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Fluency -- A Review of the Research

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. -- 2006, BalancedReading.com

At its core, the skill of reading with comprehension is comprised of two component skills.  In order to read with comprehension a reader must simultaneously be able to automatically and fluently decode the text and competently understand the language in which the text is written.  This has been characterized as the "Simple View of reading" (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), and is often summarized by the notation R = D x C, where R represents the level of reading comprehension, and D and C represent decoding fluency and general language comprehension skill respectively (See S is for Simple View).  Given this formula, a person's ability to read and comprehend text at high levels depends upon that person's ability to comprehend language at high levels as well as that person's ability to decode written text into a comprehensible linguistic form with adequate ease and fluency.  People lacking in either decoding fluency or general language comprehension skills have been shown to have correspondingly impaired reading comprehension abilities (Hoover and Gough, 1990).  This Simple View of reading has served as the foundation for most cognitive models of reading comprehension (see for example Wren, 2000).

Multiple studies of young children and children with reading difficulties have suggested that most emergent and struggling readers (especially at the younger grades) have language comprehension skills that exceed what their decoding skills will allow them to read (Bertelson, 1986; Conners and Olson, 1990; Frith and Snowling, 1983; Hoover and Gough, 1990; Juel, Griffith and Gough, 1986; Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich, 1986, 1992).  That is to say, these children can easily understand the concepts, vocabulary, and information contained in text -- yet they are still unable to read that text independently.  When these children are relieved of the burden of decoding text (by having the text read out loud to them by a skilled reader), their comprehension of the material is considerably enhanced.  Put in terms of the simple view of reading, their ability to read and comprehend text is primarily limited by their lack of fluency in decoding the text.

Countless other studies have shown that students' ability to fluently, automatically decode text is linked to higher levels of text comprehension (Bell and Perfetti, 1994; Bruck, 1988, 1990; Cunningham, Stanovich, and Wilson, 1990; Perfetti, 1985; Roth and Beck, 1987; Stanovich, 1991), and students who develop good decoding skills at a young age are typically better at comprehending text in subsequent grades (Juel, 1994).  Arguably, for most struggling readers decoding fluency is the bottleneck preventing reading comprehension.  As Michael Pressley (on-line document) put it, "Word-recognition skills must be developed to the point of fluency if comprehension benefits are to be maximized

Betts (1946) argued that students who labor through passages of text, making many errors as they read, are unable to adequately comprehend what they are reading.  Betts further suggested that a student reading a passage of text with less than 90% accuracy is unable to gather any useful information from the text.  Even students reading with 94% accuracy will be frustrated, and will have only marginal comprehension of the text.  It is not until students are reading with 98% accuracy that students can read and extract even superficial information explicitly stated in the text (see also Barr, Blachowicz, and Wogman-Sadow, 1995).

LaBerge and Samuels (1974) and Perfetti (1985) have extended Betts' insights, arguing convincingly that fluent reading with comprehension is comprised of multiple processes, each demanding a share of finite cognitive resources.  Cognitive resources that must be spent on decoding and identifying individual words in text are resources that are not available to dedicate to the task of examining and understanding the content of the text.  Thus, readers who have developed the ability to decode text fluently and automatically have an more cognitive resources available to focus on the task of comprehension.  But struggling readers who are still expending limited cognitive resources to the task of laboriously decoding and identifying words simply have few cognitive resources available to dedicate to comprehension and meaning (see also Samuels, 2002).

Stanovich (1980) described this in his interactive-compensatory model of reading comprehension.  According to Stanovich, there are multiple sources of information available to a reader to assist with reading comprehension.  Ideally, word identification is so rapid and fluent that the reader can devote full attention to the message of the text, allowing phonological, orthographic, semantic, and syntactic information to reinforce each other to improve the overall efficiency of the reading comprehension system.  However, when a reader is unable to rapidly identify words in passages of text, that reader must try to examine each word and try to use orthographic, phonological, semantic, and syntactic information for basic word identification.  As the reader shifts cognitive resources to examine these sources of information for basic word identification, the reader has insufficient cognitive resources available for comprehension.

