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Home Ask A REL What is the relationship between decoding/reading fluency and reading comprehension, particularly in the early grades?

What is the relationship between decoding/reading fluency and reading comprehension, particularly in the early grades?

Central | July 01, 2020

Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. We have not evaluated the quality of the references provided in this response, and we offer them only for your information. Also, we compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant sources may exist.

Research References

Firmender, J. M., Reis, S. M., & Sweeny, S. M. (2013). Reading comprehension and fluency levels ranges across diverse classrooms: The need for differentiated reading instruction and content. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57(1), 3–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“When implementing innovative teaching techniques, instructors often seek to gauge the success of their methods. Proposing one approach to assessing classroom innovation, this study examines the ability of students’ ratings of engagement and instructional practices to predict their learning in a cooperative (team-based) framework. After identifying the factor structures underlying measures of student engagement and instructional practices, these factors were used as predictors of self-reported student learning in a general chemistry course delivered using a team-based learning approach. Exploratory factor analyses showed a fourfactor structure of engagement: teamwork involvement, investment in the learning process, feelings about team-based learning, level of academic challenge; and a three-factor structure of instructional practices: instructional guidance, fostering self-directed learning skills, and cognitive level. Multiple linear regression revealed that feelings about team-based learning and perceptions of instructional guidance had significant effects on learning, beyond other predictors, while controlling gender, GPA, class level, number of credit hours, whether students began college at their current institution, expected highest level of education, racial or ethnic identification, and parental level of education. These results yield insight into student perceptions about team-based learning, and how to measure learning in a team-based learning framework, with implications for how to evaluate innovative instructional methods.”

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Achieving high levels of literacy among young readers continues to be a challenge in the United States. In 2013, only 35 percent of 4th-graders scored at or above a proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—numbers that have remained largely unchanged since 1992.1 To develop literacy, students need instruction in two related sets of skills: foundational reading skills and reading comprehension skills. This What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide focuses on the foundational reading skills that enable students to read words (alphabetics), relate those words to their oral language, and read connected text with sufficient accuracy and fluency to understand what they read. This practice guide, developed by a panel of experts comprised of researchers and practitioners, presents four recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy skills in the early grades. These recommendations are based on the best available research, as well as the experience and expertise of the panel members.”

Kang, E. Y., & Shin, M. (2019). The contributions of reading fluency and decoding to reading comprehension for struggling readers in fourth grade. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 35(3), 179–192. Retrieved from Full text available

From the abstract:

“The purpose of this study was to investigate the contribution of decoding and reading fluency on reading comprehension and how it differs across different types of comprehension measures among fourth-grade students with reading difficulties and disabilities (Mean age = 9.8, SD = 0.6). Results indicated that decoding and reading fluency predicted 8.1% to 43.3% of the variance in reading comprehension. Decoding and reading fluency accounted for 8.1% of the variance associated with performance on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Comprehension Test, 22.5% for the Test of Silent Reading Efficiency and Comprehension (TOSREC), and 43.3% for the Woodcock-Johnson III Passage Comprehension subtest (WJ3-PC). Decoding explained âˆ'0.2% of the variance for the Gates-MacGinitie, 3.1% for the TOSREC, and 15.1% for the WJ3-PC subtest. Reading fluency individually accounted for 3.9% of the variance for the Gates-MacGinitie, 4.5% for the TOSREC, and 1.9% for the WJ3-PC. We discuss the limitations and practical implications of these findings.”

Kim, Y., Wagner, R. K., & Foster, E. (2011). Relations among oral reading fluency, silent reading fluency, and reading comprehension: A latent variable study of first-grade readers. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15(4), 338–362. Retrieved from Full text available

From the abstract:

“In the present study, we examined oral and silent reading fluency and their relations with reading comprehension. In a series of structural equation models with latent variables using data from 316 first-grade students, (a) silent and oral reading fluency were found to be related yet distinct forms of reading fluency, (b) silent reading fluency predicted reading comprehension better for skilled readers than for average readers, (c) list reading fluency predicted reading comprehension better for average readers than for skilled readers, and (d) listening comprehension predicted reading comprehension better for skilled readers than for average readers.”

Lai, S. A., George Benjamin, R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Kuhn, M. R. (2014). The longitudinal relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension skills in second-grade children. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 30, 116–138. Retrieved from Full text available

From the abstract:

“Fluent readers can read connected text with accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. Without practice, automaticity cannot develop in reading, and readers must focus their attention on decoding, limiting their ability to simultaneously comprehend. Researchers have traditionally assumed that fluency and comprehension have a unidirectional relationship whereby fluency affects comprehension. However, a recent study by Klauda and Guthrie suggests that the relationship between fluency and comprehension may be reciprocal over time; that is, comprehension may also predict fluency. In the present study we examine this reciprocal relationship using structural equation modeling. We test various models that measure the relationship between fluency and comprehension over 3 time points spanning an academic year. The results indicate that compared to the traditional model in which fluency predicts concurrent comprehension, models exhibiting a reciprocal relationship do not fit the data better. We discuss the implications of these results.”

