Fluency is the most overlooked of the five essential aspects of reading. Because it is usually measured through oral reading, many do not consider it important to silent, independent reading. However, fluency plays an important role in a reader’s ability to comprehend texts.
What is fluency?
At the most basic level fluency is the speed, accuracy and prosody (expression) that a person uses when reading a text. Because it is multifaceted fluency involves a reader’s ability to use multiple skills simultaneously. As a reader reads a text it is important that he is able to efficiently decode and comprehend the individual words and complete phrases and sentences that he encounters. When he must stop at each word and spend time trying to pronounce it or determine its meaning he is unable to develop an overall understanding of the text. This aspect of fluency makes perfect sense to us. However, the role that prosody plays in reading comprehension is a bit “fuzzier” for many people. To see how expression influences comprehension consider the experience of reading the following sentence without any sort of emotional expression: How dare you take the last piece of my birthday cake! The sentence loses much of its meaning when not read with expression. Prosody is not only the emotion represented in reading, but also the phrasing and reader’s interpretation.
Determining a Reader’s Fluency
Accurate assessments should be aimed at determining a reader’s fluency focus on all three components: speed, accuracy and prosody. The most standard measure for determining fluency is one that primarily assesses speed and accuracy. A child reads a novel, but grade level appropriate passage for sixty-seconds. As she reads the teacher notes the number of words read correctly. This number is then divided by the amount of time that the student reads for (60 seconds). The resulting number is the child’s fluency rate. This rate is used to determine if the student is reading on grade level. While this formula does not indicate prosody, the assessor can also determine it by examining the same sixty-second reading session. By taping the child reading, the teacher can go back and listen to the recording focusing on how appropriately she phrases her reading and uses expression.
Role of Fluency in Reading
Fluency is inextricably tied to decoding and reading comprehension. It serves as the bridge between decoding and comprehension. On one level fluency reflects a reader’s ability to decode the words in a text. If he is able to quickly and accurately move through the words on the page, his decoding skills are automatic. This means that the reader should be able to accurately comprehend the text. This is not always the case though. Prosody plays a very important role in reading comprehension. A reader may be able to efficiently decode words without really understanding what they mean because he is not engaging with the text on an emotional and personal level. When he reads with appropriate expression and is able to recognize and replicate the writer’s phrasing comprehension will follow. Expression allows the reader to make more the complex cognitive connections necessary for true reading comprehension.
Because fluency is tied to decoding abilities, it fluctuates based on the difficulty and complexity of the text a person is reading. While each reader has a general fluency rate (as determined by a fluency assessment) it will increase if she is reading a text that is well below her independent reading level or will decrease when reading one well above.
Impact of Fluency on Reading Ability
Focus on fluency in the elementary years is important to development of reading ability in young children. Children in grades kindergarten through 4th grade show the greatest gains in fluency when it is included in the reading education program. Students with reading difficulties continue to show improvement in reading ability through high school when their teachers include fluency instruction in their reading programs.
Fluency has the greatest impact on reading comprehension. Children with high fluency rates tend to read more and remember more of what they read because they are able to expend less cognitive energy on decoding individual words and integrating new information from texts into their knowledge banks.
Fluency also has positive effects on word recognition skills. Those children exposed to reading programs with a focus on fluency have shown greater gains in their abilities to efficiently recognize words than those not receiving instruction with a fluency component.