Reading Fluency – Is it Really That Important?

Fluency is defined as the ability to decode text with accuracy, automaticity and prosody, the appropriate use of phrasing and expression to convey meaning. That being said, why is this single reading component so highly recognized and emphasized in the field of reading education today?

We are seeing a significant increase in the importance of oral reading fluency in the classroom. With such a focus on Response to Intervention (RTI), this component of reading is being specifically used to assess student reading proficiencies throughout the country. Depending on their reading and accuracy rate (derived from a 1-minute fluency probe), students are categorized into three distinct groups, which drive the “tiers” of instruction in the classroom. Struggling readers are then progress monitored (generally weekly) to determine their rate of improvement and if their instructional intervention is deemed effective. This process continues to be questioned by teachers and reading specialists in the field, as it is being viewed as a one-dimensional assessment that does not accurately identify successful and/or struggling readers.

Why the Focus on Fluency? 

With the ability to decode text quickly and efficiently, the reader can better recognize the words with automaticity, which allows the brain to focus more intently on the content of the text. This Automaticity Theory (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974) is based on the conjecture that students can process one component of reading at a time. The key to understanding this theory surrounds the idea that reading requires more attention than children can handle, which means they are unable to complete these tasks simultaneously. Early readers are confronted with a “cognitive overload,” as they are focusing all of their efforts and attention on the decoding of the text, which impacts their ability to recall key elements and/or fully understand its meaning. Experienced readers are able to decode words naturally and with automaticity, which provides additional cognitive output. It is also important to note that this theory supports the scaffolding system. This system encompasses the idea that children need to first master letter sounds before they are able to effectively blend and view words in a more holistic manner. Once students can decode text at a fluent level, they are more apt to apply metacognitive strategies in order to successfully comprehend what they are reading. This developmental process will enable students to become more efficient readers through repeated and modeled reading strategies.

Research continues to reaffirm the importance of oral reading fluency and its correlation to increased reading comprehension. However, research also states that we cannot assess early readers by (fluency), speed, accuracy and prosody alone without evaluating their comprehension proficiencies, which includes both literal and inferential reasoning. That being said, it is vital to use a sound research-based reading program and instructional methods that include all facets of reading: phonemic awarenessphonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development and reading comprehension. Utilizing these key reading components in addition to effective differentiated instruction are best practices when looking to meet the academic needs of all students.