The Hidden Struggle to Build Reading Fluency
Reading fluency is a little like art; we know it when we hear it. Even though it is an essential reading skill, it isn’t easily taught or quantified. Ultimately, the goal of reading instruction is to achieve fluency.
We know fluent speakers of a foreign language can easily converse in that language, which is similar to how we describe fluency in reading. Being a fluent reader is often described as “reading like flowing water,” or “reading that sounds like it should.” Again, reasonably nebulous terms, but we understand what they mean.
Our children’s reading should sound like speech, not a monotone list of words. Fluency involves reading text at proper speed with accuracy and inflection. Yet, so often, readers struggle to build fluency. Why and how should we help our children gain reading fluency?
How is Reading Fluency Built?
Fluency refers to smooth reading with proper inflection. You can’t be fluent until the brain has a sufficient amount of myelin coating the neurons to make those smooth highways that go up to the frontal lobe. The dilemma is that the myelin can only be produced when children are reading quickly, but they can only read quickly if there’s a sufficient amount of myelin.
Building reading fluency is a multistep process to get there. When children first start to learn to read, they have to decode each word, and then try to put them all together to make their sentences sound right and make sense. It’s a big challenge because 47% of our high-frequency words are not phonetic (said, they), and the higher the reading level, the less phonetically regular English becomes.
That’s why it’s so essential for children to start off reading stories that sound right and make sense, with excellent picture support. Children have a chance to learn new words correctly if they are embedded in a story. During this time, paying attention to context continues to be important as vocabulary increases.
Why Early Readers Don’t Build Fluency
In practice, early readers don’t lend themselves well to gaining much actual fluency (myelinization) because the language is so irregular, and children don’t have a word bank from which to draw. The stories are short, piecemeal, single idea sentences, but you have to start somewhere!
Real fluency (myelinization) can’t occur until well into the Happy Cheetah Reading System, where we have a sufficient number of words and long enough passages that the brain can start predicting what comes next: “The whale is the largest sea mammal. It WEIGHS one hundred POUNDS.” And so on.
It isn’t until this level that children have an opportunity to practice inflection — referred to as good phrasing — either.
As a note, it is possible to be fluent and myelinated but lack inflection. When children read in a monotone, it’s because there’s a visual tracking issue that prevents them from doing standard saccadic sweeps, where the eyes take in multiple words at once. Monotone readers are reading word by word.
How Auditory Processing Affects Fluency
Children use auditory processing to retrieve known words quickly and easily. This is very, very hard to do when children are reading short sentences with not a lot of background information or storyline. The retrieval process itself gets much more natural for most children as the passages get longer, and the information gets more interesting.
It’s often easier to retrieve an idea or a new thought than an individual word. (This is another reason why flashcards don’t work.) Readers sometimes unconsciously change words or find new ones that don’t change the meaning.
Mature readers do that all the time, unconsciously and naturally, because the brain reads for meaning. That’s why silent reading goes so much faster.
Children with auditory processing delays can still become fluent readers, myelinate, and have excellent comprehension. However, even as adults, reading aloud won’t be their favorite activity. Sometimes they continue to present as slower processors (retrievers), because of the language challenges neurologically.
This is frustrating for high IQ children because it takes longer to understand — to get the words and ideas to go to the right “bins” in the brain — and then communicate their response out. Yet these children are often the smartest folks in the room!
Start your students reading with the thirty stories with Happy Cheetah Reading, a research-driven program for beginning readers.
The Keys to Reading Fluency
However, reading and comprehension, do not have to suffer, even with auditory processing delays. The four keys to keeping a child moving towards fluency are:
- Keep the material and assignments short.
- Choose readings that are achievable
- Read interesting materials.
- Don’t overload the brain.
The reading itself gets easier and more comfortable as they start understanding the process, gain confidence, increase their vocabulary, and learn to predict.
Reading With Fluency Takes Time
It can seem a struggle for our children to reach the stage of reading with fluency, but the process of reading quickly and with proper timing and inflection takes time. Reading is more than merely identifying and understanding a word.
However, by allowing them to form the connections and become better auditory and visual processors, we are setting them up for a lifetime of reading success. Pushing them forward before they are capable of predicting or have built a repository of unphonetic sight words will only frustrate them and increase their resistance to reading.
Give them the time and proper foundation to read with fluency. It happens when we set them up for success, not when they are perpetually stretched to their reading limit. Fluency takes time, but the pay off will be great.
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