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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Wake Up Reading Wars Combatants: Fluency Instruction is Part of the Science of Reading

It’s been a bad week for fluency instruction.

I started getting emails questioning me on whether I supported the fluency ideas that my friend Tim Rasinski was advocating. These messages seemed to fall into two categories: those who were honestly horrified that Tim would offer something beyond what they believed to be part of the “science of reading” and those who hoped to bait me into publicly taking a rhetorical swing at Tim’s claims.

I found out Tim had been on Amplify’s Science of Reading podcast (opens in a new window) (probably why I was being contacted so much), and that he had argued for using techniques like “assisted reading” and “repeated reading” to support children’s fluency growth. Apparently, some listeners thought his recommendations to be contradictory of what Emily Hansford has labeled the “science of reading.”

Then, the International Literacy Association issued a position paper on Children Experiencing Reading Difficulties (opens in a new window) (Wixson, et al., 2019). This document seems to have emerged from the PBS kerfuffle from earlier this year, when some of the same scholars who produced it denied the existence of dyslexia and denigrated the concerns of parents whose kids weren’t receiving phonics instruction. This more conciliatory effort calls for a comprehensive approach to reading instruction that emphasizes phonemic awareness, phonics, reading comprehension, and writing — along with attention to language and the development of executive control. (The efforts to appease the science of reading community only go so far in this document — one can easily come away thinking that the major problem facing kids who experience reading difficulties is that they will receive too much phonics teaching or that some (unnamed) individual is promoting a “phonics-only agenda.”)

Tone problems aside, I’m certainly sympathetic to efforts aimed at healing the great divides in our field, and I’ve long argued for comprehensive approaches to reading instruction myself — maintaining that such lists of instructional desiderata include approximate amounts of instruction that should be devoted to each (that way, one can more easily weed out those who seemingly support phonics, but who would spend no more than a few minutes a day on it; or those champions of writing, who may address it only two or three time per school year).

Nevertheless, I was surprised that given the substantial body of research around oral reading fluency instruction and its benefits, that it failed to the make the ILA cut in their notion of a comprehensive program of instruction. Especially given the recent research on its importance (O’Reilly, et al., 2019; Sabatini, et al., 2018), as well as the substantial case made for such teaching by the National Reading Panel (NRP) (NICHD, 2000) and in independent reviews (e.g., Kuhn & Stahl, 2002).

Essentially, the phonics-firsters and those warning us of the potential toxicity of phonics teaching both seem to have written off explicit fluency instruction. Under the circumstances, I suspect proponents of fluency teaching would like a Thanksgiving do-over… they, perhaps, have less to be thankful for than they might have thought.

Why do I support oral reading fluency instruction?

I chaired the NRP sub-panel that reviewed the research on fluency teaching (opens in a new window), and our summary of that research concluded that such teaching was beneficial to their reading development by a wide range of measures. Kids who received fluency instruction simply read better than those who did not. These outcomes were obtained with children in regular classrooms (Grades 1-4) and with struggling readers (Grades 1-12). Later, as director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated that our kids get a substantial amount of fluency teaching (about 30 minutes per day), along with similar expenditures on decoding, comprehension, and writing. That recipe led to significantly higher reading achievement for our 437,000 students.

If you want to advocate for a science of reading, it seems that would require one to pay attention to the scientific research findings on various approaches to teaching reading. After all, those who promote explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction usually rely heavily on the research base provided by the NRP; why not use the whole report? And, likewise, for those who claim to take a comprehensive view of reading instruction, why leave out such a heavily researched element? Fluency instruction has been more thoroughly studied than the promising, but still speculative, “executive control” variables noted in the ILA document (and, those variables haven’t been shown to have as big an impact on reading progress either).

I think one of the problems with oral reading fluency is that it isn’t a pure variable. It is a mash up of decoding and comprehension — and it is developmental to boot, meaning that it’s nature changes over time.

As Professor Rasinski noted in the Amplify podcast, with the youngest children, say those in kindergarten, oral reading fluency is more about developing a concept of word—learning how speech maps onto print—than about anything that seems particularly fluency oriented. Children have to learn how print and language come together; that is, how phonemes, syllables, and words are represented on a page and what those punctuation points and white spaces are all about. Darrell Morris (e.g., 1993) has long argued that concept of word plays a critical role in early phonemic awareness development and the importance of early fingerpoint reading has clearly been demonstrated (Uhry, 2002).

Later, oral reading fluency instruction aids decoding development. Carol Chomsky (178) identified second graders who, despite high phonics knowledge, were struggling readers. She thought these kids needed some teaching that would show them how to apply their phonics skills. She engaged the kids in repeated reading activities, and they blossomed as readers. Later studies found that such teaching benefited kids without reading problems, too (NICHD, 2000).

These days we know a bit more about decoding development and what it entails. It appears that fluency instruction probably helps with those memory changes supported by decoding instruction.

As Chomsky posited, fluency work is likely most helpful at what Linnea Ehri has described as the consolidation or automaticity stages of decoding development (e.g., Ehri & Wilce, 1985). Kids aren’t memorizing sight words as much as they are developing an understanding how to use phonetic/orthographic cues in word reading. They are building the cognitive architecture that allows one to learn to respond appropriately to words on the basis of minimal exposure or experience (fast mapping), such as when kids get to the point where they appear to memorize words with no more than a single exposure (Carey & Bartlett, 1978) — or statistical learning (Seidenberg, 2018).

Joe Torgesen and colleagues decided that the major impact of repeated reading on struggling readers is that they were mastering specific words from the activity (Rashotte, 1985)—which seems reasonable, no one really knows what specifically is being stored in memory when children learn to decode.

Not surprisingly, there is a particularly strong relationship between oral reading fluency and reading comprehension during the primary grades (Sabatini, et al., 2018). However, for many students oral reading fluency practice continues to help in the consolidation of decoding skills beyond that point (O’Reilly, et al., 2019), and it also starts to morph into an activity that helps to support prosody development which is more directly implicated in reading comprehension (Breznitz, 2006). No wonder the latest ETS policy guide recommends attention to fluency as a foundational reading skill well beyond the primary grades (O’Reilly, et al., 2019).

Why teach fluency? Because at different points in a reader’s development it makes important contributions to understanding how print works, to consolidating and automizing decoding skills, and to helping readers to figure out how to go from print to prosody. But, basically, the reason I support it is because there are a substantial number of reasonably persuasive studies showing that such instruction enhances reading achievement — the only reason any instructional routine should be adopted.

One last point. I know some teachers are concerned about this emphasis on oral reading. A small bit of research shows that silent reading – when sufficiently scaffolded – can also support fluency. That makes sense, but I make sure kids get to do a lot of silent reading, too, during comprehension instruction, in work with texts throughout the curriculum, and during authentic independent reading (when kids choose to read, not when teachers require such practice). Studies show oral reading fluency instruction translates to improved silent reading ability (Kuhn & Schwanenflugel, 2018). (I usually recommend 30 minutes of scaffolded partner reading, which means each student gets about 15 minutes of daily oral reading practice).

Serious efforts to improve reading achievement will, indeed, be comprehensive and based on the science of reading. Given that, oral reading fluency instruction deserves greater respect than was manifest this week. Reading war combatants: a pox on both your houses.

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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
December 8, 2019