Fluency… why we don’t care.

by Nina Lorimor-Easley

Okay, I’ll admit that’s a headline for the sake of a headline. We do care about fluency. We want our kiddos to be fluent readers. The problem comes when we care about fluency more than we care about what makes a reader fluent. I spend a lot of time repeating myself, “Fluency is the result, not the cause”. So why all the hubbub about fluency?

Fluency tests, in their purest form, are the hypothetical thermometers in our classrooms. We should be able to give a fluency test, and from that test identify all of the kiddos who are not meeting benchmarks, and all of those that are easily meeting benchmarks. For those that are meeting benchmarks easily, they are good to go, turn them loose and teach, teach, teach! For those that are not meeting benchmarks, our next steps should be to complete further “diagnostic” work to figure out what underlying skills are lacking – resulting in a lack of fluency. This is where we run into trouble in the public system. Not many of our systems have the time, resources and training to dig deeper. And then of course, once we know what the problem is we have to have the time, resources and training to remediate the issue. Again, not something many of our teachers have, or have access to. There are resources and knowledge in the AEA offices, but those resources are spread too thin, and bear the heavy burden of red tape that comes with state and federal funding. Our AEA’s often have to spend so much time proving what they are doing, they can’t actually do anything; even though they know how and have the proper tools. It is quite a quagmire we have gotten ourselves into.

This focus on fluency causes all sorts of issues. For teachers, they are being directed to remediate something that really can’t be remediated properly. As I said, fluency is the result, not the cause. For students who are successfully and easily reading, they should be doing something else as should the educators who have to take the time to test them. For students who are struggling, they are trying to find ways to “pass” the fluency test which continues to push the student to rely more and more heavily on the bad habits they are developing to “get by”. Not to mention the increased stress of having to take a fluency test (which they know they are going “fail”) more often – sometimes even weekly.
The practice of repeatedly testing fluency for kiddos who are lacking fluency is akin to pushing a basketball player to continually practice a shooting form that we know is incorrect. We know that in a game every shot will be blocked, or we know that after enough time the player’s shoulder will erode – but this bad form will get us to the end of practice, so do it wrong some more! A better plan would be to stop. Take a practice or two, or however many it takes. Bring in a shooting coach. Do what you have to do to correct wrong form and rebuild the skill in a manner that will prove beneficial in the long run. But when it comes to reading – we don’t. We push forward reinforcing errors.

Whose fault is it? Nobody’s really – there is no one person to point at. It is a culmination of many factors; history, system, finances, schedules, etc. (this list is WAY too long to type here.) It’s nobody’s fault, but it certainly is our problem. “So then Nina, what is the answer?” If we must test doggedly, then test accuracy. If we take the time to track accuracy, and assess error patterns we can see what skills are lacking for the reader. This still leaves much to be desired from a teacher efficacy standpoint, but there are many very skilled educators out there who can see a problem and breath their caring professionalism into developing a plan to help. Oh – and there is Google. A teacher and Google are pretty much unstoppable.

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