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What are we ‘wading’ for?

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Journey to an imaginary pool where a series of tasks determines your swimming strength followed by the awards ceremony.  Some of us would earn the “deep water” badge due to our extensive knowledge of several strokes and the ability to perform them with grace and ease. We could easily swim several lengths of a pool thereby proving our ability to sustain ourselves in deep water without the risk of drowning.  By contrast, others would earn the “shallow water” certificate.  We may only know one stroke but aren’t able to execute it correctly and with enough automaticity to swim even the width of the pool without stopping to rest our feet on the bottom!

This imaginary certificate leads to an essential question concerning one of the five basic reading components.  “Are we wading around in the shallow end of the pool regarding fluency or are we swimming in deep water?” 

In my opinion, fluency is one of the most misunderstood words in today’s assessment world.  It’s also a hot topic as evidenced by a couple of previous posts.  Renee Smith’s centered on math fact fluency.  Robi Alstrom used Lego building blocks to illustrate how fluent reading depends on all areas of the brain working together and in synch.  Both are worth a few minutes of your time.

First we need a definition to clear up any misconceptions.  In their article, Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension, John Pikulski and David Chard provide a synthesis of the definitions in the Report of the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) and The Literacy Dictionary (Harris & Hodges, 1995): Reading fluency refers to efficient, effective word-recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of text. Fluency is manifested in accurate, rapid, expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension.

They believed a definition was key to making important decisions about not only teaching fluency but the assessment of it as well.  This is where “shallow” and “deep” become central in our understanding.  A shallow view lends itself to practices that typically urge students to just read faster.  By contrast, a deep understanding views fluency as a developmental process, like Robi’s Lego demonstration.  A student’s ability to read fluently begins early in their reading development with print and with the phonology (sound system) that becomes related to that print.  The deep view considers decoding as consistently related to comprehension.


Whether we want to admit it or not, we can’t truly multi-task!  We’re able to do more than one thing at a time only if we alternate our attention between the two tasks or activities, OR if one of the activities is so well learned that it can be done automatically.  This is the assumption made when we combine driving and talking on a phone.  We assume our driving is so automatic that we can focus our attention on a conversation. 

Fluency includes two activities: 1) decoding and 2) constructing meaning from the text.  As readers we cannot focus attention on both.  Which one requires constant attention?  If you said 2) and added that constructing meaning requires critical thinking and making inferences then we’re left with the conclusion that decoding must be automatic or the student will drain the brain’s energy figuring out the words.  The best way to recognize words is through instant recognition that allows all of the attention to the making of meaning. 

If we say our belief system places us in the deep water of fluency that will allow our students to focus attention on meaning, then how are we teaching the “basic strokes” of word recognition and are we using the essential resources that allow students to practice them?  Many of us are only shallow water swimmers for the very reason that many of our students are not fluent.  We were taught with hodge podge, in the moment, lessons without guided practice.  We weren’t taught ALL the skills with a simple to complex swimming curriculum with the expectation that each of us would return to the pool for guided practice until all the strokes became automatic.  Receiving such would have almost guaranteed us “independent swimmer” status at which time we’d be motivated to continue swimming because we’re capable of doing so easily.


One thing is certain.  We didn’t become deep water, automatic swimmers by someone pushing us into that depth of water and expecting the surface of the water to keep us afloat.  Unfortunately, that strategy would almost certainly lead to drowning if we were left unattended.  Yet we often do that to our younger, primary readers with instructional approaches that spend the majority of teaching time using picture clues and language/sentence context to figure out words.  We’re expecting the surface of the text to keep them afloat.  However, in narrative text pictures soon disappear (consider third grade and above) and rarely support in informational text in the content areas.  The use of context for word recognition also fails them as supported by a review of research stating, “words that carry the most meaning can be correctly identified by context only 10% of the time” (Ehri 1998).  Eventually our students fail to read fluently because they lack instant recognition of words.  IF we want our students to become accurate, automatic decoders so all the brain’s energy can focus on meaning then we must first teach them word recognition using a systematic, simple to complex, phonemic awareness and phonics curriculum.  We immediately guide the transfer of those skills to connected text by using decodable books as the primary resource when the child goes to the pool to practice as well as ensuring ample time in the pool actually practicing.  (Note: I understand the importance of teaching vocabulary/language skills at an early age and am not de-emphasizing the importance of including practices that focus on them, e.g. read-alouds, shared reading, etc.)

Several years ago I was faced with some important facts.  As a teacher of primary-aged students, I was increasingly aware of their inability to reach the initial benchmark goals in reading rate by the middle and end of first grade.  The continued use of the same curriculum and instructional practices would guarantee that many of my students would eventually drown while reading text.  Was I willing to advance my knowledge of the developmental process of reading?  Watch Robi Alstrom’s podcast again.  If you don’t have a systematic curriculum for teaching word recognition then initiate the dialogue with colleagues.  You’ll find many willing to take the journey with you. 


The swimming pool’s open and the water’s a perfect temperature.  Are you wading in the shallow water or swimming in deep water?  Does your belief system hold the shallow view of fluency or the deep view of fluency?  The choice is yours, but the outcomes are students who need to read complex text.  Are we preparing them for THEir future?

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