Evolution of Reading Fluency: A Literature Review
by Chase Young
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Reading fluency has manifested itself in various forms and carried fluctuating weight on its remarkable historic journey to present research paradigms. The names have changed, the definition has transformed, and perception of its impact on the reading process has become more focused. Because of these changes, instructional practices have been implemented. Reading fluency’s constant presence has allowed researchers to better understand its function in reading education. How has fluency’s definition and role changed over the years?

This literature review was conducted using the ERIC database ranging from 1952 to 2005. The search terms used were reading fluency, reading process, oral reading, reading aloud to others, automaticity, and reading rate. Results ranged from 287 to 2,449 articles. The intention was to trace the history of reading fluency from the middle of the last century to present practice.  Each resource was evaluated for its part in reading fluency research by its impact on instruction and further research. One source was Oral Reading in the School Program (Hyatt, 1943).

Reading fluency began as elocution instruction for the purpose of pleasing oral discourse. The primary concern was not comprehension, only that the desired elocution was demonstrated. Reading fluency was not aimed at reflecting the control of other important aspects of the reading process (Hyatt, 1943). 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 early 1960s, reading elocution was examined further to determine its impact on other aspects of reading. Researchers studied the significance of voice variation while reading. Oral reading elocution was known in the classroom as intonation. Noting its existence, Goodman (1964) conducted a linguistic study on the cues and miscues of 100 primary school readers; he observed an interesting phenomenon. Natural intonation came from comprehension of the text, and was portrayed through oral reading. Although many processes were in play, stress, pitch, and juncture manifested with meaning. One might suggest through practice and coaching, a student can eventually produce intonation. However, for it to naturally occur, the student must extract meaning from the text. Therefore, comprehension was deemed essential for fluency in the 1960s.

Although intonation is naturally derived from an individual’s comprehension (Goodman, 1964), intonation is still highly standardized when reading aloud. Prosody is unwritten, and is derived from a standard method of exposing meaning by voice variation. Therefore, students need a window into the proficient reader’s processes regarding the prosodic aspect of reading fluency. Society has created norms for proper pitch, stress, and juncture. As a result, individual interpretation may not affect a reader’s intonation. It can, however, systematically report a reader’s level of comprehension. Because prosodic reading is standardized, students need to be exposed to good examples of fluent readers. Teacher modeling of prosodic reading helps students internalize the characteristics (Farrell, 1966).

Chomsky (1976) realized the difficult task of teaching reading fluency and understood that reading fluency instruction needed additional methods. Audio recordings were played for five eight-year-old students as they read along in their corre
sponding books. The five students were identified as behind in reading by as much as two years. After four months of repeated readings with audio assistance, students were able to fluently read the previously frustrational texts with adequate oral fluency. Students involved in the study showed increased positive results on their school administered achievement tests, reading subtest (WRAT), Gates-McKillop Diagnostic Test, and assessment of their oral reading speed. Additionally, student confidence and motivation increased. The research created a new path to divergent ways of developing reading fluency. The late 1970s saw an increase in seminal works in reading fluency.

Following Chomsky’s (1976) work, repeated readings became a means to develop reading fluency, and remains one of the best ways to increase reading rate and word recognition. At first, the use of repeated readings was largely confined to helping students with learning disabilities. Repeated readings is not a complete literacy program, it was mainstreamed to help students’ word recognition automaticity based on research conducted by Samuels (1979). Students involved in the study selected relatively easy passages and repeatedly read them until the desired words per minute (WPM) was achieved. In this case, goals were set between 80 and 90 WPM. Critics believed students graphing their WPM to be a boring task, yet Samuels found students were motivated by the visual representation of their progress.

