Building Contextual Reading Fluency Through Phrase-Level Practice

by Meghan Sebens

October 28, 2022

When we think about reading fluency, we most often picture a student reading a passage. The teacher, timer in hand, completes a running record, noting errors and words correct per minute. While timed, repeated readings are one valid method of practicing fluency when done with the appropriate supports, there is an abundance of other methods that deserve a more prominent place in daily fluency instruction.

Phrase-level practice is one of the most commonly overlooked areas, while also being one of the most versatile. Focusing on phrases allows students to develop multiple areas of literacy, building the bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Isolated phrase practice can build word recognition while comprehension is strengthened by addressing prosody and explicitly breaking context into meaningful phrases.

Additionally, building your repertoire of phrase-level activities can help you address the fluency needs of a broad range of students. Let’s look at three different types of students that may benefit from phrase-level fluency instruction:

Emergent readers: 

Using isolated phrase practice or building from the phrase-level into passages can increase automaticity and provide the structure that emergent readers need to be successful. Research has shown that contextual reading, such as reading sentences, a passage, or even an entire book, is an integral component of instruction for any student. Rolanda O’Connor notes that reading words in connected text is the “ultimate practice” for building recognition of taught letter patterns (2014), and breaking text into phrases gives students who are just beginning to break the code access to more context without overwhelming them. 

Rushing readers:

Phrase practice, both in isolation and built into context, teaches students who rush that pauses are essential to reading well. Many students are under the misconception that reading fast equates to reading well. Whether students were explicitly encouraged to read more and more quickly or if they gleaned this misperception from their peers, this can lead to hard-to-break habits. 

Low comprehenders:

Some experts have claimed that the phrase is the most essential unit of meaning in a text. Tim Rasinski points out that difficulty with phrasing and understanding phrase breaks disrupts the meaning of a text. He notes many popular examples of phrase boundaries actually changing the meaning of text (e.g., “Let’s eat Grandma” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma.”) and suggests that some words only hold meaning when they are bound within a phrase (e.g., prepositions or conjunctions) (2010). Furthermore, students who do not have strong comprehension or need explicit instruction on how sentences break down into meaningful phrases. This instruction will, in turn, provide students with more strategies to understand text as a whole.

The reasoning for using phrase-level fluency instruction goes beyond fluency. Research has shown that understanding how text can break into phrases improves many different areas of reading (Rasinski, 2011). Phrase instruction can have an impact on word recognition, fluency, and reading comprehension.


O’Connor, R. (2018). Reading Fluency and Students with Reading Disabilities: How Fast is Fast Enough to Promote Reading Comprehension? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 51, 124-136. DOI: 10.1177.

O’Connor, R. (2014). Teaching Word Recognition (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Rasinski, T., Yildirim, K., & Nageldinger, J. (2011). Building Fluency Through the Phrase Text Lesson. The Reading Teacher, 65, 252-255. DOI: 10.1002.

Rasinski, T. (2010). The Fluent Reader (2nd ed.). Scholastic.

Meghan is the reading supervisor, testing coordinator, and an academic advisor at Landmark’s Elementary•Middle School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Macalester College and a master’s degree in special education from Simmons University. Meghan has taught a variety of subjects at the middle and high school levels during her time at Landmark.

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