Other researchers concur, when word identification becomes sufficiently fluent and automatic, the child does not have to concentrate on the basic identification of words and can concentrate fully on the meaning of the text (Chall, 1996; Dowhower, 1987; Ehri, 1995; Ehrlich, Kurtz-Costes, and Loridant, 1993; Goodman, Haith, Guttentag, and Rao, 1985; Guttentag, 1984; Guttentag and Haith, 1978; Guttentag and Haith, 1980; Kraut and Smothergill, 1980; Lyon, 1995; Rosinski, 1977; Samuels, Schermer and Reinking, 1992).  To develop adequate reading fluency that facilitates comprehension processes, children must pass from an emergent stage of logographic reading that involves recognizing words as wholes or recognizing some salient feature associated with the word, through a stage of alphabetic reading involving applying letter-sound knowledge to laboriously sound words out, to a mature orthographic stage that is characterized by very fluent and automatic recognition of familiar words (with both regular and irregular spellings) as well as rapid, virtually effortless identification of unfamiliar words (see Ehri (1996) for review).  The path to the third stage for children involves some explicit instruction and guidance in the mechanics of text and the conventions of the English writing system, coupled with hours upon hours of practice reading with feedback and guidance (LaBerge and Samuels, 1974; Perfetti, 1985; Reitsma, 1988; Stanovich, 1986).  Unfortunately, many children experience difficulty along this path, stalling before reaching the fluent orthographic stage, and as a consequence suffer a life-long struggle with reading (Stanovich, 1986).

Providing children with ample opportunity to practice reading appropriate text with feedback and guidance should be the goal of every educator of young children.  Unfortunately, as Allington (1977) and Biemiller (1977) have pointed out, students in most classrooms typically do not actually have adequate opportunities to practice and refine their reading skills, and struggling readers actually have fewer opportunities to practice than skilled readers.  Biemiller found that the best readers are typically given the most opportunity to practice developing decoding fluency and reading skills in class and that the worst readers -- the ones who arguably need the most practice -- are given the least opportunity to develop decoding and reading skills.  Allington (1984) examined classroom practice in detail and found that struggling readers were asked to read as few as 16 words during one week of reading-group instruction while students in the more advanced reading group were reading close to 2,000 words in the same week.

Nagy and Anderson (1984) examined the independent reading habits of skilled and struggling readers and found enormous disparity between the number of words that skilled readers read in a year (close to 4,000,000) versus the number of words that a struggling reader might read in a year (less than 100,000).  The opportunities to practice and develop fluency are staggering for the skilled readers, and the lack of opportunity to practice and develop fluency is crippling for the struggling reader (See V is for Volume).

This practice variable is one of the factors that gives rise to what researchers (Stanovich, 1986; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998; Walberg and Tsai, 1983) have dubbed the Matthew Effect in reading and education (See M is for Matthew Effect).  In short, children who have advantages in the early grades (e.g., more developed early reading skills) tend to build on those advantages and thrive in education while their disadvantaged peers are left behind.  The Matthew Effect has implications in decoding fluency, reading comprehension, background knowledge, vocabulary development, and general academic success.

Advantaged students not only thrive of their own accord, but as the work by Allington and Biemiller indicates, they are also given more attention, support, and opportunities by their teachers than their disadvantaged peers.  It is an insidious paradox in education -- students who need the most support, instruction, and opportunities to practice and develop knowledge and skills are typically given the least.  It is a frustrating state of affairs that led Allington (1977) to write, "If they don't read much, how they ever gonna get good?"

