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Fluency building processes

Prepared by John Church, PhD, School of Educational Studies and Human Development

University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

A learner may acquire the ability to respond correctly without prompting yet still be unable to respond quickly enough for the new skill to be of much use. For example, a child may be able to respond correctly to all single digit addition questions, perhaps by counting up to find the total but, because the child has to count to find the answer, each response takes a long time to produce (maybe 6 to 8 seconds). Responding, although correct, is slow because the child has to work out the answer to each question and this takes time. With practice, correct responding becomes faster and more automatic. Eventually the learner reaches the stage where they can respond sufficiently fluently (speedily) and effortlessly for the skill to be functional in everyday life.

Much learning, then, involves not only learning how to perform a particular skill but how to perform the skill with a functional level of fluency. Children who have mastered the single digit addition facts are able to give the answer to an addition fact very quickly. The child who has mastered the addition facts is able to respond much more quickly because the answers have been memorised and can be provided “automatically”, that is, without having to spend time consciously working out each answer. An answer which has been memorised can usually be recalled in less than a second (Logan & Klapp, 1991).

Not all of the skills and understandings specified in the curriculum need to be practised to mastery and there has been little research to identify which skills should be so practised. It seem logical to assume that all skills which will be needed again at subsequent steps of the school curriculum should be built to high levels of fluency when first taught. This review will refer to these skills as basic skills. The most obvious basic skills are those involved in fluent talking, reading, handwriting, keyboarding, spelling, compositional writing, mathematical computation, and recognising examples of critically important concepts.

The importance of the fluency building phase of teaching is not always recognised by teachers. As a consequence, not all students achieve mastery of (fluency in) the basic skills upon which later learning will depend.

Research suggests that fluency building is of vital importance for three separate reasons.

Fluency is needed for reinforcement and maintenance. Most skills do not begin to generate reinforcement for the user until they can be performed with a certain degree of fluency. An instrumentalist will get no reinforcement from playing in a band until he or she can play both accurately and quickly enough to keep up with the other players. Skills which can be performed quickly and accurately tend to generate more reinforcement than skills which can only be performed slowly and hesitantly. A child who can only read at the rate of 50 words a minute will get much less reinforcement from reading than the child who can read at 250 words a minute.

Where the aim of teaching is to develop in the learner a skill or skills which the learner will continue to use, then it is essential that the target skills be practised until they can be performed fluently enough to generate reinforcement. If, by the end of instruction, a skill is not fluent enough to generate its own reinforcement, then that skill is unlikely to be used when instruction ends. “A child who is able to solve basic addition facts at a rate of one per minute with perfect accuracy might know how to add, but it is unlikely that he will have time to add in most situations. In order to make a skill truly useful for a child, we must bring the child’s performance up to some level of fluency. He must be able to perform the skill quickly and easily, or he will probably never use it at all” (White & Haring, 1980, p. 233).

Fluency is needed for retention. Skills and understandings which are practised only to independence are often forgotten. Skills and understandings which are practised to mastery, on the other hand, tend to be remembered and to remain functional for a very long time (Bullara, Kimball & Cooper, 1993; Ivarie, 1986; Olander, Collins, McArthur, Watts & McDade, 1986; Shirley & Pennypacker, 1994; Singer-Dudeck & Greer, 2005; Sterling, Goetz & Sterling, 1984). Research into remembering is now quite advanced. The best predictor of remembering, at the conclusion of instruction and practice, is level of fluency, that is the speed with which responses can be recalled.

A child who has achieved a high level of fluency in basic multiplication facts will probably remember these multiplication facts for the rest of his or her life. The reason for this is that responses cannot be performed quickly until they have been “memorised” and, once something has been memorised to the point where it can be immediately recalled, it tends to be remembered for long periods of time. Where the aim of teaching is to develop in the learner a set of correct responses, or a set of knowledge responses which must be remembered because they will be needed again at some later time, then it is essential that these responses be practised until they can be instantly recalled.

Fluency needed for subsequent learning. Not only does level of fluency predict long term retention it also predicts rate of improvement with respect to more advanced skills. One of the first demonstrations of the importance of bringing basic skills to adequate levels of fluency was provided by Haughton (1972) who studied the effects of a variety of remedial teaching strategies which could be used with students who were having difficulty with maths. He found that bringing the students to fluency on basic skills (e.g. basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fraction operations) had a far greater effect in accelerating future learning than any other kind of remedial work. Since Haughton’s initial demonstration there have been a number of further experimental demonstrations of the rule that, when tool skills lower in the curriculum hierarchy are practised to high levels of fluency, skills which build upon these earlier skills are acquired much more quickly (Clark, 2001; Evans & Evans, 1985; Evans, Mercer & Evans, 1983; Johnson & Layng, 1992; McDowell & Keenan, 2002; Van Houten & Sharma (nd) cited in Van Houten, 1980). “Our charts show us again and again that the higher the prerequisite skill rates, the faster a complex skill will be learned” (Johnson & Layng, 1992, p. 1480).

It is thought that new skills are acquired more quickly when the component skills are fluent for two main reasons. First, the student who has practised component skills to a high level of fluency is able to concentrate more completely on learning the new task or procedure. Secondly, the student who has practised component skills to a high level of fluency is able to work more quickly and to complete more practice examples involving the more advanced skill in the time available. Students who have achieved high levels of fluency in tool skills at the time when they are first taught also seem to find school work less effortful and more enjoyable and tend to require less external reinforcement in order to maintain adequate levels of motivation. Such students are often referred to as students who are “intrinsically motivated”.

In fact, several studies have shown that fluency in the basic skills is strongly correlated with both current levels of achievement and future growth. In other words, a student's level of fluency in basic skills can be used to predict future achievement levels. “The number of words read aloud correctly and incorrectly from a basal text reliably and validly discriminates growth in reading proficiency throughout the elementary school years” (Deno, 1985, p. 224).


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