Timothy Rasinski is co-author of The Megabook of Fluency. He joins EDU to answer the question "why fluency?"
I have been an advocate for reading fluency ever since I was an elementary school intervention teacher in the late 1970s and early 80s. I still recall working with students who were experiencing significant difficulty in reading, and not making much progress with them by using traditional instructional approaches in word recognition and comprehension. It was quite frustrating to provide what I thought was the best instruction possible, and yet see my students continue to struggle.
Fortunately for me, I was working on my Master’s degree in reading education, and one of my professors had his students read some recent professional articles that were just then coming out on this topic called reading fluency. I recall that I was not even sure what reading fluency was. Nevertheless, the articles described repeated readings and assisted reading where students read a text while listening to a fluent and expressive rendering of the same text as ways to develop fluency. I was intrigued by this research (and also frustrated by my lack of impact with my own students), so I decided to try the methods described in this professional reading. Lo and behold, these students who had previously been making minimal progress, despite my best efforts, began to take off in their reading. Not only were they reading more proficiently, the success they were experiencing from working on fluency led many of them to see themselves as true readers.
Nearly forty years later, I am even more convinced that reading fluency is essential to success in reading. I view reading fluency as a link or bridge between proficiency with words (word recognition and vocabulary) and reading comprehension. Fluency involves decoding words so effortlessly, efficiently, or automatically that a reader’s cognitive energy is freed from the task of word decoding and can be applied to the more important task of text comprehension. Fluency also involves reading with a level of expression (prosody) that reflects and even amplifies the meaning of the text that is being read.
Research has demonstrated again and again that fluent readers are good comprehenders, and those students who struggle with fluency very often manifest difficulties in reading comprehension. Indeed, studies have found that a large percentage of third- and fourth-grade students who perform poorly on high-stakes silent reading comprehension tests also have difficulties in one or more components of fluency. Poor fluency leads to poor reading comprehension.
Fluency is critical. Yet, the problem with fluency is that it is often taught and nurtured in order to make children read fast to improve their oral reading fluency (ORF) scores. When readers try to read as fast as possible, how are they able to read with meaningful expression? Short answer: they can’t! As a result, many teachers dismiss fluency as nothing more than speed-reading instruction.
The approach to reading fluency that my colleague Melissa Cheesman Smith (read her post on joyfulness in fluent reading here) and I take in our new book The Megabook of Fluency is that reading fluency should be joyful, engaging, and authentic reading that focuses on both developing automatic word recognition and expressive and meaningful reading. It is so exciting to see students rehearsing poetry, performing songs, and playing with and reciting written language in various ways to reflect different meanings. Their faces tell us that fluency can be fun, and our assessments tell us that the approaches to fluency that we advocate in The Megabook of Fluency can lead to more proficient readers who see themselves as the readers we want them to become.