The simple fact of the matter is that developing reading fluency requires practice, but struggling readers in typical classrooms are given few opportunities to practice.  Instead of the strong, effective instructional interventions such as those that have been identified by the National Reading Panel review, namely guided oral reading and repeated reading, struggling students are often relegated to less effective activities such as filling out worksheets.  This is likely due to the amount of time and effort involved in providing guided oral reading and repeated reading instruction to individual struggling readers.

teacher's time is very limited, and guided oral reading requires a great deal of time investment in each student, and repeated reading activities require even more.  This is unfortunate because research indicates that one of the best approaches to enhancing fluency is repeated reading with guidance and feedback (Samuels, 1979).  In fact a review of the research literature lead Dowhower (1994) to conclude that the research on the positive effects of repeated reading was so strong that repeated reading should be "woven into the very fabric of daily literacy instruction."  Not only should educators give struggling and emergent readers ample opportunity to practice reading through guided oral reading, but research indicates that struggling readers should be given the opportunity to read the same passage of text several times for an audience that provides feedback. Numerous research studies have documented the positive impact repeated reading has on improving reading fluency and word recognition accuracy and on reading comprehension (Breznitz, 1997a, 1997b; Dowhower, 1987; O'Shea, Sindelar, and O'Shea, 1987; Rashotte and Torgesen, 1985; Tan and Nicholson, 1997).  Faulkner and Levy (1999) have further disaggregated the gains that different students make from this type of instructional intervention, and found that students who are very poor, struggling readers tend to learn more about word identification strategies while better readers tend to learn more about using appropriate prosody and reading "with meaning."

However, repeated reading activities with individualized feedback and support can be instructionally cumbersome (Jones, Torgesen, and Sexton, 1987).  Rashotte and Torgesen (1985) suggest that repeated reading instructional activities should be structured to allow students to repeatedly read the same passage up to four times with feedback and support provided with every reading.  They found that gains in fluency and comprehension were still detectible even after four readings of a passage.  This means that to translate this research into instructional practice, teachers would need to spend time individually with students, listening to them read a passage up to four times, and monitoring progress and improvement with each re-reading.

Furthermore, there is evidence that this time-intensive, individualized intervention should be sustained over a very long time (or as Dowhower suggested, it should simply become a permanent part of literacy instruction).  In a relatively short-term, three-week intervention with struggling readers, Rashotte and Torgesen (1985) found that fluency was enhanced, but only for passages of text that shared a substantial number of the same words.  It is unclear how long gains, such as there were, could be detected with passages containing familiar vocabulary, but it is likely that the intervention would have had broader more generalized benefits for unfamiliar text if it had been sustained over many months or years.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that long-term, individualized repeated guided oral reading instruction with at least four opportunities to practice each passage of text is too cumbersome for most teachers to easily weave into the "very fabric of daily literacy instruction."  Some researchers have sought ways to reduce the burden on the classroom teacher with some success.  For example, some have experimented with peer coaching strategies wherein the students are taught to listen to each other read and provide feedback (Schumm and Vaughn, 1991; Schumm, Vaughn, and Saumell, 1994).  Typically in those interventions, the students read a passage individually for the teacher once, and then practice with a peer (usually in heterogeneous pairs) a few times before reading for the teacher a second time.  This relieves the burden on the teacher and gives students a daily opportunity to practice developing oral reading fluency with feedback.

Computer technology also exists to allow students to engage in repeated reading with feedback activities without creating a burden on the teacher to monitor reading and provide feedback.  Soliloquy has created a software program called Reading Assistant that uses automated speech-recognition technology to "listen" to students read aloud and monitor their fluency and accuracy.  With this software, students read passages of text aloud into a microphone, and the computer provides assistance as needed.  The computer also keeps track of performance, and encourages students to repeatedly read the passage until they are reach a fluency goal.  While more research is needed, early studies suggest this technology is a useful tool to help students practice and develop fluency and comprehension skills.

Fluency, then, is all about developing a huge "sight vocabulary." Mature, adult readers like you and I are fairly quick to read about 50,000 words -- words that we see often enough that they are in our sight vocabulary (we only see them that often because we read a lot, and we are exposed to more than 4,000,000 words a year -- see V is for Volume). Struggling readers who are not fluent have very few words in their sight vocabulary, and they must spend a great deal of time and energy sounding out most of the words they read. Fluency instruction, therefore, should focus on helping students who already know how to sound out words to repeatedly read words (in real text) so they can read them quickly and automatically. Repeated reading with feedback is one of the best ways to do this, and silent reading for pleasure (with guidance and monitoring) is another.

