Reading Fluency and Implicit Comprehension: Implications for Research and Instruction
by Chase Young
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Before the report of the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), fluency was often neglected (Allington, 1983). Contrary to the 20th century, reading fluency has acquired quite an entourage. Reading fluency has taken center stage in reading research (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003), and is now widely accepted as an integral component of the reading process (Adlof, Catts, & Little, 2006; Eldredge, 2005; Nathan & Stanovich, 1991; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Rasinski, 2000; Rasinski, Rikli, & Johnston, 2009; Schwanenflugel et al., 2006). Following the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), reading fluency’s presence in reading research exploded. Approximately 75% of the results of a Boolean search, “reading fluency AND comprehension”, were published in the first decade of the 21st century. One could predict the large influx would guarantee a complete understanding of its role in the reading process, but the question of relationships between reading fluency and comprehension is the subject of ongoing debate (Klauda & Guthrie, 2008). The purpose of this literature review is to emphasize the importance of the existing reading fluency research and explore the relationships between reading fluency and comprehension. These relationships could have important implications for further research and classroom implementation.

The literature in this review was retrieved through the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database and Education Research Complete (ERC). The Boolean search phrase used was “reading fluency AND comprehension. No time period was specified, and the single search phrase rendered 562 results from 1968 to 2009. As noted in the introduction, 446 of the articles were published in the first decade of the 21st century accounting for 75.3% of the results. The researcher read the 562 abstracts, and evaluated them according to specific criteria. Research included investigated relationships between reading fluency and comprehension, contained elementary aged native English speaking subjects receiving general education, and only considered peer-reviewed research. All types of research were reviewed because of the critiqued absence of correlational research (Allington, 2002) in the meta-analysis conducted by the NRP (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The rationale for focusing on general education contexts manifests itself in the goal of generalizing research findings to such classrooms; reading fluency instruction has a long history in special education settings before its appearance in mainstream classrooms (Allington, 1983). Finally, cross-referencing of foundational theories was used to establish the theoretical framework. The process focused on information-processing theories and linguistically based that related to accuracy reading fluency or one of its components (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).

Emergence of Reading Fluency

Reading fluency is best defined through its three constituents—word recognition accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. Word recognition accuracy measures students’ error-free word reading. To demonstrate automaticity, readers recognize words swiftly and with little effort. Quantifying a student’s reading rate is typically used to measure automaticity. Prosody is demonstrated when students read with appropriate expression (Young & Rasinski, 2009).

Students demonstrate reading comprehension when they engage in a reciprocal process between the text and reader in order to construct meaning (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The comprehension of text is arguably the most important goal when reading. The following review will explore relationships between reading fluency and comprehension, and review the specific connection, if any, between reading fluency and implicit comprehension. Implicit comprehension refers to a reader’s ability to process information and draw conclusions. It results from a reader’s transaction with the text (Rosenblatt, 1969). On the other hand, explicit comprehension is based on what can be found in the text, and only requires readers to recall information. For example, a student might explicitly recall the main character wearing a red shirt, but a student might infer, implicitly, the character’s favorite color is red (Schmidt & Paris, 1983).

Reading fluency began as elocution instruction for the purpose of pleasing oral discourse. The primary concern was not comprehension, only that readers demonstrated desired elocution (Hyatt, 1943). In that sense, oral reading was used frequently prior to the 1900s to entertain, but was neglected in favor of silent reading for half a century. After a long period of oversight, Smith (1952) and her colleagues sought to determine which reading skills required further research. Oral reading, they found, was one of them. This began the negotiations of what would later be known as reading fluency.

In the mid 1970s, reading fluency’s role was emphasized as an important component of the reading process. LeBerge and Samuels (1974) developed the Automaticity Theory. This theory posits that automatically reading words frees the mind for other cognitive processes like comprehension. However, no research has been conducted to validate the contention that the free cognitive processes are devoted to comprehension. The researchers did, however, make a strong argument that automatic word processing freed the mind for other aspects of reading. This seminal research provided a theoretical foundation for the information processing models of reading fluency.

Following the Automaticity Theory (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974), the method of repeated readings was introduced as a fluency building activity. One might assume that after repeatedly reading a passage that word recognition accuracy and speed would improve, thus deeming the study merely common sense. However, the researcher found an interesting transfer effect that made the study valuable. Samuels found the first reading on each subsequent passage was read faster and more accurately than the first reading of the previous passage. More importantly, the subsequent passages were more difficult. Because these passages were read one after the other, the study had validity in that repeated readings were the only viable cause for improvement (Samuels, 1979).

Following the information processing research of the 1970s (Chomsky, 1976; LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Samuels, 1979), Allington (1983) voiced the inevitable question, “Why hasn’t oral reading fluency become a major focus of beginning or early remedial instruction?” Although there were no published responses, one might infer that fluency’s connection to the primary goal of reading, comprehension, was not properly established, therefore neglected in practice.        
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Exploring Relationships between Fluency and Comprehension

To initiate the comprehension and fluency connection, Rasinski (1984) conducted a study to help develop the model for reading fluency. The model included automatic word identification, contextual word identification (measured by rate), and phrasing. Phrasing, though popular in linguistic fluency research (Whalley & Hansen, 2006), was rarely studied through the information-processing lens. The research revealed that all three components in the fluency model accounted for variance in the comprehension of 77 third graders and 65 fifth graders (Rasinski, 1984). Reading fluency as a whole, unfortunately, was not studied, only each of its constituents.

