Fluent Behavior Rates: What is Mastery?

We all want our students to become masters. But what is mastery? Can we define and describe it in plain English? Can we measure it? Can we use our definitions and measurements to help students become masters? Yes! According to precision teaching experts Carl Binder, Elizabeth Haughton, and Barbara Bateman, mastery is fluent behavior (a combination of accuracy plus speed--or ease--of performance), and it can be described in terms of correct responses per minute. A fluent adult reader, for example, generally reads orally at the rate of about 200 words a minute with zero--or near zero--errors.

Isn’t this simple? Isn’t it refreshing? It gets better. Here are some widely recognized fluency rates for a number of academic skills, according to Binder, Haughton, and Bateman. As you can see, many of these simply must be mastered (practiced to fluency) if reading proficiency is to occur, and isn't it nice to know that we can tell if they've been mastered (all we really need is a one-minute timer)? The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking’s daily lessons help students become masters of many of these skills (not typing or math skills).

Fluent Behavior Rates

Phonemic Awareness


Blend sounds to form words (hear/say)

12 - 10 words / min

Segment words into sounds using colored blocks to mark sounds (hear-do/say)

50 - 40 sounds / min

Make new words by substituting one phoneme for another (hear/say)

20 - 15 / min

Handwriting and Typing


Write straight marks (free/write)

300 - 250 / min

Write curved marks (free/write)

200 - 150 / min

Write letters (free/write)

120 - 180 / min

Copy words or numbers from a paper or board (see/write)

120 - 80 chars/min

Typing using a keyboard

90 - 60 chars/min

Phonics & Decoding


Read consonant and vowel sounds (see/say)

120 - 80 sounds/min

Read nonsense words (see/say)

120 - 100 words/min

Read real words (see/say)

130 - 100 words/min



Write words from dictation (hear/write)

15 – 10 words /min

Write words in a category (free/write)

15 – 10 words / min

Oral Reading

Read words orally from a passage (see/say)

Grade Level Aim

1st Grade

100 - 60 words/min

2nd - 3rd Grades

120 - 100 words/min

4th - 5th Grades

150 - 120 words/min

6th - 8th Grades

180 - 150 words/min

9th Grade and above

200 - 180 words/min

Basic Arithmetic


Count by 1’s, 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s (free/say)

120 - 100 / min

Read numbers (see/say)

150 - 120 / min

Write number 0-9 repeatedly (free/write)

120 - 100 / min

Say or write answers to basic +, -, x, and / facts (see/write, see/say)

100 - 70 / min


Isn’t this chart interesting? And can you see how its use might inform your teaching practice, especially if you are teaching Riggs in a variety of different settings (to beginners or to remedial students)? I sure can. For example, if I were using Riggs to teach a class of at-risk students (let’s say they are fourth-graders who read at a first-grade level), I’d definitely share this chart with them, and I'd do it on day one. I’d use it to help them see that their previous struggles may well have been caused by a lack of fluency with lower-order skills, due to either a lack of direct instruction or a lack of practice (or both), for starters. I’d help my students see that one cannot read an entire sentence if one cannot decode half of its words, and one cannot decode words if one has not mastered English spelling patterns, and so on.

I’d test my students as soon as possible, of course; I’d want them to see what they already know about phonograms, spelling patterns, and the like (and what they still need to know). How many letters can they already write in one minute? How quickly can they read these letters and the rest of the Orton phonograms (if at all)? How quickly can they identify common English words? (We teach 850 in Level I--and we practice to fluency.) What is their oral reading rate with grade-level texts? And so on. In other words, what is their present level of performance (PLOP) for each essential skill? What do they already know about written English? We need to know. (Does this make sense?) And then I’d start reading to them (from vocabulary rich literature), and I’d use this chart to help them practice to mastery (i.e., until they reached the established fluency goal) in each essential area.

For example, if my students could say the sounds of the first 55 Orton phonograms (introduced in Lessons 1-17 of Level I) but they could only do so slowly and inaccurately (let’s pretend they read 30 correct sounds per minute while making 5 errors), we’d start practicing with these phonemes and graphemes (including the reading and writing of Riggs phonograms while timing ourselves). And we’d keep practicing until we’d reached the fluency goal for this skill--until we became “Phonogram Masters.” Why? Because fluent reading at the sentence level (200 words per minute) depends on fluent decoding at the isolated word level, and fluent decoding at the word level (100-130 words per minute) depends on the ability to read consonant and vowel sounds at the rate of 80-120 correct sounds per minute with zero (or near zero) errors. Likewise, because fluent sentence writing depends on fluent word writing, and because fluent word writing depends on fluent penmanship and spelling skills . . . well, you get the picture. Since higher-order skills depend on fluency at lower levels, it’s important to build fluency at those lower levels, so I’d help my students to do that. Does this make sense to you?

The Riggs Institute heartily approves of the pursuit of specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-based (SMART) goals for all students, because their experience has been that all students can reach them with the Riggs Institute’s lessons. My experience has been the same.

For more information about the many benefits of striving for fluent behavior rates, see:

Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process by Carl Binder, Elizabeth Haughton, and Barbara Bateman
Oral Reading Fluency Assessments for Grades 1-5 http://rti.dadeschools.net/pdfs/ORF-OPM_grs1-5.pdf

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