To learn more, I encourage you to read the National Reading Panel report of the subgroups -- one of the subgroups focused on developing reading fluency, and they had some insightful suggestions that you might find useful.

Also, Jay Samuels has a chapter in a book called "What research has to say about reading instruction." The whole book is informative, and Samuels' chapter focuses specifically on fluency.

Also, Kuhn and Stahl wrote a report for CIERA on fluency. It can be downloaded at http://www.ciera.org/library/reports/inquiry-2/ (There are many informative reports on reading acquisition at the CIERA site; scroll down the page and look for the one on fluency.  Then read the rest of them.).

Also, if you want a quick assessment of decoding fluency, download a copy of the Abecedarian for free.  Research also suggests that students should be regularly tested on their reading rates, and Richard Allington, in his excellent book, "What Really Matters for Struggling Readers" provides information about reading rates, and what should be expected of different children at different ages.

A question from a reader on the Discussion Forum, and my response:

I'm trying to get a CWPM percentile table for adolescent and adult readers. The best I have only goes through fifth grade. Do you know where I could locate such a resource?

From 2nd through 8th grade, there is a fairly reliable formula I use -- multiply the student's age by 12 to get a target CWPM (Correct Words Per Minute) -- so a 10 year old, should be reading about 120 words per minute (give or take 10%).  However, past 8th grade, the reading rate necessary for comprehension levels off -- a 14 year old should be reading about 168 words per minute, and that's fast enough for reasonable comprehension into adulthood.  A good reader with practice CAN read faster than that, but it is not necessary for comprehension. 

Keep in mind, too, there is an upper limit.  Reading faster than 350 words per minute (maybe 400, tops, with easy text) also undermines comprehension.  The ideal range for adolescent and adult readers is 200 to 350 words per minute.

You might also check out the book Partnering for Fluency -- it has the tables you are looking for.

A question from a reader on the Discussion Forum, and my response:

I enjoyed reading your extremely informative essay (about Fluency).  I agree with most  of what I read, but the essence of how words become sight words was not discussed.  In my opinion, this is the heart of the "reading debate." 
If a student has not learned the body of orthographic knowledge to easily decode, then that child needs explicit instruction in this knowledge and how to use it in decoding.  Along the same lines, children need to be able to segment and blends sounds in order to read and spell. 
I am interested in research about fluency of segmenting and blending and how it affects the ability to read fluently.  If children are unable to read fluently but can segment and blend rapidly and have at least a 2nd grade level of phonics knowledge, then repeated readings would probably assist children in gaining reading fluency.  However, without these essential  elements in place, I believe that repeated readings encourage sight word reading of the logographic type.

You are quite right, I didn't talk about "sight words" very clearly, and I do think that is very, very important.  I wrote an essay a long time ago called "Reading by Sight"  (See S is for Sight Word Reading) that, I hope, addresses your concerns.  As for segmenting fluency, you might want to read some of the more recent work by Ed Kame'enui -- he is taking a long-term, developmental view of fluency, saying that it starts with picture-naming speed, letter-naming speed, and phonological processing speed.  A recent review of fluency intervention studies by Therrien (2004) suggests that all students get some benefit from repeated-reading instruciton, but that the students who get the greatest benefit are those who can sound-out words (i.e. they have reasonable cipher knowledge), but who do so slowly and laboriously.

Therrien, W.J. (2004).  Fluency and Comprehension Gains as a Result of Repeated Reading: A meta-analysis. Remedial and Special Education, 25 (4) 252-261.

A question from a reader on the Discussion Forum, and my response:

One of the leading fluency authors is Tim Rasinski with books like From Phonics To Fluency and The Fluent Reader.  I recommend these highly for your review.

You are quite right -- Tim has distinguished himself as an expert in this field with much useful advice to share.  Thanks for the tip.  I just created a fluency section for the professional books section, so I'll definitely check these out.


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