Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in Learning to Read

  • afterschool programs foundational skills
  • 29 September, 2015

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.

I get lots of questions about the sequence of instruction. In this case the issue is fluency versus comprehension; more often it is about phonics, both about the sequence of phonics elements, or like this question, whether decoding proficiency is prerequisite to any other literacy teaching?  
Let’s face it… in life there are times when sequence… definitely put your car in gear before you step on the gas, and my grandchildren love knowing that you have to put your socks on before your shoes if you want things to work out right.
But there are also lots of times when order doesn’t really matter (unless you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that’s another topic altogether).
For example, when you’re eating your dinner, no one is likely to care much whether you take a bite of potatoes first or a bite of the green beans. It usually doesn’t matter whether you read the sports section first or the news. And, who cares whether you put on your right or left earring first? It makes no difference so such orderings are left to one’s discretion, comfort, or habit.
So what’s the right answer concerning whether teachers should focus only on “fluency and accuracy” before comprehension and vocabulary? 
I think whoever is telling teachers that they need to accomplish oral reading fluency before comprehension is wrong. This notion shows a weak understanding of the oral reading fluency concept and what it contributes to literacy learning.
Fluency is not a single skill as much as an amalgamation of skills. It has three dimensions, not two (it is more than just accuracy and speed, but also includes making the oral reading sound meaningful—expression or prosody). Students both develop decoding and comprehension skills through fluency practice, but they also learn to incorporate those skills within their oral reading (how would one know what to do with the homographs—like minute, digest, resent if comprehension isn’t part of it?). 
Of course, if contextual information isn’t entering the system, then students’ fluency development will lag. If it is lagging in the first place (which sounds like the case here), then extra fluency practice is sensible… but if decoding and comprehension instruction is being delayed until fluency is developed, then where do they get the skills and knowledge that is part of what makes fluency go?
If the question had been about whether one should wait to work on fluency and comprehension until decoding was accomplished up to some criterion, I would be giving a similar answer. Decoding is central to beginning reading instruction and I don’t believe that we should stint on it. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t, alongside, be emphasizing comprehension (initially listening, eventually reading), oral reading fluency, and vocabulary, too.
And, no, there is no particular sequence of phonics that needs to be taught—though a planful sequence is important (it just doesn’t matter whether you teach a “d” first or an “m”). Similarly, though the line of development in fluency tends to go from accuracy to speed to prosody, you still should emphasize all of them throughout (that, "read this as fast as you can" is foolishness). 
I suspect some of the confusion over this comes from a misunderstanding of how the research is done on these literacy components. People get it in their heads that the phonics studies must have only taught phonics. That tends not to be the way these studies are done. In fact, the most typical experimental design has been that the experimental and control subjects both get a fairly comprehensive instructional program, but the experimental group gets an enhanced, special, super-duper version of whatever the component of interest may be (e.g., vocabulary, phonics, fluency, comprehension strategies). That often means that both groups receive some phonics or some fluency work depending on the individual teachers, but that the experimental ones would be more likely to teach these skills more thoroughly or extensively.
We may be thinking that this is the design:
Experimental Group                                  Control Group                                                 
         Fluency Instruction                                       No Fluency Instruction
But it is more likely to like this:
  Experimental Group                                         Control Group
   Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction          Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction
         +Fluency Instruction                                       + Nothing
And what that means is that it wasn’t the additional fluency or phonics that was raising reading achievement, but that additional instruction was effective when added to an ongoing comprehensive program of teaching. 
One of the things that may be making fluency instruction work is that kids are daily learning about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns—and without that information, the fluency teaching on its own might not help as much. Similarly, the work being done to build students’ knowledge of language, content, and comprehension may also be contributing to children’s fluency growth. 
As proposed here, cutting kids off from such simultaneous opportunities to learn may both slow their progress in developing fluency and may make fluency more of a parlor trick than a dynamic part of the reading process involving the coordination of high speed decoding with the context of language and ideas.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Brandi Noll Jun 13, 2017 01:40 AM


I totally agree with your answer except one small piece.....this is not the first time you have made a comment about order of phonics not being important. I think that needs reworded or something added to it. Yes, there is no research stating that teaching the order of letters is set in stone (which letters to teach first, next, etc). But when you get into other phonics patterns beyond these basic ones it DOES matter the order. What Templeton and Baer's research has shown is that students tend to learn patterns in a very development (sequenced) way. First they learn CVC short vowel words with simple consonants, then more complex consonant patterns like blends and digraphs, then CVCe words....and on and on. They have documented stages. What IS important for teachers is that the order in which they teach follows this developmental path (I actually encountered an intervention program in my work within schools that taught long vowels first, instead of short vowels. That's a problem! And becomes an even bigger problem when the regular ed classroom is teaching short vowels first and then children go to intervention and learn something completely different (but that is a topic for another day...how intervention must support and be connected to Tier I). Anyways...the two keys to sequence of phonics are: 1. teach the phonics patterns in a developmental way that matches how we know students learn words and words parts and 2. match your teaching of the phonics patterns not in a pre-planned way only according that sequence, but use ASSESSMENT to determine at what developmental stage your students are at to make sure that what you are teaching matches their needs. I have experiences with far too many teachers who follow the core reading program manual teaching the patterns each week with no regard to whether those patterns actually fit the needs of the majority of their students. So in short, the sequence does matter. Just wanted your readers to be clear about this. :) thanks! Brandi Noll, PhD

