Research School Network: Fluency part 2: from fluency to understanding Should the horse of fluency pull the comprehension cart, or vice versa asks David Windle


Fluency part 2: from fluency to understanding

Should the horse of fluency pull the comprehension cart, or vice versa asks David Windle

by London South Research School
on the

From Fluency to Understanding

As outlined in my previous blog, last year Charles Dickens Research School worked with the EEF to design and pilot a fluency programme aimed at improving reading comprehension in Year 5 children.

The trial was a success. Teachers found the programme enjoyable to deliver, children found the strategies fun to explore and early findings suggest reading fluency and comprehension improved in all groups on the trial. As a result, the programme has been granted permission to grow from its embryonic status. The number of texts in the scheme will be doubled to include non-fiction texts from across science and the humanities, the strategies will be tweaked and the programme will be trialled again in a wider range of schools.

That’s all very well and good but let’s rewind and unpick some of the thinking which shaped the programme.

Horses and Carts

The relationship between fluency and comprehension is complex. As stated in the EEF’s Literacy Development Review (2019) it is possible to read words accurately without understanding the meaning of individual words, as children do when reading nonsense words. It is therefore possible to accurately read consecutive words in a passage without constructing a mental model of the meaning’.

That is to say it is possible to sound reasonably fluent while not understanding a word you are saying. As a fluent reader, with a high degree of automaticity, it’s easy to read a page without paying any attention at all and, before you know it, you’re having to re-read page after page to work out what’s going on.

The report goes on to say, reading becomes disfluent when the reader is aware that comprehension has broken down. Thus, reading fluency can be considered a consequence of good word reading and reading comprehension skills, rather than a precursor.’

Uh-oh! If fluency is a result of comprehension as opposed to a precursor to it, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse by teaching reading through fluency? If the horse is comprehension, then, surely, it pulls the cart of fluency.

Not necessarily because fluent reading provides more cognitive resources to integrate background knowledge and reasoning processes that are crucial to understanding complex information.’

In this instance the horse of fluency is pulling the comprehension cart.

The truth is, comprehension and fluency are inextricably interwoven, finding their ultimate expression in prosody: reading with appropriate stress and intonation and varying volume, pace and smoothness depending on the meaning of the text. Or, as per my previous blog, giving it the full Branagh’.
Perhaps we can compare learning to read in this way, to learning to play a musical instrument. At the same time as you learn how the instrument works, how to read music, what the song is about and which keys to press or strings to pluck when, you also play scales, put notes together to make melodies and listen to the instrument being played by others. You build both understanding and, at the same time, fluency. One without the other renders each meaningless.
In the third and final blog of this series, I will describe the structure and content of our programme Fluency Focus: looking at reading through the lens of fluency.’

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