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Reading fluency relies on automaticity, word recognition and prosody. It’s a phrase that we see banded about with great emphasis and importance, becoming an area of focus in recent times, especially in secondary schools. But what actually are the concepts that make up reading fluency and how do we achieve them?
“Reading fluency is the bridge from phonics and word study to comprehension” Rasinski
I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading and listening to Tim Rasinski, from Kent State University and his quotation “Reading fluency is the bridge from phonics and word study to comprehension” keeps ringing true.
If the destination is comprehension and the start of the journey is phonics, then it makes sense that there is a bridge between the two.
However, how often in literacy and reading policies do we really consider how to bridge the gap between phonics and comprehension? And if that gap is fluency, what are we talking about?
Automaticity and Prosody: building blocks of fluency
Before we start digging, it’s really important to understand that reading fluency is not just simply 'reading quickly'. Many institutions ‘assess’ fluency through how many words learners can read in X amount of time, but speed is not the determiner of comprehension and it’s not the core skill of fluency.
Of course, fluency does involve pace, but at the core of fluency are two challenging competencies: automaticity and prosody.
Reading fluency relies on 2 competencies:
Automaticity and word recognition
- Reading effortlessly
- Having the ability to devote attention away from decoding to comprehension – if you’re stuck at decoding, you’ll never gain automaticity or pleasure from reading
- When mental energy is no longer taken up by decoding – decoding is exhausting so learners stuck here will soon run out of energy for any deeper thinking
- Reading with expression
- Ability to read with the appropriate pace determined by the text
- Understanding of the impact of punctuation
- Link from automaticity to comprehension
Both competencies need balanced attention, but how many of our reading for pleasure and literacy strategies consider the competencies in real terms, and how are we supporting teachers in teaching them?
Developing the internal and external reading voice
Fluency is often associated with oral reading and judged whilst listening to learners read out-loud. Great. Until a learner doesn’t possess fluency and then they feel vulnerable and fellow learners miss vital nuances of the text.
Proficiency in reading isn’t about oral reading, it’s about silent reading. But we know the way we read orally affects the way we read silently. So, we must provide opportunities for learners to engage in silent and out-loud reading across the curriculum. If you can’t read out-loud with fluency, then your internal monologue will lack fluency also!
When reading silently we are listening to our internal voice. We need to ensure a learners internal voice is fluent and possesses automaticity and prosody. At the end of the day, our internal voice is all we have, so we need to make it as fluent and productive as possible.
A learner who cannot read out loud fluently presents a lack of reading proficiency. Once we spot it, we need to react.
Lacking fluency means a learner lacks automaticity. So, they can’t cope with the time demands of an exam. That learner potentially does not possess the automaticity to allow them to access the exam, regardless of how brilliant your teaching is.
For learners who lack fluency, targeted and specific intervention is vital, especially for older learners who lack fluency. Lexonik Advance fills this gap and develops a learner’s automaticity.
Automaticity: the need for speed
“If you’re not fluent, you’re not motivated, you read less, your fluency falls further behind” Jan Hassbrock
I said earlier that fluency is often assessed via speed reading, but speed on its own does not lead to comprehension.
“Speed is the consequence of automaticity. Automaticity in not the consequence of speed“ Rasinski
Automaticity must be a focus to progress onto comprehension. For the non-specialist, and all secondary school teachers who need to focus on the content of their own subject, it’s crucial that any learner lacking automaticity has an intervention pathway to develop their automaticity.
In general, this applies to learners with a standardised score of 85 – 115 so, once identified, an intervention programme such as Lexonik Advance is ideal.
If we can develop and support automaticity via specific targeted interventions, what about prosody?
Prosody: the rhythm of reading
The dictionary definition of prosody is: the patterns of stress and intonation in a language.
Prosody is therefore how we gain an understanding of expression, intonation and pace of a text. In reading, this is primarily done through an author’s use of punctuation and syntax. The meaning of a text is derived from pauses and emphasis.
To learn prosody, learners need to hear expert reading with expression, excitement and performance determined by the text. It could be argued that this is easier in subjects based in fiction; stories, narrative, poems and plays. But non-fiction texts give us hints to prosody also. Plus, who doesn’t love a scientific narration from David Attenborough or Brian Cox? Their prosody is quintessentially engaging, whilst delivering non-fiction!
It's also vital that we remember that prosody is not just about oral reading, but silent reading also. There are not many grown-ups or professions in the world that demand reading out-loud.
So, we need to consider how fluent a learner's internal voice is. However, we’re also creating adult citizens here. The skills we teach them will result in things like reading Julia Donaldson to their child with all the silly voices and expression. We must ask ourselves, are we teaching people the skills to do that?
How do we teach prosody?
There are a variety of techniques we can use to teach learners prosody.
Learning a text to recite to an audience. The audience here is the key, so we give the activity a real purpose. This could be a recorded recitation, but it must be a recitation.
Give opportunities to pre-read before being asked to read out-loud. There’s a sinking feeling knowing you’re about to read out-loud, when you know you don’t possess the skills and you’re in a classroom full of your peers. So, give learners a chance to prepare. “In 10 minutes I’m going to ask you to read X, so go and have a little rehearsal before we get there.”
You, as the expert, need to be the loudest voice in the room and work the room with your teacher ears out. Don’t confront learners during the activity but, at a quieter time, ask them to describe the feelings they have which prevented them from joining in. Then ask them to read something out loud to you and if it’s stinted then you know they have a fluency deficit.
Reading simultaneously with an expert reader. This is tricky to organise, but if you have a TA or similar, then it is a wonderful activity to progress a learner’s fluency.
Ask yourself questions about prosody
Asking yourself a few questions about prosody may help you work out how to teach the practise. Some good questions may be:
- What did I do to make this passage sound engaging?
- How did I know when to pause?
- What happened to my voice whilst different people were speaking?
- Where and why did I slow down/speed up at certain parts?
Reading to punctuation
Punctuation is the key to prosody, so once learners can hear and understand why it’s used, then you’re onto the fluency golden ticket. It will also have huge benefits for their writing composition.
You can ask your learners to pause for different lengths dependent on the type of punctuation used while they read. Or you can get your learners on their feet, having them walk the room whilst reading and perform a different action determined by the punctuation used.
A fluent reader has a much lighter cognitive load. Automaticity means you can read beyond decoding freeing up space for comprehension. Comprehension and accuracy are both required for readers to attempt to read with intonation and appropriate stress. So, prosody can only happen after automaticity.
Ultimately fluency isn’t the goal. Comprehension is. Fluency is merely a milestone towards comprehension.
Phonemic awareness and phonics are the first two pillars in the pillars of reading and, precede fluency. Whilst it's important to provide opportunities for learners to practise their reading fluency and more importantly in my view, let able readers model reading fluency. We must also provide support for vulnerable learners.
Fluency is one of the 5 pillars of reading. It is not an isolated skill but one in a series of intrinsically linked skills required to be an able reader. If a learner stalls at any of the five pillars, then targeted and specific interventions are needed to close the gaps and support teachers across the curriculum.
Without addressing the issues with accuracy for our weak readers. We're setting them up to fail. No matter how good our subject-specific content teaching is, we need to ensure learners can read with automaticity, fluency and comprehension. Otherwise, we’ll never allow them access to exams.
Reading fluency is confirmation that our learners are skilled readers; we can't expect readers to demonstrate this skill while at the same time not recognising their reading deficit.