Reading fluency refers to the ability of readers to read the words in text effortlessly and efficiently (automaticity) with meaningful expression that enhances the meaning of the text (prosody). Fluency takes phonics or word recognition to the next level. While many readers can decode words accurately, they may not be fluent or automatic in their word recognition. These readers tend to expend too much of their limited mental energy on figuring out the pronunciation and meaning of words, energy that is taken away from that more important task in reading comprehension — getting to the text’s overall meaning. Thus, the lack of fluency often results in poor comprehension.
Fluent readers, on the other hand, are able to read words accurately and effortlessly. They recognize words and phrases instantly on sight. A minimal amount of cognitive energy is expended in decoding the words. This means, then, that the maximum amount of a reader’s cognitive energy can be directed to the all-important task of making sense of the text. You are the best example of automaticity in word recognition as you read this book. I suspect that as a fluent reader you are having little trouble automatically recognizing the words I have written. Your instant recognition allows you to construct meaning as you move through the text.
There is also, however, a second component to fluency, one that is often forgotten by some programs for teaching fluency. That is prosody, or reading with expression. A key characteristic of fluent oral reading (or speech, for that matter) is the ability to embed appropriate expression into the reading.
Fluent readers raise and lower the volume and pitch of their voices, they speed up and slow down at appropriate places in the text, they read words in meaningful groups or phrases, they pause at appropriate places within the text. All these are elements of expression, or what linguists have termed prosody. Prosody is essentially the melody of language as it is read or spoken. By embedding prosody in our oral language (read or spoken), we are adding meaning to the text.
Brain researcher James Zull (2002) calls prosody “the other side of language.” Zull argues that language comprehension generally occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. “But there is another language function . . . in the other hemisphere, which may be equally important. This area understands the meaning of language that comes through emphasis on particular syllables—the rhythm, the pitch, the tone, and the inflection. These aspects of language together are called prosody, and they are of immense importance for meaning” (p. 171). Thus, even brain science is providing evidence that to work on prosody (an element of fluency) means to work on meaning (comprehension). Zull adds that approaches to integrating the cognitive aspects of language with prosody include reading aloud and having others read to us.
To be able to read with appropriate expression requires a reader to attend to meaning as he or she reads the text. So, when we work with a student on reading with expression (even when reading silently we tend to hear ourselves read), we are at the same time drawing that student’s attention to meaning.
Fluency has often been called the bridge from phonics to comprehension. The link to phonics occurs when readers develop automaticity in their word recognition. The link to comprehension occurs when readers embed meaningful expression in their reading.
I often think of fluency as the gateway to comprehension. It may not be comprehension itself, but readers have to have some degree of fluency to comprehend what they read.
This article is excerpted from The Fluent Reader (2nd Edition) by Tim Rasinksi.