Samuels asserts, “for the purposes of fluency, speed rather than accuracy should be stressed” (p. 377). The statement was based on the loss of fluency in efforts to obtain 100% word accuracy. Understandably, students striving for perfection in word accuracy are constantly fearful of making mistakes; therefore perfection can act as a hindrance to their WPM goal, thus holding the student back from further readings. The repeated reading method increased reading rate and word recognition—two components of reading fluency. Dowhower (1991) will discuss the increasing neglect of prosody as fluency evolves into the early 1990s.

Parsing sentences into meaningful phrases requires knowledge of prosody. Prosody sounds nice, yet according to Kleiman, Winograd, and Humphrey (1979) has a larger impact than mere eloquence. “…The lack of prosodic information in written language contributes to the difficulty some children have in parsing written sentences” (p. 11). Prosody, although not correlated to fluency in the research, is a device used to help readers parse sentences into meaningful phrases which is a characteristic of a fluent reader.

Kleiman, et al., used 20 above- and 20 below-average readers in the fourth grade to determine the impact of prosody on the parsing of sentences. The “no-prosody” group was given the same passages as the “prosody” group. The “prosody” group received the passage of 48 sentences, and was also read each sentence twice by a professional speaker. The “no-prosody” was offered the same sentences without the oral reading model. The groups were asked to parse (using slash marks) each sentence into meaningful phrases. Though there was no significant performance differences between the above and below average readers, there was a significant difference among the separate groups. The “prosody” group, after listening to the sentences orally, parsed sentences more accurately than the “no-prosody” group. The knowledge of prosodic features was deemed beneficial in identifying meaningful phrases within sentences (Kleiman et al, 1979).

Not only was prosody linked to meaning-making (Kleiman et al, 1979), automatic word recognition was found to impact comprehension (Stanovich, 1980). In a complicated educational dichotomy of top-down and bottom-up approaches, Stanovich finds the middle ground asserting that interactive-compensatory models for reading fluency separate the proficient from the poor readers. Some believe that higher-level processes in reading (top-down) characterize fluent readers; others believe lower-level processes (bottom-up) are superior. The interactive-compensatory model suggests that fluent readers juxtapose between higher and lower level processes. For example, students compensating for deficient orthographic knowledge rely on context clues to indentify unknown words. Depending on the proficiency of compensatory skills, readers lacking automaticity can rely on speed to identify unknown words through context. Stanovich’s extensive review of the literature reveals that both rapid context-free word recognition and contextual recognition (i.e. reader expectancy) can aid the development of a fluent reader. This compensatory model could have been a response to the Reading Wars where phonics (bottom-up) and whole language (top-bottom) paradigms were affecting all aspects of reading, including fluency.
 
Despite increased research, fluency as a goal was still being neglected. From previous research we know fluency consists of word recognition, reading rate, and prosody. After a firm definition was widely accepted, it was time to turn research into practice. We could now assess good fluency, and poor fluency. However, poor fluency was often used only as an indicator of a poor reader. The assessment results failed to drive instruction. More devastatingly, when results were used, the necessary instruction was not delivered. In fact, teachers still regress to phonics instruction when they should be progressing to fluency instruction to help students become more prosodic and faster in their reading (Allington, 1983).

Allington (1983) notes the extensive research on fluency and the findings implying fluency as an essential piece of the reading process; he asks, “Why hasn’t oral reading fluency become a major focus of beginning or early remedial instruction?” (p. 556). From what seems like frustration, he uses the research to promote practice.

The goal is to move from word calling to phrasing, thus placing fluency on the far right of the developmental reading continuum. However, some readers do not make this shift. Allington (1983) focuses on classroom experiences only, discussing instructional circumstances to exemplify the development of reading fluency.

Four years later, Dowhower (1987) conducted a study with 89 beginning second graders. Dowhower wanted to know whether assisted or unassisted readings had a more positive effect on reading fluency. This time, however, not only was reading fluency (in this case: word recognition reading rate) measured, but also comprehension.

