Fluency in Reading: When the Pieces Work Separately, They Can Work Together

Because fluency is among the most misunderstood aspects of reading I’d like to follow up on Ben’s wonderful recent post about the importance of fluency by offering a few additional points. 

First, one of the most common misunderstandings about fluency is that it’s only a matter of speed. The reality, however, is a bit more complex: speed and fluency are related, but they are not precisely the same thing. In reality, speed is a result of fluency, not a goal in and of itself. 

By definition, a person who reads very slowly/haltingly, and who continually stops to guess at unfamiliar words (a really big problem) or to sound them out (better, but still a problem), is not a fluent reader. The speed issue, however, is a result of the poor decoding skills. If a child in one of these categories were simply urged to read faster, without having their underlying deficits addressed, they would not magically become a fluent reader. Instead, they would continue to stumble, misread words, guess, etc.; they would simply do so more quickly, and probably become very frustrated in the process.  

Second point: fluency is not about teaching children to speed-read. 200 words per minute—the speed at which skilled adults typically read—might sound very fast, but that’s actually the rate at which most people talk. (And in some places, they probably talk even faster). 

So fluency involves reading at the speed of speech—essentially, it’s the point at which decoding ability meets speaking ability. That in turn permits conversational intonation (prosody)—the element that makes skilled reading seem so natural. 

This is where timing comes in, as a tool for progress-monitoring. When a student’s progress is slow and incremental, it is not necessarily obvious just how much they’re improving from session to session just by listening to them read. Short (30-60-second), frequent, low-pressure timings provide objective feedback about whether things are moving in the right direction. They also reinforce the idea that speed is an important component of reading—not just something that gets tacked on at the end, after one has learned to sound out words. 

To be clear, this type of low-stakes measurement, done in a safe, supportive environment, is far, far less psychologically stressful than the shame and humiliation that accompany a child’s self-identification as “a bad reader.” If adults are matter-of-fact and non-judgmental about the timings, then children will be as well—even if they’re anxious at first. Often, they come to enjoy them and look forward to the opportunity to beat their personal bests. 

To return to my earlier point, however, I think that the impression given by a person who can read accurately with conversational speed and intonation contributes to the false belief that reading is a “natural” skill. When all the pieces are working seamlessly together, things seem very easy and very automatic. And for the skilled reader, that is in fact true. 

But the surface appearance hides a much more complicated reality, namely that “reading” isn’t really one single skill—even though it’s typically (and unfortunately) treated that way—but rather many sub-skills that get combined into a whole. And for fluent reading to occur, all of the component pieces (e.g., phonemic awareness, knowledge of sound-letter correspondences, syllables and word recognition) must be individually operating fluently as well.   

So although expressivity is considered a hallmark of fluent reading, it’s a result as well as a cause. Essentially, expressive reading is only able to occur when all of the other skills are in place and functioning more or less automatically. Telling a child who still has trouble discriminating between short “a” and short “u” to just read more dramatically, or to pretend to talk like a character, just won’t cut it. 

If a child who is missing one of the component skills practices expressive reading with adult modeling that skill, they may improve their fluency on that particular text as a result of their growing familiarity with it, but they will be unable to carry that degree of fluency into new texts of comparable or greater difficulty because the underlying problem will still be present. 

That is not to imply that modeled reading is useless for struggling readers—on the contrary, it is very important—only that it must be used in conjunction with other exercises targeted at the building the missing skills.

Allow me to make a sports analogy here: to be skilled at basketball, a player must be able to dribble, shoot, pass, rebound, steal, and block, and each of those abilities must be practiced both separately and in combination with the others. While some individuals may be naturally more gifted in some of these areas than others, it is nevertheless necessary to achieve a certain level of mastery in all of them to be considered a “good” player. The same is true for reading: fluency means that all the parts have been developed to the point at which they are able to combine into something greater than themselves. In reading, however, there is an additional twist in that all the sub-skills must be operating at the same time.

One of the things that I think makes the Fluency Factory such a special place—and indeed what gives the Factory its name—is that its methods are based on the understanding that every piece of the reading puzzle must be deliberately and individually practiced to the point of automaticity. Only then can the skills be combined to begin to produce a functional whole. (Note that I say “begin” because moving from working the parts separately to applying them in the context of a passage or story is often not a smooth process.) This is absolutely key, and yet as Richard pointed out to me recently, it’s something that’s almost never discussed.  

When you think about it, this is actually an extraordinarily holistic approach to teaching reading, in the sense that it deliberately touches on every aspect of the reading process. 

Students move through multiple exercises designed to systematically target each sub-skill, without getting bogged down in any given one, before they practice putting them all together—and they do this during every session. When I’ve spent time observing at the Factory, I’ve always appreciated that fact but also taken it somewhat for granted; however, it’s actually quite extraordinary and incredibly well thought-out. But that’s the thing: when a process is choreographed with such skill, it seems so obvious as to be utterly unremarkable—entirely natural, one might even say.