My sister was reading to her 8 year old son recently and he commented, “Mom, you have really good fluency.” She responded, "I knew that degree in English would be good for something!" When our kids are picking up educational jargon, you can tell that an idea has been discussed at a lot of teacher workshops. So what is this fluency stuff anyway and how do we get it?
Fluency is another buzzword in the wonderful world of teaching reading . It means just what you would think it means, plus a bit more. It is usually explained as when reading sounds natural, like speech. It is measured in a unit called WCPM (words correct per minute) and it is assessed by listening to a child read aloud and counting his errors or miscues. This informal definition leaves out something crucial, however. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, says that fluency is" not a matter of speed; it is a matter of being able to utilitize all the special knowledge a child has about a word--its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions roots and endings--fast enough to have time to read and comprehend." There is a point in our language development where we are able to decode words and read them aloud, but we can't necessarily truly understand what we are reading.
I am quite familiar with this point in one's language development because it is my level in Spanish. I know how most words are pronounced. I can read aloud a children's book or the newspaper and someone listening to me could construct meaning from the words I pronounce. But here's the thing. I can't construct meaning out of it beyond a very elementary level. I can read Corduroy and Jorge el Curioso and the pictures will help me understand these very simple stories. If I am reading a magazine article or a newspaper editorial, my level of understanding drops dramatically. I can still read the words and I can get an idea, but it is rough and sorely lacking in nuance. My knowledge of grammar and syntax is so poor that I simply can't get at the meaning. A sentence like, " He will have had 3 meals by the time he leaves." would leave me utterly mystified, although the vocabulary in use is very simple. The construction of the future perfect tense is way beyond me. There is far more to reading or speaking fluency than being able to recognize and pronounce words at a quick pace.
So how do we help our kids improve their fluency? The research seems to indicate that oral reading, particularly repeated oral reading of a familiar text is the best thing. As adults, we're addicted to novelty. We hate re-runs and the same old thing. We want to get a new pile of books from the library and the kids just want to hear Goodnight, Moon or Where the Wild Things Are for the thousandth time. If kids are at the "you read to me, I'll read to you" stage-- go ahead and encourage repetition. If you feel that their reading could be more fluent, but they are struggling through something new every night, try adding some poetry to the mix. Re-reading poetry is its own reward. It becomes more pleasurable and more poetic as we re-read. I've written elsewhere about the importance of rhyme (See "What is Phonemic Awareness?" a few posts back) and the rhyming and rhythmic nature of poetry encourages language development. Kids generally enjoy poetry-- just keep it short and funny at first and then branch out. It can be fun to perform or recite for the family or a small group and the desire to practice and do well is a great incentive to build fluency.