Dowhower (1987) used a time-series experimental design consisting of two randomly selected training groups. One group repeatedly read with assistance, the other without. The experiment was conducted over seven weeks, and reported that both groups reading rate doubled, reading accuracy increased from 89% to 95%. Comprehension also increased from 66% to 81%. Because there were no significant differences in the groups, repeated readings prevailed as an effective strategy to increase reading fluency regardless of assistance. As fluency increased, so did comprehension. Essentially, Dowhower demonstrated that repeating readings did more help students read fast.

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The previous work in fluency had a large impact on remediation, but had difficulty finding its place in mainstream instruction. Rasinski (1989) noted the lack of fluency instruction in the classroom, and attributed it to basal reading programs. Special education teachers may have heeded Allington’s (1983), but mandated mainstream curriculum had not. How can teachers teach fluency when their curriculum does not allow for it? So, the 80’s ended with Rasinski (1989) empowering teachers to utilize the proven fluency models (Allington, 1983; Dowhower, 1987; Chomsky, 1976; Samuels, 1979), neglect “teacher proof” models, and actively consider ways to incorporate fluency instruction.

The 1990s began much like the 1980s. A neglected aspect of fluency was examined. Because reading fluency had been defined, it was easy to determine which aspects were being neglected. Dowhower (1991) returns, saying prosody is “fluency’s neglected bedfellow.” Ironically, Dowhower’s (1987) previous research did not measure prosody. This may have been because the lack of assessment measures. Reading rate was easily timed, word recognition was a simple computation, but prosody’s only measurable characteristic was phrasing (Kleiman, et al.) To correct this, Dowhower (1991) delineated the features of prosodic reading.

Scholars investigating prosody specifically in reading have identified at least six markers related to expressive reading. The following section describe these indicators: (a) presence or lack of pausal intrusions, (b) length of phrases between pauses, (c) number of appropriate and inappropriate phrases, (d) duration of final words of syntactic phrases, (e) the change of pitch at final punctuation marks, and (f) stress or accent. (p. 186)

Prosody, “the neglected bedfellow”, may have been so because of its complexity. However, each of the aforementioned markers can be observed in reading behavior. These complex tasks can be taught directly to students through modeling, phrasing and parsing, repeated readings, and audio assisted reading (Dowhower, 1991). At this point in reading fluency history, the definition is sound, the measures are available, and its impact on instruction has been demonstrated.

Fluency is now a well defined instructional necessity. Although the following statement was made by Rasinski (2000) at the dawn of our millennium, it needs to be revisited today. “Speed does matter.” Slow readers are often poor readers. The fear of producing a generation of “fast readers” may have been the reason for the original publication, but the fear still remains. There is more to fluency than speed, but speed cannot become the next neglected reading goal.

Slow reading necessarily results in less reading. It is also difficult for a slow reader to comprehend because the rate at which a slow reader moves through a text makes it difficult to hold on to the meaning. Finally, slower readers become more frustrated which lowers motivation. Finally, instruction must aim to create faster, more fluent readers. The fear of losing comprehension, neglecting prosody, ignoring word recognition because of reading rate was evident then and now. Still, reading rate cannot be neglected (Rasinski, 2000). 

So far, reading fluency’s widely accepted definition is still intact. Although there were times when features were almost forgotten, researchers continued to prevent it from happening. In 2003, Kuhn & Stahl reviewed the developmental and remedial practices in reading fluency. They used Chall’s (1996) stages of reading development focusing on the fluency state. According to Chall the fluency stage ranges from late first grade to third grade students. Much of the research implies that fluency instruction is most effective in this stage. They also agree with Stanovich (1980) that reading fluency is more than automaticity in word recognition. This movement beyond word recognition as a sole indicator of reading fluency is also in line with the need for prosody (Dowhower, 1991) and reading speed (Rasinski, 2000). 