Once reading fluency’s constituents were established, reading fluency was rigorously studied in relation to comprehension. Some studies found that reading fluency and comprehension were strongly linked (Benson, 2008; Flood, Lapp, & Fisher, 2005; Klauda & Guthrie, 2008; M. R. Kuhn et al., 2006; Rasinski et al., 2009), while others remained unsure of its link, or found no connection (Adlof et al., 2006; Applegate, Applegate, & Modla, 2009; Eldredge, 2005).  When broadly analyzing the literature, dialectic emerges. Each extreme is a prolific producer of research aimed to strengthen its side. Dialectics, however, often benefit those willing to learn from each side, and seek commonalities or trends.  In order to do this, one must move from a broad view to narrow.

Most reading fluency and comprehension studies are correlational. This area of study is finding it very difficult, currently impossible, to prove that fluent reading causes good comprehension. However, the proof may not be as important as what researchers already know. Research says that increasing student fluency increases reading comprehension; in addition, fluent readers often comprehend text proficiently.  A large-scale study involving over four thousand participants measured the path coefficients among specific reading processes. Results indicated that in grades K-3, fluency has a strong direct effect on comprehension. Similar to other studies (Rasinski et al., 2009), the effect of fluency on comprehension decreases as readers move into the intermediate and secondary grades. Interestingly, this decrease in effect mirrors the developmental reading stages conceptualized in the early 80s (Chall, 1983).

Chall categorized first and second graders in “fluency stage.” Perhaps fluency, though accepted as integral in the reading process (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), is even more important during primary grades. Nevertheless, recent research indicates that reading fluency instruction has its place in the secondary grades. The Pearson Product-Moment correlation between reading fluency and comprehension in grades 3, 5, and 7 yielded significant results. Again, it decreased towards the upper grades, but remained significant. A possible reason for this might be the neglect of reading fluency instruction past the elementary grades. Even in seventh grade, fluency oriented instruction increased both fluency and comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2009). The study by Rasinski was limited in that all students were classified as proficient readers. However, another study addressed the limitation by including 119 seventh grade struggling readers, and the results aligned with Rasinski’s, thus validating the positive impact of fluency instruction on secondary student comprehension (Roundy & Roundy, 2009).

Reading fluency is related to comprehension; it is deemed important in all grades; consequently, further examination is reasonable. However, reading fluency can be dangerous in practice. Teacher belief in the high correlation of fluency and comprehension may be endangering students through instruction and assessment. Instructional catastrophes might occur when comprehension instruction is dropped in lieu of reading fluency instruction. Many experts believe the overemphasis on reading fluency will create a nation of fast readers, unable to comprehend. In regards to assessment, teachers might only rely on quick tests of words read correctly in one minute. Experts, through commentary and research, advocate caution when instructing and assessing, and recommend balanced approaches to both (Griffith & Rasinski, 2004; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Riedel, 2007;  Samuels, 2007; Young & Rasinski, 2009).
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Reading Fluency and Implicit Comprehension

The definition of reading fluency is consistent throughout the literature examined. The same is true for comprehension. However, the type of comprehension measured may account for differences in results. The studies often used well-researched, standard measures of reading comprehension. Still, it is important to note whether implicit, explicit, or both types of comprehension are assessed. Unfortunately, most of the studies do not make the distinction.
Among the research reviewed, only four studies distinguished between implicit and explicit comprehension. Despite one study reporting higher growth in implicit comprehension (Reutzel & Hollingsworth, 1993), the majority indicated a deficiency in implicit, or inferential, comprehension (Applegate et al., 2009; Benson, 2008; Therrien & Hughes, 2008). Regrettably, other than the previously cited studies, none differentiated between explicit and implicit comprehension. A further discussion of this problem is warranted.

It is reasonable to claim the ability to recall information from the text is enhanced because of reading fluency instruction. The most common form of reading fluency instruction is repeated readings (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Sensibly speaking, students who read a passage multiple times might remember more about the text, thus performance on explicit comprehension assessment increases. Not only does it make sense, but also research shows when implicit comprehension is neglected in assessment, a stronger relationship exists between reading fluency and comprehension. Therefore, the integration of the comprehension types, both implicit and explicit, in assessment may be a cause for the reduction of the relationship. Essentially, when explicit and implicit are tested together, the relationship may be weakened by severely deficient implicit comprehension. Of course, this claim requires further research. Conversely, one study opposes the previous claim, yet further analysis may weaken its opposition.

