchers in the know about fluency and their brilliant article, The Family Fluency Reading Program (Morrow, Kuhn, &  Schwanenflugel, 2006).

Implementing Fluency Folders

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Ensure students are successful before the folders are sent home, and make it fun!  Practice the types of readings: echo, choral, partner and repeated readings, so students can engage with their families.  (At the end of this post you can see the materials I used, with links to PDF’s, but organize it to how best suits you and your students.)  Thursday or Friday was the performance day. They were evaluated by me, and at times by their peers with a fluency rubric. They assessed themselves with a checklist.  This rubric and checklist came from a free download here.  

Sometimes the students would act the poem or create their own hand or body movements to go with the poem.  These were short and sweet, so not a lot of time was involved in curating a theater piece, because that wasn’t the purpose of the lesson.   

Select poems that are of varying levels, interest and topics, and not too easy so they don't need your scaffolds.  There are lots of fabulous books and online resources as well.  The idea is to choose poems to fit the needs of your students.

Below are the simple steps to start using Fluency Folders:

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A Word about Challenging Struggling Readers

I think educators need to keep in mind that struggling readers with the right support can handle challenging texts.  For example, with a fluency group of second graders, I used the poems, Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too by Shel Silverstein and The Tummy Beast by Roald Dahl.  Both are around 3rd - 4th-grade level, depending what readability formula one uses.  When the students looked at the length of The Tummy Beast, there were reluctant to read this poem.  But with my powers of persuasion they hesitantly moved forward.  They were very expressive and fun poems to listen to, the students loved learning new words and reading these.  After reading these more difficult poems the students were feeling more confident to challenge themselves - one student even read it to our Assistant Superintendent!  Eventually, students had a substantial amount of poems to keep and reread.

For too long we have made it too easy for students who are behind their peers in reading.  When their peers are reading more difficult texts and they are not, we as teachers are aiding in the “Matthew Effect”, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, making the gap between stronger and weaker readers even wider (Stanovich, 1986).  I’ve seen teachers choose poems for struggling readers that are just too easy, and they could read and understand it independently, wasting valuable instructional time.

Below are a few samples of the annotated poems with second graders.  This was the first time I attempted annotation with poems, so you’ll see most of the focus was on vocabulary.

At the end of the year, one of my students expressed to me, “You know Mrs. Hancock, I know I’m not the best reader in my class, but now I love to read and I’m a better reader.”  Hopefully, this will inspire you to try Fluency Folders with a group of students who need fluency work and they will turn to love reading like one of my former charges.

Materials needed:

  • Two pocket folder

  • Sheet protectors, optional, help keep poems from getting very dirty

  • Lots of poems at your disposal

  • Fluency Folder cover sheet

  • Direction for activities

  • Fluency assessments

  • Rubric & Checklist

  • Fluency Infographic

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