Although Dowhower (1987) did not find a significant statistical difference in unassisted and assisted repeated readings, there was a small indication that assisted readings increased comprehension more so than unassisted. Kuhn and Stahl (2003) further assert that assisted readings are more effective. The review of fluency research and instruction was in agreement with previous research on the topic. Reading fluency is important, it can be defined and measured, and researched based instruction is working.

How important is reading fluency? According to Hudson, Lane, and Pullen (2005), “Reading fluency is one of the defining characteristics of good readers.” Each of the features of fluent reading can be linked to reading proficiency. Reading accuracy is linked to reading proficiency because it encompasses many reading skills. In order to accurately identify words students must utilize visual, semantic, and syntactic cuing systems. Students must have a strong ability to blend phonemes, recognize phonograms, and understand sound-symbol correspondence.

The second link is to reading rate. Reading quickly demonstrates a student’s mastery of word recognition displayed by fluid and effortless reading. Students have developed rapid word recognition skills, and apply it to text. Readers move swiftly across the page leaving cognition free for comprehension (Hudson, et al., 2005).

Finally, prosody is linked to proficient reading. Prosodic readers demonstrate an understanding of morphemic, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic systems to read with expression (Hudson, et al., 2005). This expression and intonation is also linked to comprehension (Goodman, 1964). The key player in each of these links is the notion that reading fluency is related to comprehension. The characteristics of reading fluency, effortless word recognition, reading in meaningful phrases, reading at an appropriate rate, and prosodic reading, if done automatically, allow cognition to be focused on comprehending the text (Hudson, et al., 2005).

As an infant, fluency was never named. Many times it was stripped of its acquisitions, questioned, and neglected. After a long battle, fluency’s role in reading can only be described as integral. The aspects of fluency can be explicitly instructed, and precisely assessed. Fluency can be used to aid in comprehension, as well as assess it. How has fluency’s role in reading education changed? It defines proficient readers, and is incorporated into the balanced literacy program (Rasinski, 2004). Reading fluency is composed of accuracy, word recognition, and prosody; by no amount of neglect can it ever be taken away thanks to the diligence in reading fluency research.

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References

Allington, R. L. (1983). Fluency: The neglected reading goal. The Reading Teacher, 36, 556-561.

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt-Brace.

Chomsky, C. (1976). After Decoding: What? Language Arts, 53, 288-296.

Dowhower, S. L. (1987). Effects of Repeated Reading on Second-Grade Transitional Readers' Fluency and Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 398-406.

Dowhower, S. L. (1991). Speaking of Prosody: Fluency’s unattended badfellow. Theory Into Practice, 30, 165-176.

Farrell, E. (1966). Listen, My Children, and You Shall Read… English Journal, 55, 39-45.

Goodman, K. (1964). A Linguistic Study of Cues and Miscues in Reading. Chicago, IL: American Educational Research Association

Hudson, R. F., Lane, H. B., Pullen, P.C. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why how? The Reading Teacher, 58, 702-714.

Hyatt, A.V. (1943). Oral reading in the school program: Its history development from 1880-1941. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kleiman, G., Winograd, Humphrey. (1979). Prosody and Children’s Parsing of Sentences. Washington D.C.: National Institute of Education.

Kuhn, M. R., Stahl, S.A. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3-21.

Rasinski, T. V. (1989). Fluency for everyone: Incorporating fluency instruction in the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 42, 690-693.

Rasinski, T. V. (2000). Speed Does Matter in Reading. The Reading Teacher, 54, 146-152

Rasinski, T., Padak, N. (2004). Beyond consensus—beyond balance: Toward a comprehensive literacy curriculum. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20, 91-102.

Samuels, S. J. (1979). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher, 32, 403-408

Smith, N., Grany, L., Bray, W., Wood, K., & Anderson, H. (1952, Jan/Apr). Areas of Research Interest in the Language Arts. Elementary English, 3-36.

Stanovich, K. (1980). Toward an Interactive-Compensatory Model of Individual Differences in the Development of Reading Fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 32-71.

© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.