The National Reading Panel (2000) identified five elements necessary for effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Fluency is an area of increasing interest to me because so many of my students are painfully slow readers and poor comprehenders. Hasbrouck and Tindal's (2006) oral reading fluency research indicates that an eighth grade student reading at the 90th percentile can read 199 words per minute (wpm), one reading at the 50th percentile reads 151 wpm and one at the 10th percentile reads 97 wpm. Consequently a section of an 8th grade text book with 1350 words, is read in not quite 8, not quite 9, and not quite 14 minutes. That is if the child understands the material, is not distracted while reading and has some background information to assist with vocabulary. We all know how challenging those conditions are to obtain and maintain. Our struggling readers are unlikely to persevere for twice as long as the highly fluent readers. If we want our children to become confident capable readers, increasing their fluency will be necessary.
What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction edited by S.J. Samuels and A.E. Farstrup compiles research from a host of reading experts including Rasinski, Allington, and Samuels himself to discuss what fluency is, why it is important and how to develop it. One interesting aspect of the book is the lack of a firm definition of fluency. Rasinski discuss a dichotomy of two definitions- automaticity, best seen in the supporters of measures like DIBELS where it is all about time, and prosody, the need to read with expression. Interestingly, prosody has not been seen to be linked to comprehension. Topping discusses a Deep Processing Fluency in which stages of fluency occur. Other authors see it somewhere between these concepts. Below is my integration model of fluency. It is cyclical, but the speed of moving through the cycle probably increases with skill. Being a fluent reader at the third grade level does not make one fluent on fifth grade material. Being a fluent reader at the sixth grade level does not make one capable of comprehending complex plot mysteries of Grisham written at that level. Being a fluent reader of sports news does not make one capable of comprehending science news. It is situation specific because of the role of prior knowledge and vocabulary. Understanding this interplay is critical and one of the things that makes reading such a difficult skill to teach.
I found it interesting that the majority of the authors argued that isolating reading speed and reading comprehension as separate silos, like the DIBELS test does, is an inaccurate measure of fluency because reading quickly with comprehension is essential.
Because fluency is closely related to comprehension, it needs to be addressed. Yes, comprehension is essential- otherwise there is no point to reading. None of the authors, however, proposed addressing it purely from a logistic standpoint. Reading loads increase as students go through school. If students cannot read effectively, they will not be reading in middle and high school, they will not develop further reading skill which requires reading and will not be college and career ready when they graduate. Students who struggle to read do not read textbooks; they skim them. They do not read novels; they read the cliff notes. They rely on their heterogeneous group partners to read the complex reading requested of them in classrooms. They go through the motions with limited success, sometimes cheating, with little learning.
Of far greater value to reading success was early intervention to prevent deficits of fluency. Kindergarten students need to know their letters and sounds- probably at day one. If they do not, it is time for intervention. Deno and Marsten's research indicate that intensive intervention with at risk students was far more effective at producing successful readers than remediation attempts at 2nd or third grade. This is related to the impact of reading on fluency. Reading increases fluency. The slower a child reads the less exposure to print he has. As students advance through the grades this difference expands exponentially.
So how does one provide effective fluency intervention? One, they need a language and experientially rich environment to build vocabulary and prior knowledge. They need to be motivated to read. Exposure to people reading and enjoying it, being read to and seeing lots of print are critical. Students need to build both systematic phonics AND sight word vocabulary. This all sets the stage. Then the work begins. Students need exposure to high success readings. The problem with literature for fluency development is that it is not high success reading- too many unique multisyllabic words cause the reader to stumble. Literature has a role in language development and building a love of reading, but not necessarily in fluency development. The much maligned basal readers of the past were ideal for early fluency development because the controlled vocabulary and sequenced skills made for high success rates. Lobel and Seuss proved that controlled text material can be interesting to the mass market. These books provide the framework for increasing sight word vocabularies, a critical skill for fluency development. This is a challenge for people working with the CCSS if they feel that the only reading students should be exposed to is challenging, rigorous text. It is true that we need to expose children to rigor in reading, but that will not build fluency. A balance of at reading level and challenging texts needs to be part of the reading curriculum.
Partner reading and rereading are the two major tools of fluency development. This is not rereading challenging texts, it is rereading material at an instructional level until fluency goals are reached. Short sections, for first grade perhaps as short as 20 words, are read until a WPM goal is reached. For students with average intelligence, four readings was about the optimal rereading number. It can be 1) follow along as teacher reads; 2) choral read together; 3) I read, you follow along, 4) you read I follow along. This provides multiple exposure to the words and success. Many versions of partner reading have all revealed success at developing fluency. Having a student read at the same time as an adult with the child setting the pace and the adult providing correction, inflection modeling, and support is useful. Because adults spend most of their time reading silently, the goal needs to be transitioning to independent silent reading. Mere independent reading on material of interest and high success is, in and of itself, a successful intervention for student who possess the skills of phonemic awareness and phonics.
Building fluency is an essential skill of the elementary classroom, but it also is important for the secondary student. Reading speed for the average reader peaks at about 150 words per minute. As readers get older, they need to be able to attack increasingly complex texts. This means a multi-pronged approach of vocabulary development, background knowledge building, strategy instruction and both at-reading level and challenging text reading. We can improve the skills of our students with a focused, cross curricular plan. If we do not work at this, we fail them as much as they fail.