O’Connor, R. E. (2018). Reading fluency and students with reading disabilities: How fast is fast enough to promote reading comprehension? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 51(2), 124–136. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“The goal of improving reading rate and fluency is to positively impact reading comprehension; however, it is unclear how fast students with learning disabilities (LD) need to read to reap this benefit. The purpose of this research was to identify the point of diminishing return for students who were dysfluent readers. Participants included 337 students with reading difficulties in second and fourth grade (61% eligible for special education; 80% with a diagnosis of LD in the area of reading) and 150 typical readers from the same general education classes. LOESS (LOcal regrESSion) plots (logistic regression) were used to determine where linear relations between reading rate and comprehension broke down for these students: the rate at which getting faster no longer contributed clearly to reading comprehension improvement. Although typical readers in this sample showed patterns of oral reading rate and comprehension similar to students in other studies, patterns for students with reading difficulties differed. For dysfluent readers, improving reading rate improved comprehension only in the bands between 35 and 75 words correct per minute in second grade and between 40 and 90 words correct in fourth grade. Reading at faster rates revealed no clear advantage for reading comprehension.”

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade: A practice guide (NCEE 2010-4038). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“This section provides an overview of the importance of improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade and explains key parameters considered by the panel in developing the practice guide. It also summarizes the recommendations for readers and concludes with a discussion of the research supporting the practice guide. Strong reading comprehension skills are central not only to academic and professional success, but also to a productive social and civic life.6 These skills build the capacity to learn independently, to absorb information on a variety of topics, to enjoy reading, and to experience literature more deeply. Despite the growing demand for highly educated workers in today’s information- and service-related economies, 7 the proportion of American adults classified as ‘below basic’ readers remained remarkably constant between 1992 and 2003.8 This guide, developed by a panel of experts, presents a set of evidence-based practices that teachers and other educators can use to successfully teach reading comprehension to young readers. The panel believes that students who read with understanding at an early age gain access to a broader range of texts, knowledge, and educational opportunities, making early reading comprehension instruction particularly critical. The guide also describes the evidence that supports the practices and gives examples of how they can be implemented in the classroom.”

Silverman, R. D., Speece, D. L., Harring, J. R., & Ritchey, K. D. (2012). Fluency has a role in the simple view of reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 17(2), 1–26. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The Simple View of Reading (SVR) suggests that the components of reading comprehension are decoding and linguistic comprehension. Given research that suggests that fluency is a separate construct from decoding and linguistic comprehension in fourth grade, the aim of this study was to examine the role of fluency in the SVR model. Analyses of data from 248 fourth-grade children explored whether the influence of fluency on reading comprehension is direct or whether fluency plays an indirect role on reading comprehension as a mediator or moderator of decoding. Structural equation modeling and latent regression analyses revealed that reading fluency plays a mediating role in explaining the relation between decoding and reading comprehension. This novel finding is placed in the context of studies that reported either a direct effect or no effect of reading fluency in SVR.”

Solari, E. J., Grimm, R. P., McIntyre, N. S., & Denton, C. A. (2018). Reading comprehension development in at-risk vs. not at-risk first grade readers: The differential roles of listening comprehension, decoding, and fluency. Learning and Individual Differences, 65, 195–206. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“This study examined the relations between and predictive power of three important subcomponents skills of reading comprehension: decoding, listening comprehension, and reading fluency. Through a series of structural equation models, we examine the relations within a full sample of first grade students at the beginning of the year (N = 290). Next, we conducted analyses to determine if differential relations exist between the variables in students who are identified as at-risk for reading failure, and potentially reading disability (n = 141) and those who are not (n = 149). Results indicate that in early first grade, the relations between the subcomponent skills are different dependent upon risk status. For the full sample, fluency was the strongest predictor of reading comprehension, followed by decoding and listening comprehension. When the sample was split based on early reading skills at the beginning of first grade, for the not at-risk students, fluency, decoding, and listening comprehension each made individual contributions to reading comprehension. For the at-risk students, decoding was only significantly related to reading comprehension via fluency; listening comprehension did not significantly predict reading comprehension for this subsample. The findings are discussed and related to implications for the development and implementation of early reading interventions for students who are identified as having reading difficulties and potentially reading disability.”


Keywords and Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Decoding
  • Decoding (reading)
  • “Oral reading”
  • “Phonological awareness”
  • “Predictor variables”
  • “Reading achievement”
  • “Reading comprehension”
  • “Reading Difficulties”
  • “Reading Fluency”
  • “Reading Tests”

Databases and Resources

REL Central searched ERIC for relevant references. ERIC is a free online library, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, of over 1.6 million citations of education research. Additionally, we searched ERIC, Google Scholar, and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: The search and review included references published between 2010 and 2020.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types, such as randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive analyses, literature reviews; and (b) target population and sample.

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