The four most common questions about reading fluency are:
- What is it?
- Why do so many struggling readers have great difficulty in becoming fluent readers?
- How can we predict who is going to have trouble becoming a fluent reader?
- What contributes to making a fluent reader?
I’m going to answer these questions one at a time and then I want to explore three trickier questions that are not so frequently asked but are key to cracking the puzzle of fluency.
Question 1: What is Fluency?
The most basic definition of fluency is simply the ability to read text accurately and quickly. That’s what I call the Model T Ford version. Researchers add a few more characteristics: for example, good prosody. This is a linguistic term that refers to the melody in our speech and our ability to express it. That’s what underlies what we often call “good expression”. Consider these two sentences and you’ll quickly know what I mean by speech melody or prosody:
Read in a Flat Tone: She secretly slipped the disgusting rodent into his soup!
Read a second time with melody!
What’s the difference you hear between the two sentences? The second reading — the one with the flowing melody — helped you understand much more quickly the meaning of the sentence. In other words, reading words and sentences with melody or prosody aids comprehension and this is the most basic reason why fluency is so important: comprehension. Fluent reading is the bridge to comprehension. So, the most well-known definition of fluency is the ability to read text accurately, quickly, and with good prosody so that time can be allocated to comprehension processes. Later on I want to add a developmental twist to that definition, but for now that is what most people mean by the word Fluency.
Question 2: Why do so many struggling readers have difficulty becoming fluent readers?
There are a great many easy answers to this question and some not so easy. The most important thing to keep remembering is the fact that not all children learn to read in the same way. A good teacher has to be something of a quick-eyed, quick-eared detective to sleuth out the reasons for each individual child.
The first and most common reason for not being a fluent reader is that the child does not yet know how to decode very well yet. They lack automatic decoding skills and this prevents them from being able to read accurately, much less smoothly and quickly. Decoding accuracy is the first prerequisite to fluency. It is important to understand what is impeding your child’s acquiring the letter-sound rules that underlie decoding. Two major possibilities are: 1) a poor match with the child’s reading program — some programs spend too little time with learning phonics rules. These programs assume most children will infer the letter-sound rules. We know from long hard experience in reading research that many, many children need to be taught these rules explicitly. So, be sure to understand how your child is being taught if they are not learning basic rules about letters and sounds.
A second reason why some children do not acquire early decoding skills is because they have weaknesses in areas called phoneme awareness. They literally are not as aware as other children of the tiny sounds or phonemes that make up words in speech. This ability is half of what goes into a child’s ability to put together letter and sounds to make what we call the letter-sound or grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules. Thus, even if the child is in a program that emphasizes phonics skills, some children may need a great deal more help in learning the rules. Small group instruction or even 1:1 tutoring is sometimes needed for children who have phoneme awareness weaknesses. There are good simple tests for figuring out who these children are, and we’ll discuss them a little later.
Third, there are other children whose decoding skills are accurate but halting, and who simply need a great deal of practice. Some of these children may be second language learners. For these children the best resource for a teacher or parent is to supply your child with every opportunity to practice — from story books to cook books to comic books. During this period of honing fluency, I advise keeping video games and television as “out of sight” as possible, or on the back burner. If you do allow some games, make them ones dependent on print! Find every avenue possible that encourages print reading (For example, make spontaneous visits to interactive museums where directions need to be read; have a weekly library trip; make a habit of list making; write notes to your child with directions and instructions; play games with the family that encourage these skills like scrabble, etc.) Fill the world with print-moments.
And finally, a fourth reason why some children don’t become fluent readers is a very subtle one that many people outside the research world don’t know about yet. There is a group of children who have perfectly fine phoneme awareness and decoding skills, but their reading is laborious and very slow. Unsurprisingly by the end of Grade 3, the child turns up with poor comprehension skills. This is very discomfiting to you as teachers, because there is a mystery here. Until recently, most teachers assumed that with just a little more time, this child will develop out of it and become fluent eventually. Indeed for some children that’s true. But a good chunk of struggling readers have a difference in the rate they process written language. For them, quite literally the areas in the brain that put together visual and verbal processes don’t work together as automatically. The good news is that we can predict who these children are as early as kindergarten, which leads to my next question: how can we predict who will have difficulties becoming fluent?
Question 3: Tests to Predict
If I could give three measures to every kindergarten teacher to predict fluency, it would be: 1) a phoneme awareness task; 2) a set of rapid automatized naming tests or naming speed tests (for letters, numbers, colors, objects); and 3) a vocabulary test. The phoneme awareness task can help tell you which children need extra help in kindergarten hearing and learning to manipulate the phonemes in our language, and in Grade 1 extra help in learning GPC rules. This test has words like “birthday.” You ask the child to say the word “birthday” without the “day,” then “birth” without the “b.” The point of this test is to give you a window on the child’s ability to hear and manipulate phonemes.
The RAN and RAS tasks give you a very important other kind of window. The RAN letters test consists of 5 rows of letters, repeated over and over for a total of 50 items. All the child has to do is name them as accurately and quickly as they can. This tiny little measure is one of the most powerful predictors of reading in the world. If the child is too slow, it is a red flag in kindergarten that the child’s system is not integrating visual and verbal processes as rapidly as other children.
Just think about the RAN test and you’ll figure out for yourself why it’s such a good predictor of reading: It asks the child to give a verbal name for a visual abstract symbol. In essence that is the heart of reading! We know now from the images of the brain of people as they perform a RAN test that the RAN letters test activates some of the very same regions activated in reading. There are 25 years of research findings that tell us that the RAN and the slightly harder RAS (or Rapid Alternating Stimulus) test are great predictors of children’s fluency. Phoneme awareness tests are great predictors of decoding accuracy.
