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Fluency Series Part 1: The Bridge from Decoding to Comprehension

Picture of a bridge

Beyond the Need for Speed


If someone would have asked us about fluency as brand new teachers, we might have responded with the notion that fluency is when a student reads with expression at a decent rate.  While this is partially accurate, fluency is so much more than “a need for speed” and the occasional inflection in one’s voice.  Fluency provides the bridge from decoding to comprehension.

Who is our target audience?

This article is aimed toward teachers of students in grades 1.5 and up.  Fluent reading is dependent upon accurate and automatic decoding.  It is of utmost importance that teachers who work with beginning readers spend substantial amounts of time addressing word attack skills and automatic recognition of high frequency words.  Emphasizing fluency prematurely can be detrimental and can lead to readers developing poor reading habits such as inaccurate guessing.  Students who sacrifice accuracy for speed are no better off than students who are disfluent.  Both types of readers are at risk for poor comprehension.

What are the key components of fluency?

Fluency can be broken down into the following categories:

  1. Accuracy in Word Decoding
  2. Automaticity in Word Recognition (number of words correct per minute, WCPM, or reading rate)
  3. Prosody (interpretive and meaningful reading)

Why is fluency so important?

As stated earlier, fluency is the bridge to comprehension.  When readers change their tone and inflection (prosody) to reflect the author’s message, it is an indication that they are comprehending the text rather than merely word calling.

Read each of the following sentences.

I can help.

I can help?

I can help!

Did you read the sentences with the same inflection or did you stress one word over another?  Did you read each sentence with the same tone or did you change your tone to match the punctuation?  Fluent readers attend to punctuation changes that help to convey the author’s intended meaning.  The words remained the same, but the punctuation and word emphasis changed thus changing the author’s intended meaning in each sentence.

Aren’t some students just inherently disfluent no matter how much fluency practice they receive?

The question arose at a recent conference we attended on Dyslexia regarding fluency.  What if the student just doesn’t read quickly?  Should we keep spending time on repeated readings?  How important is it to do repeated readings?

The answer: It is critically important to provide fluency practice.  One reason is because those students who are stumbling over the little words (i.e. is, the, through) need multiple opportunities to make those words part of their sight vocabulary.  Repeated practice helps students recognize these words as a whole so they can eventually access them automatically.

Over and over again we encounter research that supports the need for reading fluency because disfluent reading taxes working memory.  The brain has a finite amount of working memory.  If the working memory is used up by decoding, then there is little left for comprehension.  Decoding happens in long term memory.  Readers need to access this memory quickly and accurately so they are able to focus on comprehension.  We must drill in order to develop the skill.

Won’t drill and practice kill the student’s joy of reading?

Bridge Caution Sign
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A person who wants to improve upon and complete any task with confidence and ease must practice and, yes, to a great extent this means ‘drill’.  Basketball players practice foul shots repeatedly because they want this type of shot to be fluid and they do not want to give away the opportunity for ‘easy’ points.  Musicians practice on a regular basis because they desire to play fluently in front of their audience and don’t want to risk hitting the wrong note.  Would we allow or encourage a 16-year-old to jump in the car and start driving without hours of practice behind the wheel simply because we did not want to “kill” the joy of driving?  That would be ridiculous of course.  So how can we justify not practicing the component skills of reading by stating that we don’t want to “kill” the joy of reading?  We can’t!

Drill and practice does not kill the love of an activity, in fact, it can lead to enjoyment.  Once these skills become fluid, the participant can focus on the pleasure of the pastime whether it is driving a car, playing music or basketball, or reading.

What about older readers?

We understand and acknowledge that comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. Understanding that fluency provides the bridge to comprehension, consider the following analogy:

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

If a bridge is “out,” chances are, there will be a detour available to complete your route.  However, it is likely that the detour will take more time, be less efficient, and use more fuel.

The same is true for a reader.  It will take longer to finish the passage and he will have used less efficient strategies that required more cognitive energy.  A disfluent reader has less fuel at the end of his trip to apply toward comprehension.

Disfluency at any age or grade negatively impacts comprehension.

What can the classroom teacher do to help struggling readers improve their fluency?

Research indicates that fluency intervention should include the following:

  1. Modeling
  2. Repeated Reading
  3. Feedback

How can I learn more about fluency interventions?

Stay tuned!  Our upcoming blog in this fluency series will provide detailed information regarding time-efficient fluency interventions that can be implemented with ease.

We would love to hear from you regarding fluency practices that you incorporate in your classroom settings.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.

Resources used for this article:

Hasbrouck, Jan. ”Developing Fluent Readers.” Reading Rockets, www.readingrockets.org/article/developing-fluent-readers.  Accessed 15 October 2016.

Rasinski, Timothy V., and Nancy D Padak. From Phonics to Fluency: Effective Teaching of Decoding and Reading Fluency in Elementary School 2nd Edition. Pearson Education Inc., 2008.

Sprenger, Marilee. Wiring the Brain for Reading: Brain-based Strategies for Teaching Literacy.  John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2013.


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