By Dr. Jan Hasbrouck
I started my career as a reading specialist nearly 40 years ago, initially teaching students who were struggling with reading at the elementary and middle school levels. I found that many of my students had learned the basics of decoding, and many even had sufficient vocabulary and background knowledge to understand what they were reading … but something was getting in their way.
In those days, teachers weren’t often using assessments to examine things such as accuracy and rate. But just by working closely with these students and observing them carefully, it was clear to me that the rate at which they were reading—and the many other components that we would now refer to as “fluency”—was often a major stumbling block.
Now, almost four decades later, we have learned so much about the process of learning to read, and specifically we know much, much more about the essential skill of reading fluency! This year, in a collaboration with my esteemed colleague Dr. Deb Glaser, I have finally had the chance to share some of what we now understand about fluency.
The following information is taken from a book Dr. Glaser and I cowrote titled Reading Fluency: Understanding and Teaching This Complex Skill.
Learning to read is like constructing a structure with blocks. Fluent readers have established a firm foundation for reading by integrating various component skills so well that the act of reading occurs without the reader having to intentionally will the skills into action. When these various skills are fully established, reading happens automatically.
What is reading fluency? Many questions surround the definition of fluency as a concept, in part because fluency has many subtle mechanics that are interdependent and therefore difficult to separate. We define fluency as:
Reasonably accurate reading, at an appropriate rate, with suitable prosody, that leads to accurate and deep comprehension and motivation to read.
Component #1: Accuracy
We purposefully listed accuracy first to underscore its crucial role. In order for a reader to understand what a text means, clearly that text first must be read with a certain level of accuracy. This may sound simplistic. However, to read text accurately a reader must read individual words accurately, which requires learning letters (graphemes) have associated sounds (phonemes) that need to be accurately identified and skillfully processed. Irregular words must also be read accurately. The recognition of common letter patterns as well the correct spellings of words also play roles in text accuracy. Then, of course, the correct meaning of words must be accessed. All this must happen simultaneously and automatically for a reader to be fluent.
Component #2: Rate
Rate is often mistakenly used as a synonym for fluency. Fluency is far more complex than rate alone! An all-too-common fallacy about rate is that “faster is better,” although most teachers likely know from their own experience that this cannot be true. Teachers know students who read quickly but still may not have good comprehension. Certainly, the rate at which text is decoded and recognized represents an important aspect of fluency. However, reading fast is not the same as reading fluently!
Component #3: Prosody
Prosody is the technical term for what most teachers refer to as “good expression.” Prosody includes the pitch, tone, volume, emphasis, and rhythm in oral reading. Another aspect of prosody is how readers “chunk” words together into appropriate phrases. There is only minimal evidence that prosody influences reading comprehension. At this point, researchers in this field believe that prosody may be an outcome, rather than a contributor, to comprehension.
You may have noticed that we used some rather vague descriptors in our definition of fluency. Accuracy must be “reasonable.” Rate “appropriate.” And prosody “suitable.” What does that all mean? Stay tuned for my next EdView360 blog, Part 2.
Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D., is an educational consultant with Gibson, Hasbrouck & Associates, an author, and a researcher. She served as the executive consultant to the Washington State Reading Initiative and as an advisor to the Texas Reading Initiative. Dr. Hasbrouck worked as a reading specialist and literacy coach for 15 years before becoming a professor at the University of Oregon and later Texas A&M University. She is the author and coauthor of several assessment tools, research papers, and books, including The Reading Coach: A How-to Manual for Success and The Reading Coach 2: More Tools and Strategies for Student-Focused Coaches.
Books by Jan Hasbrouck: The Reading Coach