As noted earlier, too many variables exist to solidify a cause/effect relationship between reading fluency and comprehension.
The study conducted by Reutzal and Hollingsworth (1993) is no exception. The unusual result of increased implicit comprehension instigated a much closer analysis. In this case, the materials used might provide insight into this minority report—Aesop’s fables were used. These fables are written to convey a moral or lesson. These lessons are not explained outright, but must be inferred by the reader.  Aesop fables are convenient for implicit comprehension instruction. In addition to an inferentially conducive text, the researchers trained the teachers randomly assigned to the groups. The training was employed to ensure quality reading instruction—this would include implicit comprehension strategies (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Consequently, the increase in implicit comprehension displayed in the results may be attributed to the materials and training of the teachers. This curious result was examined further because, logically, only explicit comprehension should be increased because of reading fluency instruction.

Fluency instruction, according to research, rarely increases implicit reading comprehension (Applegate et al., 2009; Benson, 2008; Therrien & Hughes, 2008). A study (Therrien & Hughes, 2008) of 32 learning disabled readers revealed that repeated readings, a frequently used method of fluency instruction (S. Samuels, 1979), significantly increased explicit comprehension. Surprisingly, the comparison group was required to generate questions (Therrien & Hughes, 2008), a research based method for comprehension instruction (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The repeated readings treatment outperformed the question generation group in comprehension. The researcher further analyzed the data to discover no difference in performance on implicit comprehension (Therrien & Hughes, 2008). This phenomenon is repeatedly seen in the research, therefore deserves further exploration. For the moment, one can only speculate. Perhaps, implicit comprehension strategies must be taught, but explicit can be learned tacitly through fluency instruction. This would definitely increase the efficiency of reading instruction. Standards require students to comprehend text, and read it fluently. Unfortunately, as standards increase, time remains the same. This higher correlation between explicit comprehension and reading fluency could free up time for educators by eliminating it from the reading program. Although it sounds extreme, further, intense, and rigorous research is highly recommended. If the claim cannot be proven, then at least eliminate “reading fluency and implicit comprehension instruction” as a possibility of being an answer. Either way, the question remains: What is the most efficient way to teach reading?

An increase in research differentiating among comprehension types will strengthen the claim that reading fluency instruction significantly increases explicit comprehension. The ultimate goal, however, may be to determine which fluency related instruction best supports implicit comprehension.
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Conclusion

Why does the field of reading fluency need another literature review? This review explored possible reasons for the current dialectic. Research on both sides is well conducted, and respected. It is time the research is broken down into small enough parts to be comparable. Measuring what a student remembers from text, and how that student interprets it are completely different. It takes complex instruction to guide minds into processing information for later output (Schmidt & Paris, 1983).
This review generally explored the link between reading fluency and overall comprehension. Various researchers found a strong link, others found fluency to be a strong predictor, and still others discovered bidirectional relationships. In response to strong connections among reading fluency and comprehension, experts warn practitioners on overreliance on the link. Both fluency and comprehension need to be measured and monitored. In further opposition, research conducted refutes the claim that a link exists. One thing, however, all research perspectives share is the necessity of reading fluency in reading. This, debatably, is good enough for some researchers and practitioners. Experts say it is necessary; therefore, educators foster fluent readers.

This researcher agrees that reading fluency is a good predictor of reading ability, but should not be considered in isolation. The fear that fast readers will take over the world is somewhat farfetched. Speed does matter, however. The faster one reads, the more one reads. The more one reads, the better one reads (Allington, 1983). Students who read twice as fast, also read twice as much, consequently the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer (Ruddell, 2004). Rate is important in reading, whether included in the definition of reading fluency or not. Fluency, fortunately, is not simply reading fast. Its definition also stipulates accurate and prosodic reading (Rasinski, 1984).

Prosody is also important in reading. Prosody adds entertainment. This entertainment can be for others, or the self. Appropriate expression and intonation often predicts comprehension (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006; Whalley & Hansen, 2006), but it also makes it fun (Griffith & Rasinski, 2004; Keehn, 2003; Young & Rasinski, 2009). Monotone performances are not often attended; one can imagine why a struggling reader does not enjoy reading independently. This aspect should also be measured when assessing fluency (Young & Rasinski, 2009).

Researchers revealed a great deal about reading fluency—most of which is helpful in reading education. The struggle to prove causation may be in vein. First, it may never happen. Second, it may not be a good thing (Samuels, 2007; Shelton, Altwerger, & Jordan, 2009). The time has come to maximize reading fluency’s research on instruction. Is there actually a connection between implicit comprehension and fluency? Will reading fluency instruction suffice for explicit reading comprehension? Are there types of reading fluency instruction that better support implicit reading comprehension? All of these questions need to be answered by researchers to inform educators. Teachers need to know what reading fluency instruction does, and what it does not do.

In conclusion, the influx in reading fluency research has created a vast body of literature—much of which states the same contentions: reading fluency is important and readers should demonstrate it. Reading fluency may not cause good comprehension, but three constituents come together to produce reading fluency, each of which have been proven to independently aid in comprehension (Klauda & Guthrie, 2008).  Accurately reading words helps (Rasinski, 1984); automaticity, or reading quickly and effortlessly, helps (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974); attending to prosodic features also helps (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2008). Now it is time to establish which aspect of comprehension is most supported by reading fluency instruction.
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References

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© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.