Reading Fluency: Don't Just Weigh the Pig

     Imagine that you are a pig farmer. Before you take your pig to market for sale, you want the fattest pig possible. However, weighing the pig everyday will not make the pig fatter. For the pig to gain weight, you have to feed it. The same is true for reading fluency. Of the five essential components of reading, fluency seems to be the most misunderstood. Let’s look at some common misconceptions. 

Misconception #1: Faster reading is better reading.

     Fluency plays a dual role in reading: It is both a measure of decoding proficiency and a bridge to comprehension. If a student has mastered the sub-skills of reading, she will read with automaticity, which frees up cognitive desk space, so the mind has time to think about what is being read. According to G. Reid Lyon, “Fluency is the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly, and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading such as decoding.” As such, fluency is not an end in itself. Rather, it provides assessment of foundational skills and gives students the gift of time for constructing meaning from the text. Therefore, a comprehension check allows the teacher to determine if the student is reading fluently enough to comprehend even if she is below benchmark on a timed reading measure.

Misconception #2: All dysfluent readers require the same intervention.

     There is always an underlying cause for a reader to lack fluency, so the reading interventionist often needs to put on his detective hat and make use of diagnostic assessments. Rather than merely looking at words read correct per minute, teachers need to pay special attention to accuracy as well. Students who are inaccurate generally need a reading intervention that involves instruction in phonological awareness or phonics. Students who are slow but accurate do not need a sound-based intervention but need assistance in producing automaticity of word recognition. Repeated readings, multiple exposures to words and multi-sensory techniques should be part of the intervention strategy. In addition, using a grid to practice phoneme-grapheme (sound to letter) mapping also increases fluency. Measures of early childhood literacy also provide insight into the type of intervention needed: problems with identifying the first letter name in a word point to a difficulty in the orthographic processor (the world of symbols) while problems in identifying the first sound in a word point to difficulty in the phonological processor (the world of sound). Furthermore, fluency is also affected by a student’s knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure and text structure.

Misconception #3: Fluency assessment and instruction look the same.

     While standard procedures should always be followed when administering an oral reading fluency assessment or a reading curriculum-based measure, instruction is not the same as assessment. First, the student does not need to be timed when reading to practice becoming a more fluent reader, and having the student read an entire passage (rather than just one-minute’s worth) helps a student see the relationship between decoding and making meaning from text. Immediate corrective feedback and later mini-lessons that provide an explanation of why the word is pronounced the way it is are both helpful. In addition, repeated reading contributes to forming neural pathways for quicker retrieval; however, four readings are usually sufficient. In addition, teachers can also create speed drills on the sub-skills of reading for practice in fluency. This may involve automatic reading of letters, letter combinations, sight words, words with a particular pattern, or phrases.

For reading intervention, think like a pig farmer. Design an appropriate “diet” of intervention for your struggling readers that fits their specific needs, and feed them every day with a variety of fluency-building activities. Don’t just weigh the pig.