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Teacher question: When providing fluency instruction, should time, such as the number of words per minute, be an element? Our school has been doing that, but elsewhere I’m hearing that we shouldn’t be doing that.

Shanahan’s response

Fluency is a bit of a mash up and not a pure skill.

In fluency, it is important that students read the words correctly. That’s the “accuracy” part of fluency. That obviously depends heavily on decoding skills (and decoding instruction).

Unfortunately, many kids can read words accurately but still aren’t fluent readers. (In fact, that’s what got people teaching fluency in the first place — boys and girls who were on track with their phonics, but still couldn’t read well).

If reading the words right takes a lot of effort it will likely be slow and labored. Dedicating all that attention and effort to decoding the words might result in accurate reading, but it is a sure distraction from reading comprehension. Fluency is about enabling comprehension attention, not distracting from it.  

This ease of decoding is not really about speed. Nevertheless, speed is how we tend to measure it. Faster decoders are probably not needing to exert a lot of decoding effort — at least that’s the theory.

That’s where those words correct per minute (WCPM) measures come in; that’s a combination of accuracy and speed.

The problem here is that we’re using speed, but we’re not interested in speed. We’re only using speed to draw an inference about how easily the reader is decoding.

There are two ways we can increase words correct per minute.

One way is to accomplish high degrees of proficiency in decoding, and second is to hurry. The first of these ways will improve reading comprehension, and the second, not so much.

Many experts (me included), instead of talking about speed or rate these days, have been using the term, “automaticity.” The problem with that approach is that it only changes the word, but not the measure. If speed is the measure of automaticity, then we’re assuming that a change in nomenclature will be sufficient to get teachers and students to focus on ease of processing rather than hurrying.

Recently, I came across some researchers’ speculation that helped me to think about this (Pan, Yan, Laubrock, Shu, & Kliegl, 2013). They viewed fluency as enabling parallel processing — that is, making it possible for readers to multi-task, to do more than one thing at a time.

We’ve long known about what is called the eye–voice span. If readers are reading a text aloud and you suddenly switch off the lights so they can no longer see the text, they’ll keep reading for a few words. The reason that works is parallel processing. Your brain is doing one thing, while your eyes are doing something else. While your eyes are jumping forward and gobbling up information about the next set of letters, your brain is busy turning the previous set of letters into phonemes and meaning.

Good readers have bigger eye–voice span than poor readers.

Those researchers have suggested that a better measurement of fluency might be an eye–voice span measure.

Remember the point of oral reading fluency or text reading fluency is to ensure that the foundational skills are being implemented in a way that enables or facilitates reading comprehension. 

That means text reading fluency includes a third skill — beyond accuracy and automaticity. That’s where proper expression or prosody comes in. 

Readers have to read the words and they have to do that easily, but they also have to organize the words in a way that allows them to be understood. I said fluency is a bit of a mash up, and that means it includes a bit of reading comprehension as well. Not deep thinking or extended analysis or reflective comprehension, but a first-blush sense making.

What is included in this “on the fly” sense making? The reader has to use the punctuation and the meaning in order to put the pauses in the right places and to do things like read heteronyms accurately (it matters if you come up with the right pronunciations of read, live, wind, bow).

There are fancy ways of measuring prosody, but basically it comes down to this: As a listener can you follow the ideas in the text as the student read it aloud? Does it sound like the reader understands it (whether or not he/she does)? Does it sound like language?

have no real problem with using words correct per minute as a measure of fluency. But encouraging kids to read as fast as they can is not appropriate test preparation. And, great words correct per minute with lousy prosody is not fluent.

The problem, my dear, is not in our measures, but in ourselves.

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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 5, 2020

Related Topics

Comprehension, Fluency