Kent Layton Jun 13, 2017 01:41 AM


Dr. Shanahan, given that you didn't address different perspectives for struggling readers vs normally developing readers regarding fluency, do you feel the directives to focus primarily on fluency might have come from an administrative perspective that still retains memories of Reading First where fluency ~ unfortunately defined as reading rate, was the primary measure for reading gains?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:41 AM


The "development sequence" that you describe--the stages--are not immutable. They are dependent upon the texts that students are reading. The reason that young readers tend to master CVC patterns earlier than CVCE patterns has more to do with the relative frequency of such patterns in beginning reading materials than with the nature of learning. This was demonstrated by Venezky & Johnson and Guthrie & Seifert back in the 1970s. This just means that it is valuable to use "decodable text"--that is text that will give students sufficient practice with the skills being taught, rather than a prescription for a particular ordering of phonics skills or spelling patterns. (Or barring that kind of care, at the very least we should be teaching the skills in the rough order of their frequency--not their frequency in the English language, but their frequency in children's textbooks, etc.).

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:42 AM



I do suspect that the issue may have arisen because of the overemphasis on speed within DIBELS and similar instruments. Speed is important, but when we are talking about fluency we mean the speed of language--we want the students to decode the text without appreciably slowing the oral flow. Telling youngsters to read "as fast as you can" or, in this case, stopping instruction in other components until kids can read quickly are reflections of a serious misunderstanding.

Mr. Ackerman Jun 13, 2017 01:43 AM


At what age do we only practice fluency with weaker readers?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:43 AM


Mr. Ackerman--

There is no age at which we would have students ONLY practicing fluency. Students should receive a comprehensive program of literacy instruction throughout their schooling. It can be appropriate to have an intervention program only aimed at fluency that can be targeted at students who aren't progressing in fluency. (But such a program would supplement a program, not replace it). Research shows that fluency instruction is effective with struggling readers through high school.

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 01:44 AM


Mr. Ackerman, did you mean ONLY practicing fluency with weaker readers and NOT the whole class? (As op

Brandi Noll Jun 13, 2017 01:45 AM


Thanks for your reply, I respect your opinion on decodable tex but I must point out that there actually is no research support for using them in a classroom (Richard Allington has written about this numerous time). Yes it IS important that the phonics patterns that are taught match the words found within texts, however authentic texts can and should be used for phonics instruction. The only purpose for teaching phonics is so that students have a strong enough graphophonic cueing system to decode words found in texts they are reading. And this cueing system must be used in combination with the other cueing systems especially the semantic one. Far too many decodable texts make no sense structurally and make even less sense when it comes to semantics. "Bat Vat bat! Bat! Bat! Bat!" Is just one page of text from a decodable book that came with a reading series I used previously. Kids could decode the words but used only letter sound relationship to "read" the texts and had no idea what they meant. This does not at all mimic the real reading process of effective and efficient readers, and so such texts should not be used in classrooms that actually want students to be good readers who use a variety of cueing systems I'm coordination rather than isolation.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:45 AM



You are right that there isn't much research on decodable text--beyond the kinds of studies that I noted (studies that show the impact of the spelling patterns that appear in the texts read by the developing readers). I only know of two experiments on the topic: one conducted with a tutoring program for first-graders that found the decodable text gave no clear benefit (Jenkins, et al., 2004) and a second-grade study in which children read either decodable texts or authentic texts during free reading time (Cheatham, 2011); in that one, there were clear benefits in favor of the students who read the decodable texts. Also, I would note that many successful phonics programs (What Works Clearinghouse) include some kind of text reading practice linked to their instruction, but that feature has not been singled out for analysis in any of the meta-analyses that have been conducted (including that of the National Reading Panel). I'm not supporting the silly kind of Bat Vat bat Bat Bat Bat text that you note (so called "linguistic readers"), but remember that Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat" is both authentic and decodable plus high frequency. Freddie Hiebert has shown how many authentic texts include too many singletons (words that only appear once) and words that do not use common spelling patterns. Let's not judge these concepts by the extremes. Kids need to be taught phonics, and the texts they read should give them an opportunity to apply this phonics and should reinforce the spelling/pronunciation patterns being taught.

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Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in Learning to Read


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