If you teach reading, it comes as no surprise to you that fluency is on everybody’s mind. Schools assess it. Parents are told their child needs to work on it. Students will talk about fluency as one of their goals. But, what exactly do we mean by fluency and what can a tutor do to determine if that is a child’s struggle and how to help?
5 Essential Components of Reading Instruction
The National Reading Panel in 2000 identified 5 big ideas. These 5 essential components of reading instruction are: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension. On the surface, it looks like a magic bullet prescription to fixing a child’s reading problem. Identify the area of weakness and teach to that. There is some truth there, but like most things about teaching reading, it is far more complex than that. While assessing these areas individually can help identify deficiencies, getting to the root cause of the problem is not so clear-cut. These skills do not work in a vacuum, but are interconnected and interdependent. For example, a child may struggle with Phonics because they lack Phonemic Awareness, because they need more explicit sequential instruction, or because of a hearing problem, an articulation problem or a phonological processing problem. Comprehension difficulties can be the result of poor fluency, lack of vocabulary, lack of explicit instruction, or decoding difficulties. Fluency problems can result from decoding difficulties, problems with tracking, comprehension difficulties or attentional challenges. Suddenly, the clear-cut prescription has become as clear as mud.
Fluency links Phonics to Comprehension
Schools have latched onto fluency as a goal for several reasons. Prior to the National Reading Panel report, fluency was a relatively neglected skill. It was viewed as an outcome of proficient reading rather than a component of proficient reading. In reality, I think it is both. Secondly, fluency is really easy to measure – well, sort of. Assessments for fluency generally have a student read a grade level appropriate passage for 1 minute and count the number of words correct. This tests just one aspect of fluency – Speed. The definition I like best for fluency comes from Tim Rasinski. Fluent reading is accurate with automaticity and appropriate prosody. Prosody refers to the phrasing, intonation and expression. Speed alone does not make fluent reading if it isn’t accurate with attention to punctuation, meaning, phrasing and expression. Fluency is sometimes described as a bridge from phonics to comprehension. Automatic word recognition is the link to phonics and the link to comprehension comes when readers apply meaningful expression to their reading.
Attribution: “Stopwatch” by Search Engine People Blog is licensed under CC-BY 2.0
How to Help a Child Struggling with Fluency
Based on this knowledge, what do you do if a parent comes to you with a child and says that they are struggling with fluency? Most importantly, I would do your own investigating and look for difficulties with phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, sight words and tracking. I would look into a child’s comprehension as well. And then, when I had a complete picture of this child as a reader, I would formulate a teaching plan that addresses all areas of concern, including fluency. The wonderful thing about working on fluency while addressing other areas of concern is that you can see measurable growth relatively quickly. It is motivating for struggling learners and reassuring to parents. As other areas of difficulty are addressed, fluency continues to improve.
Resources for teaching fluency are everywhere. Reading passages abound on the internet, but for struggling readers, it may be difficult to find the appropriate text level that they can read with a high degree of accuracy. There are some excellent commercial fluency programs, but they are priced somewhat out of reach for a private tutor. Many fluency resources rely on computers and recordings.
A few years ago, I set off on a quest to find something that had enough variation of text levels to be useful for a wide range of students, focused not only on speed but also accuracy and prosody, used the teacher as the skilled model rather than a recording and was affordable. Much to my surprise, I found just such a resource at http://www.helpsprogram.org/. Please note that this organization is actually a non-profit. I have no affiliation with them at all and am not in any way being compensated for recommending them as a resource. I have used the HELPS program over the course of several years with students of various ages and abilities, from late 2nd graders up and have found a great deal of success. It is evidence-based, confirmed by research and utilizes best practices of repeated reading and fluent modeling. It requires only about 10-15 minutes 2 to 3 times a week, making it an excellent component of a literacy tutoring lesson. Not only is it effective in the time frame generally used for tutoring, but also it allows adequate time for instruction to address other areas of need. Materials are available for purchase already assembled or can be downloaded, printed and put into binders with sheet protectors for only the cost of printing and your own labor. Training videos are available online allowing you to quickly become proficient delivering fluency instruction. It has a built in reward program that doesn’t really fit my style, but it is not required for the program to be effective.
Photos by Anthony Rimkunas
A better understanding of the role of fluency in the construction of a literacy processing system can help us design instruction that will move our students forward. If you would like a parent friendly explanation of fluency, you can find one on my website: http://www.magicmomentstutoring.com/blog/archives/06-2015
Sarah Rimkunas is a Certified Literacy Specialist with more than 13 years of experience in public schools. In 2014, she opened her own tutoring business, Magic Moments Tutoring. She lives in beautiful Southern Maine with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 13. www.magicmomentstutoring.com