Reading fluency is the ability to read connected text rapidly, effortlessly and automatically (Hook & Jones, 2004; Meyer, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000). Readers must develop fluency to make the bridge from word recognition to reading comprehension (Jenkins, Fuchs, Vandern Broek, Espin & Deno, 2003).
“Many poor readers have difficulty reading fluently because they do not possess an adequate sight vocabulary and must labour to decode many of the words in the reading passages. With their energies focused on recognising words, their oral reading is filled with long pauses and many repetitions, and it is characterised by monotonous expression. Fluent reading requires that most of the words in a selection be sight words. When a selection contains too many difficult (nonsight) words, the reading material will be too arduous and frustrating for the reader (Burns, Roe & Smith, 2002; Jenkins et al., 2003).
Brain processes in Reading
Recent research by Sally Shaywitz using fMRI scanning has identified that there are three key areas of the brain for reading. These are all in the left hemisphere. Broca’s area and the Parietal Temporal are involved in decoding (word analysis) and the Occipito-Temporal is involved in recognising the word holistically from its visual pattern. To read fluently, the occipito-temporal must be functional.
When a word is first met, Broca’s area and the Parieto-temporal are employed to decode it. This may happen several times. However, after several repetitions, a neural model of that word is created, which is then stored in the occipito-temporal. Once this has happened, the word can now be accessed automatically and reading fluency has been attained.
Sally Shaywitz’s research has also identified that dyslexic learners have an impaired occipito-temporal and are unable to develop the same fluency and automaticity. As a compensatory measure, Broca’s area overdevelops – in other words, the wrong strategies are being employed.
Illustrations from Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, 2003
From the very beginnings of literacy, teachers need to incorporate enough activities to activate the occipito-temporal. They also need to ensure that each learner has enough repetitions of each word to create and automatically retrieve the neural model of that word.
It is important to be aware that, although the Occipito-Temporal is a visual recognition area of the brain, instant visual recognition also depends on an understanding of the phonological structures of the word. Phonic knowledge and phonological awareness are therefore also key factors in this process.
How does Steps develop Fluency?
All of the word activities in Steps develop fluency, since it is through repetition of words that automaticity develops. However, there are a number of activities which specifically target this aspect.
Choose the Word – sight vocabulary, using/choosing words in context
Word Flash – instant word recognition. Note: This activity (together with the speed reading activities in the workbook courses) is specifically designed to activate the occipito-temporal.
Visual Memory – word recognition, visual and spatial memory
“To gain meaning from text, students must read fluently.” (Kuhn & Stahl, 2000)
Fluency refers to the ability to read words automatically, with no noticeable cognitive or mental effort. In other words, it implies that the learner has developed word recognition skills which enable the word to be recognised as a whole unit, rather than having to be decoded. (Juel, 1991, see references)
Fluency is essential if vocabulary and comprehension are to develop. If a learner has to concentrate on the decoding process, he/she cannot simultaneously follow the sense of the passage effectively. Fluency depends on an area of the left hemisphere of the brain, known as the ‘occipito-temporale’, which research shows is inactive in many dyslexic learners. (Shaywitz. S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.)
“Proficient readers are so automatic with each component skill (phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary) that they focus their attention on constructing meaning from the print.” (Kuhn & Stahl, 2000)
Juel, C. (1991). Beginning reading. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 759-788). New York: Longman.
Sprick, M. & Howard, L. (2000). Write Well. Sopris West Educational Services.
Sprick, M., Howard, L., & Fidanque, A. (1998). Read Well. Sopris West Educational Services.
Stahl, S. A., & Shiel, T. R. (1999). Teaching meaning vocabulary: productive approaches for poor readers. In Read all about it! readings to inform the profession (pp. 291-321). Sacramento, CA: California State Board of Education.
Stallman, A. C., Pearson, P. D., Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Garcia, G. E. (1995). Alternative approaches to vocabulary assessment (Technical Report No. 607). Urbana-Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois.
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.