Vocabulary tests are very helpful too in kindergarten and at every stage. They tell you how familiar the child is with the meaning of many of the words he or she will be encountering in oral and written language. This is critical information in figuring out what are the sources of weakness that will lead to accuracy and fluency problems in our child.
Question 4: What contributes to making a fluent reader?
Just from the answers to my other questions, you’ll have a good sense already of what is important: First, keenly developed phoneme awareness skills in preschool, kindergarten, and the first grades. Second, the children need to become as automatic as possible in learning to decode. Every opportunity to practice is a gift to the developing reader. Practice, practice, practice, in every form and medium! Always remember during the acquisition phase that some children need only a few exposures to making a letter or letter pattern like “at” or “ag” automatic. Other children, especially children with reading disabilities, sometimes need as many as 40 or 100 exposures before that letter pattern clicks and becomes an automatic working unit. You and I don’t even see those little patterns anymore — that’s how automatic they are in us and what we want to develop in the child: a storehouse of automatic letter patterns and words.
Now these three things: phoneme awareness, automatic decoding skills, and practice you probably already knew before you came to this course. But there are two or three areas that you might not know that can contribute mightily to the development of fluency. First, vocabulary development: believe it or not, the more you know about a word, the faster you can read it. And the converse is true. If you don’t know what a word means, it can slow your system down. One of the easiest most rewarding contributions you can make to your children’s growth of fluency begins with word knowledge. In our experimental fluency interventions with children with disabilities, vocabulary development comes right after decoding skills in importance. We work on giving children an understanding of the multiple meanings AND functions in a word. Let me give you an example: “jam.” Think how many meanings you know right away: jelly, traffic jam, a problem or fix, shoving something in a jar, the way your thumb feels after a ball hits it, and MUSIC! Now think about all these words. Some can be used as a noun, and some as a verb. Now add common affixes like -ed, -ing: jammed, jamming. The child who knows that the same words can be used in multiple ways depending on the context is already bringing more knowledge to what they read that will translate into more speed and thus more fluency AND comprehension in reading. It’s all in knowing all that goes into a word.
Question 5: How does fluency develop?
Now we get to the heart of how our ideas are changing about fluency. In the first definitions I gave you, you have the basic Model T Ford view of fluency: the ability to read text accurately, quickly, with good prosody so that time can be given to comprehension. At this point I want to leave all car metaphors behind and add a developmental twist to this view! Until now, most research viewed fluency as an outcome. And for years most people have used something called “repeated reading” techniques as the best way to increase fluency. It is a method where the child is given a passage at his/her level or just above (90-95% accuracy), and reads it repeatedly till their reading becomes smooth, accurate, and faster. This is a great method for the child who already has some skills, but you can tell it is aimed at an outcome view of fluency, not a whole developmental process perspective.
My colleague Tami Katzir and I have proposed a new definition of fluency that is a figure-ground shift from the current view. We suggest in a 2001 article in Scientific Studies of Reading that fluency is a developmental process and that many linguistic areas contribute to it. You can almost guess from my other remarks what these other linguistic areas are: phonology, orthography (knowledge of letter patterns), vocabulary, syntax (knowledge of grammatical functions), and finally an area called morphology, which simply means a knowledge of word roots and parts like affixes. What makes this view so interesting to us is that it means you can be developing fluency from the start and not waiting till you know it’s a problem. Further, we think fluency instruction begins with letters and word levels, not just later developing text.
Question 6: What are things a teacher can do to encourage fluency from this developmental view?
I think most of you are already using key elements for encouraging fluency in your teaching practice, but you aren’t necessarily organizing how you teach as systematically as you might be. Let’s take the example of “jam” again. You may well teach the “am” letter pattern; you might even teach the meaning of words; but are you explicitly connecting your decoding, spelling and vocabulary work together? Are you trying to encourage children to read “am” words accurately and THEN ever more rapidly? Game formats are wonderful for steadily moving your students from accuracy to faster and faster speeds. We use egg timers, stopwatches, and graphs as fun incentives. We also use some special computerized games that we’ve developed. But the principle is what is important to remember here. Teach the connections between types of word knowledge. EXPLICITLY teach spelling, vocabulary, suffixes, and grammar. Teach words, words, words. Teach accuracy, and then give opportunities to move to fluency, BUT don’t push too fast. Use partner reading. Read to them yourselves! Finally, use repeated reading techniques for stories, and have children graph them.
Question 7: How do you measure fluency?
There are good tests on the market that measure fluency from several well-known researchers. Your reading specialist will know these. But there are simple milestones you can use without formal testing too.
Kindergarten: Children should be able to name letters quickly accurately by the end of Kindergarten.
Grade1: Children should be able to read one-syllable words well at about 40 words per minute by end.
Grade 2: In this Fluency Phase, children should read aloud with expression and prosody. They should read about 90 words per minute.
Grade 3: Children should be able to read about 110 words per minute. One of the most important milestones during elementary years is the rite of passage at the end of Grade 3. Children who are not fluent comprehending readers at the end of Grade 3 are candidates for a cycle of learning failure from
Grade 4 on is when the requirements for reading increase exponentially. One of the most critical insights in fluency research is the urgency to help all our children become fluent, comprehending readers by Grade 3.
Question 8: Finally, what do we mean by fluency?
Fluency is the developmental process that connects decoding with everything we know about words to make the meaning of the text come to life. Fluency is a wonderful bridge to comprehension and to a life-long love of reading.