Fluency and its Role in Foundational Literacy
The recent announcement by the Prime Minister that children should be able to read 30-35 correct words per minute by grade 3 has necessitated a closer look at fluency, its importance in foundational literacy, and how it can be measured.Go Back
By Saktibrata Sen and Sourav Banerjee
October 20th, 2020
The recent announcement by the Prime Minister that children should be able to read 30-35 correct words per minute by grade 3 has necessitated a closer look at fluency, its importance in foundational literacy, and how it can be measured.
Fluency is a special enabler for someone learning to read such that it ensures an effective speed of reading. If fluent, the individual reader can relocate her efforts to understand what is being read, during the act of reading. Reading fluency includes accurate automatic word recognition, appropriate speed, and appropriate prosody (Applegate, Applegate, & Modla, 2009). In order to read well, children must be able to decode the written text with a certain level of automaticity, i.e., without putting in too much effort and almost instantly. It is due to fluency to a large extent, that while we are reading a wonderful engaging text, we are able to pause on a word at will, or think deeply about a sentence, or simultaneously connect information in different parts of the text. And here too, while one is reading this paragraph, one has read and made sense almost instantly, largely because we are fluent readers.
Fluency and Indian Scripts
The Indian scripts, along with some more variants in South and South-East Asia, belong to the family of Indic Alpha syllabaries, with ‘Brahmi’ as their common ancestor. In these scripts, the existence of sound symbol units are more or less coherent in relationship. For instance, in the Devanagari script, the sound of the letter क would always be /क/ for all words like कमल, चकमा, महक, etc. However, this is not true for English where the letter ‘t’ may sound differently even in the same word, like ‘station’. Hence, fluency seems to be easily achieved during the initial years of school in Indic Alpha syllabaries, provided it is done through planned and explicit instruction strategies.
Reading Fluency and Comprehension
Research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that it is important for the child’s brain to have free working or short-term memory to be able to simultaneously read and comprehend. If a child focuses only on reading or recognising the words in a sentence, she might lose track of the meaning because of limited working memory. For her to be able to read and comprehend simultaneously, she needs to have space in her working memory. If she learns to decode words fluently and automatically, then her brain has more space to focus on grasping the meaning of the sentence.
Reading fluency helps improve reading comprehension, and after a critical point in the child’s learning process, fluency gets subsumed under comprehension. For efficient readers, the effective speed of reading and the deeper comprehension during reading go hand in hand, almost automatically. However, greater speed does not necessarily mean better comprehension. After the child attains a certain minimum speed and fluency of reading, comprehension doesn’t improve with further increase in reading speed.
It is also important to note here, that fluency alone does not ensure comprehension. While it is a critical component for a child to be able to comprehend text, it is not the only component. Various other factors like the extent of the child’s vocabulary, background knowledge, level and genre of text, motivation of the reader, etc. also affect reading comprehension. Although, it has been observed that children who comprehend a text well typically have accurate and fluent word reading skills.
Fluency measure and benchmark
Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), measured in correct words per minute, is used as a measure of fluency across the world. Room to Read, in its programs across India, has measured ORF using the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) tool, and has found a strong correlation between ORF and comprehension. We also found a strong correlation between reading outcomes of children measured through EGRA, and through ASER and NAS. Children with higher ORF and comprehension scores in EGRA were found to do well in both ASER and NAS too.
ORF benchmarking is language specific, and the benchmark may vary from language to language. This is an important consideration to be made when announcing national or state level ORF benchmarks. Ideally, these benchmarks should be formulated after rigorous research in each language. It is calculated based on various statistical models to ensure the right threshold for effective speed of reading with comprehension.
We also need to be cognisant of the fact that depending on reading abilities, linguistic backgrounds, and exposure to text or literature, children may not achieve the benchmark at the same time. If the home language is different from the medium of instruction at school, the time required to decode all aksharas automatically and attain a certain level of fluency might take even longer.
Developing a fluent reader
Room to Read’s literacy programs across Hindi speaking states have established that it is possible for children to read with fluency and comprehension by the end of grade 2 through a structured pedagogical approach. Such an approach involves simultaneously working on the three critical pillars of literacy – oral language development, orthographic expertise (how letters and sounds are stored in memory and called into action when reading or writing to recognise words and construct meaning), and exposure to text. In Indian languages, children have to automatize numerous akshara units, including consonants, vowels, vowel sound markers, consonants with vowel markers or consonant clusters with vowel markers. For children to be able to succeed in doing all of this, the curriculum must provide ample time and practice opportunities.
However, in this dominant narrative for ‘time’ and ‘practice’, what we often overlook is the role oral language plays in the process of learning to read. And more importantly, the role of age appropriate literature. It enables children to draw on the cognitive resources of enriched language to make sense of the text they are reading. It also enhances the other factors that determine reading fluency and comprehension capacity like vocabulary and background knowledge. Thus, books are extremely important for learners negotiating with the oral and written worlds when learning to read.
Our end goal of literacy and education must succeed in helping children become critical, independent, thinking, empathetic, and deeply engaged citizens. This is the need of the hour — it ties in with the larger societal and entrepreneurial needs of the 21st Century we live in.
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