Building the Foundations for Fluency and Deep Reading

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Three literary scholars took an in-depth look at the components of the reading brain in relation to fluency and comprehension during the edLeader Panel “Building the Foundations for Fluency and for Deep Reading.” This panel was the second in a two-part series on Closing the Fluency Gap, with part one exploring the science of learning.

Tim Odegard, Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies and Professor of Psychology at Middle Tennessee State University, referred to fluency deficits as a national crisis, pointing out that two-thirds of students in the United States struggle with reading fluency and comprehension.

“We need to remind ourselves about conceptually what are good predictors but then more importantly, what are the component skills that we target for instruction and how do we develop fluency in those,” said Odegard.

Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, shared these statistics on the state of fluency in the United States:

  • Only one-third of children in grades 4 and 8 read proficiently or fluently enough to comprehend well (deep reading)
  • Half of that third are children of color
  • More than half of children of color are not reading at a basic level in grade 4
  • More than 70 percent of individuals with dyslexia have fluency issues

“Literacy is a basic human right and we must do our best not just around the world, which some of us do, but in our own backyards to ensure that all of us have the fluency necessary to be deep readers,” she said.

Wolf talked about the origins of reading fluently with comprehension and the components that contribute to the fluent reading brain. She defines fluency as the speed with which all the component parts of the reading brain circuit function individually and are connected.

“When we talk about fluency, we go well beyond phonology and phoneme awareness to include what I call the POSSUM skills—phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and morphology—and their integration with text,” she explained. “Only when fluency reaches almost automatic speeds can attention be allocated to deep reading comprehension processes.”

Analogical thinking, imagery, insight and reflection, critical analysis, and empathy and perspective are components that help the reader go beyond the wisdom of the author, with each new reading building upon what the reader has read before.

“Fluency connects circuit components to deep reading, which connects science and story, which connects opposing approaches to the teaching of reading,” said Dr. Carolyn Brown, reading researcher and Chief Academic Officer and Co-founder of Foundations in Learning. She emphasized the importance of strengthening the connections and integrating multiple components, as well as building automaticity in the components through learning principles and practices.

Brown, who has developed tools and testing solutions that optimize language and literacy development, talked about ways educators can structure opportunities to facilitate and foster fluency. She stressed models of language development, learning, and memory to retain, store, and retrieve information, and models of practice that develop automaticity application and generalization.

Brown said automaticity has been studied for more than half a century and shared a story regarding her own research. “We began to look at what it is about practice that changes how we can remember and retrieve information. It was very clear that when you internalize these components and the regularities, they begin to become integrated into a single language reading system. Then you have the benefit of being able to not only store them but have instantaneous retrieval,” she said. She warned, however, that methods focusing primarily on “mastery” can inhibit generalization and automaticity.

The experts agreed that when a child knows a word deeply, and knows about its structure and its meaning, they not only know about it when they see it in text, but they can also generalize what is true about it to another word.

“Sometimes our goal is to see if we can test them going right from orthography to semantics. If they can’t get there, what do you do if you’re a teacher and you’re one on one? You bring something back so that they’re making those connections and you’re facilitating that,” Brown said. “If you have a whole classroom or two-thirds of your students who need this help, we have to figure out ways in which we can give them those experiences, and we have to target all the language units and intermix those so that they’re pushing their brain to see the patterns across tasks.”

The panelists also addressed the role of technology in developing fluency, noting it can be a helpful tool when used correctly. “I think technology can be a great aid for the multiple exposures that are needed,” Wolf said. “We absolutely emphasize books and print, but at the same time different individuals can be enhanced with technology.”

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, Closing the Fluency Gap Series – Part 2: Building the Foundations for Fluency and for Deep Reading, sponsored by WordFlight, a Foundations in Learning Solution.

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Article by Diana St. Lifer, based on this edLeader Panel