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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in Learning to Read Process

September 30, 2015

Question from a teacher:

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.

I get lots of questions about the sequence of instruction. In this case the issue is fluency versus comprehension; more often it is about phonics, both about the sequence of phonics elements, or like this question, whether decoding proficiency is prerequisite to any other literacy teaching?

Let’s face it, in life there are times when sequence matters — definitely put your car in gear before you step on the gas, and my grandchildren love knowing that you have to put your socks on before your shoes if you want things to work out right.

But there are also lots of times when order doesn’t really matter (unless you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that’s another topic altogether).

For example, when you’re eating your dinner, no one is likely to care much whether you take a bite of potatoes first or a bite of the green beans. It usually doesn’t matter whether you read the sports section first or the news. And, who cares whether you put on your right or left earring first? It makes no difference, so such orderings are left to one’s discretion, comfort, or habit.

So what’s the right answer concerning whether teachers should focus only on “fluency and accuracy” before comprehension and vocabulary?

I think whoever is telling teachers that they need to accomplish oral reading fluency before comprehension is wrong. This notion shows a weak understanding of the oral reading fluency concept and what it contributes to literacy learning.

Fluency is not a single skill as much as an amalgamation of skills. It has three dimensions, not two (it is more than just accuracy and speed, but also includes making the oral reading sound meaningful — expression, or prosody). Students develop decoding and comprehension skills through fluency practice, but they also learn to incorporate those skills within their oral reading (how would one know what to do with the homographs — like "minute" or "digest" or "resent" if comprehension isn’t part of it?).

Of course, if contextual information isn’t entering the system, then students’ fluency development will lag. If it is lagging in the first place (which sounds like the case here), then extra fluency practice is sensible … but if decoding and comprehension instruction is being delayed until fluency is developed, then where do they get the skills and knowledge that is part of what makes fluency go?

If the question had been about whether one should wait to work on fluency and comprehension until decoding was accomplished up to some criterion, I would be giving a similar answer. Decoding is central to beginning reading instruction and I don’t believe that we should stint on it. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t at the same time be emphasizing comprehension (initially listening, eventually reading), oral reading fluency, and vocabulary, too.

And, no, there is no particular sequence of phonics that needs to be taught — though a planful sequence is important (it just doesn’t matter whether you teach a “d” first or an “m”). Similarly, though the line of development in fluency tends to go from accuracy to speed to prosody, you still should emphasize all of them throughout ("read this as fast as you can" is foolishness).

I suspect some of the confusion over this comes from a misunderstanding of how the research is done on these literacy components. People get it in their heads that the phonics studies must have only taught phonics. That tends not to be the way these studies are done. In fact, the most typical experimental design has been that the experimental and control subjects both get a fairly comprehensive instructional program, but the experimental group gets an enhanced, special, super-duper version of whatever the component of interest may be (e.g., vocabulary, phonics, fluency, comprehension strategies). That often means that both groups receive some phonics or some fluency work depending on the individual teachers, but that the experimental ones would be more likely to teach these skills more thoroughly or extensively.

We may be thinking that this is the design:

Experimental Group:
Fluency Instruction

Control Group:
No Fluency Instruction

But it is more likely to look like this:

Experimental Group:
Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction + Fluency Instruction

Control Group:
Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction + Nothing

And what that means is that it wasn’t the additional fluency or phonics that was raising reading achievement, but that additional instruction was effective when added to an ongoing comprehensive program of teaching.

One of the things that may be making fluency instruction work is that kids are daily learning about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns — and without that information, the fluency teaching on its own might not help as much. Similarly, the work being done to build students’ knowledge of language, content, and comprehension may also be contributing to children’s fluency growth.

As proposed here, cutting kids off from such simultaneous opportunities to learn may both slow their progress in developing fluency and may make fluency more of a parlor trick than a dynamic part of the reading process involving the coordination of high speed decoding with the context of language and ideas.

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"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person ..." —

Carl Sagan