Fluency and Comprehension – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 3)

May 6, 2020 | Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy | 0 comments

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

Fluency and Comprehension

What are your best tips for helping pupils with their fluency of reading?

There are important distinctions to be made in the way that the term ‘fluency’ is used. Commonly, especially in the US, fluency refers to smooth, expressive reading aloud, showing a clear understanding of the text.

Fluency is also used as a measure of sheer speed, whether of single words or connected prose. And finally, fluency can be used to describe automatic word recognition which allows written language to be processed at about the same speed as spoken language. This short video clip by Jan Hasbrouck outlines why this last issue is so important – namely, fluency aids comprehension.

If the goal of reading is comprehension (and it is), then fluency has an important part to play. Many reading interventions do not address this issue, or do so with insufficient rigour. For an indication of the levels of fluency required to guarantee automatic word recognition, this list by Precision Teacher exponent Rick Kubina is revealing. For example, Year 10 students should be able to read connected prose aloud at 180-200 words per minute. For silent reading, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has found that fluent readers can process 300 words per minute.

If fluency is so important, how do we foster it?

The first step is to make sure that all students read a lot. As teachers we don’t have a lot of control over what students do at home, so it makes sense to ensure that a substantial amount of reading happens when we have them in lessons. We encourage schools to follow the Michaela policy of reading 800 words per lesson in every lesson. This post outlines some different ways that teachers can approach such reading that make it less daunting for struggling readers. Building the quantity of reading experience that students have will accumulate significant gains over time, including how freely and fluently they read.

The second point is that fluency building exercises do not need to be time consuming. Research on fluency teaching shows that practice should be short, daily, timed and carefully sequenced. For example, students can time each other reading lists of known words for one minute each. They can then chart their own progress and the teacher can check their charts later. The entire exercise can become a five-minute routine within the regular lesson.

It is important that teachers are familiar with every student’s reading, and to ensure that weaker readers have the opportunity to read individually to the teacher at least once per week. This will enable the teacher to know which students are likely to need more support, and to allocate them either a reading buddy who can work with them on short exercises like those above, or a trained staff member who can work in the same way.

NB: We cannot expect students to read a word fluently until they can read it accurately and reliably. Don’t put the cart before the horse!

 How do you deal with students who can read fluently (in English) but cannot explain what they read due to lack of comprehension skills (referring to higher order thinking skills)?

When students can decode words fluently, but have difficulty working out the meaning of what they have read, they fall into a group known as ‘hyperlexics’. Such students are likely to have difficulties with processing language, and this may be evident in a narrow vocabulary, difficulty in understanding and following instructions, limited expressive language and difficulty in following reasoning and argument. The extent of the difficulty should guide whether the student can helped by general classroom instruction, small group instruction or one-to-one support, for example with a speech language therapist. (Note: if you have access to a speech language therapist, foster that relationship. SLTs are the reading teacher’s best friend.)

In the general classroom, attention to explicit teaching of vocabulary (as in the previous post) and to teaching reasoning and inference are likely to be of most benefit for time cost. This post has a number of recommendations for teaching comprehensions skills in the classroom.

For small group instruction, we recommend Direct Instruction Corrective Reading: Comprehension. There is a free placement test which you can download to work out which resources to use with your target students. The programme is carefully designed to expose faulty reasoning strategies and to correct them. The teaching is designed to foster auditory memory, which is essential for language processing.

The comments above apply to proficient speakers of English. We will deal with comprehension problems in students who have English as an additional language in a separate post.

Tip: Check to ensure that your students can infer logical implications. For example, what does the statement ‘I got up at 7 o’clock’ imply about where I was before 7 o’clock?

Next up: Effective intervention

You may also be interested in:

Assessment – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

In-class Support – Bridging the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Seven Steps to Improving Comprehension

Pulling the Strands Together


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