During my decade at the Tufts' Center for Reading and Language Research, I've fielded many questions about reading, but the most common inquires revolve around fluency. That's simply because fluency is a highly complex process that requires the reader to automatically retrieve all aspects of word knowledge when presented with text. In fact, fluency is so complex, I'll be unpacking the concept over a series of blog posts that will conclude with recommendations for instruction. Let's begin with the essentials of reading development.
Fluency is The Bridge
Reading research from the last 25 years reminds us that reading is an unnatural and highly complex process that requires the development of an entirely new learning circuit in the brain. Approximately 15% of children who are diagnosed with dyslexia, and the additional subset of children who struggle to learn to read, require intensive, systematic, evidence-based instruction to efficiently develop their reading circuit. When students have not developed adequate fluency skills by fourth grade, they fail to cross over into a mode of proficient reading that allows them to learn new content.
Fourth grade emerges as a critical period, because the curriculum places far greater cognitive demands on the reader, including denser grammatical structures, more demanding vocabulary, the need for greater inferential reasoning in texts, and a stark increase in the amount of material to be read. The interaction between text complexity and text volume poses a serious impediment to students who have not reached fluent, much less basic, levels of reading performance. Second, this set of impediments is compounded by the fact that many fourth-grade teachers, who assume that children come to Grade Four as fluent readers, have no previous training in teaching children to read and are ill-prepared to deal with a class of non-proficient readers.
More Than Speed
Fluency represents far more than common notions of speed. Fluency represents a complex network of processes that together bridge basic decoding abilities, and increasingly sophisticated comprehension and analytical processes. Any approach to remediating fluency needs to take this underlying complexity into account.
The prevalent approach to building fluency, repeated reading instruction, is based on the premise that the simple rehearsal of text—in which students re-read phrases, sentences and selections of passages—will bolster automaticity and prosody with written language. Although repeated reading provides a useful platform for practice, it does not explicitly develop automaticity in and across the multiple linguistic processes that contributes to automatic word recognition.
Automaticity with All Aspects of Word Knowledge
Recent evidence demonstrates that in order to achieve fluency, students must become automatic not only in their retrieval of phonological and orthographic knowledge, but also in their access to the syntactic, semantic, and morphological skills that facilitate comprehending sentence structure and word meaning.
Together these multi-componential linguistic processes—phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and morphology—form what I will begin referring to as the POSSuM skills approach.
In the next blog post I'll be discussing how the POSSuM skills contribute to overall fluency, and the means for developing them with an instructional lesson. Stay tuned.