FLUENCY INSTRUCTION, ANOTHER COMBATANT IN THE READING WARS, OR AN INNOCENT BYSTANDER?
Fluency is seen as one of the central tendencies of reading instruction. It can be defined as the ability to read quickly and with ease. However, within the academic discourse of education instruction, fluency is looked at both as a skill and as a type of instruction. Fluency instruction, referring to instruction specifically meant to increase a student’s ability to read fluently. However, within the evidence-based education community there remains some skepticism of fluency instruction. In many ways, fluent reading is less the representation of one or two skills, but more the successful marker of a nearly proficient reader. As proficient reading requires students to be past the decoding stage of learning to read and to know most words on sight. To put it more plainly, to read fluently, is to know how to read and by this logic, all reading instruction could hypothetically be viewed as fluency instruction. However, within the literature fluency instruction usually refers to teaching methodologies, specifically meant to increase the speed of which students recognize sight words.
I believe fluency methodologies of instruction have been criticized for several reasons. Firstly, a large part of the evidence-based reading community has formed around the rallying cry of phonetic instruction and some phonics enthusiasts see fluency instruction as a competing ideology of literacy instruction. Secondly, many fluency instructional strategies appear to be hyper-specific, and albeit strangely focused on timing how fast students can read. Lastly, many critics have perhaps rightfully so pointed out that fluency is likely a by-product of multiple other skills, and not necessarily a wholly unique skill unto itself.
Because of these reasons, I have to admit, I myself have been quite skeptical of fluency instruction. However, I recently reformed my opinion, after realizing that there are several quite notable experts including Dr. Tim Shanahan and Dr. John Hattie, who have pointed out that fluency specific instruction, is a high yield strategy according to meta-analysis. According to Hattie’s meta-study, Repeated Reading, (which is a specific fluency intervention) has an ES of .75, making it a higher yield strategy for literacy instruction than phonics instruction, in general, according to Dr. Hattie’s work. Dr. Shanahan who chaired one of the largest language instruction meta-studies ever done wrote “I chaired the NRP sub-panel that reviewed the research on fluency teaching, and our summary of that research concluded that such teaching was beneficial to their reading development by a wide range of measures. Kids who received fluency instruction simply read better than those who did not. These outcomes were obtained with children in regular classrooms (Grades 1-4) and with struggling readers (Grades 1-12).” (Shanahan, 2020)”
That being said The National Reading Panel (NICHHD) meta-analysis on the use of Repeated Reading for increasing fluency found a mean ES of .41, making repeated reading a decidedly moderately effective reading intervention. (NICHHD, 2001). Since then there have been three studies comparing Multiple Exemplars to Repeated Reading, one in 2001 by Eckert et al, 2007 by Ardoin et al, and one in 2007 by McCurdy et al. Each one of these studies showed a very minimal advantage to repeated reading interventions. In 2019 Zimmerman et al, conducted a meta-study for the Iowa Reading Research Centre comparing repetitive fluency interventions vs nonrepetitive fluency interventions. Their study showed a very slight benefit for nonrepetitive interventions; however, the ES, was so low that they did not even publish, the actual ES and just concluded that the ES was lower than a standard deviation of .2 In other words, their results were so insignificant, they didn’t even fully publish them.
Personally, I think this is more of an issue of when to use this intervention, rather than a matter of if to use this intervention. As Dr. Noam Chomsky, Linea Ehri, and Tim Shanahan have all pointed out “fluency work is likely most helpful at what Linnea Ehri has described as the consolidation or automaticity stages of decoding development” (Shanahan, 2020). If we put aside the academic discourse, and the quantitative data for a moment, there is a certain logic, to using different types of instruction more or less at different stages. For example, when students are first learning how to read, ultimately, the first things, we need them to learn are the alphabet, the core sounds of the alphabet, and that these sounds exist as the building blocks of words. Next, we want students to be able to use phonetic principles to decode words. However, once students are fluent at decoding, we want them to build their familiarity with their language to the point that reading is automatic. This is why I created what I call the Reading instruction continuum.