Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

Breaking the Code, Developing Reflexes and Fluency

At one end are children who typically are still at the pre-school level or the kindergarten level, and breaking the code for these children means understanding the underlying principle that letters represent sounds. They may not know all the letters, they may not know all the sounds, and they certainly may not know all the links between letters and sounds, but the idea that these scribbles on a page are symbols that represent sounds is the beginning of breaking the code.

At the other end of breaking the code the whole process flows extremely fluently. The letters are over learned, the sounds are over learned, the connections between them are over learned and automatic, and it’s no longer necessary to think about it.

Fluency and the Basic-Proficiency Spectrum

Someone who can read at the basic level can take age appropriate text, and the assessments that we use are generally assessments based on natural texts, the sort of books that children would be assigned in the classroom. Someone who is reading at the basic level can understand the words, can answer simple questions about the factual information presented in the written text and can read with enough fluency to get through the material on time and answer questions. Students who are performing at the proficient level can go beyond that to make reasonable inferences from the material they read.

Proficient, Fluent Reading Doesn't Require Conscious Processing

Children who perform at the proficient level not only can understand the words that they’re reading and the paragraphs that they’re reading, in the sense of bringing to bear information from their own experience, other classes, reading, home and background to bear on what they’re reading; but they also read fluently. That means they’ve broken the code; they can turn letters into sounds at a level that doesn’t really require conscious processing anymore.

It’s like the child who has learned to ride a bicycle and really has learned to ride it. That child is not thinking about where her feet are on the pedals and how quickly she has to turn the pedals around and whether her hands are on the brake or not. That part of the process has been over learned and the child doesn’t even have to think about it anymore, and can now think about where the bicycle is going and why the trip is going to be taken and whether she should be going fast or slowly.

Children who have really broken the code have moved to fluency. The whole process of dealing with the code is now occupying a different section of the brain; it doesn’t require a lot of thought and allows them to go on and think about what they are exposed to, what they are reading, what’s written on the page and what it really means.

Left Side of the Brain - The Word Forming Area Key to Fluency

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: To us, when we think of how children learn to read, children first, you know, obviously learn the letters and the sounds. Then they learn strategies to sound out words. When they’re doing that, that’s still laborious. It demands attention.

After they’ve read a word correctly a number of times — no one knows exactly how many times, some people think four or six, and it probably varies for each child — but have read a word over and over again correctly — and that’s the key, correctly — then that the word becomes automatic, and they just need to look at it and they automatically recognize it. That’s where that occipital temporal region becomes involved. So it’s really that occipital temporal region that is critical because it’s that same ventral stream on the left side of the brain. So this particular area on the left side of the brain, the word forming area, is the area that we and others believe serves the expertise in reading. That’s very, very important because when you can read a word fluently it’s read automatically. That means you don’t have to devote conscious attention to it. And unless you can read words fluently, you’re not going to enjoy reading.

It’s hard work. That why I think so many people misunderstand what a struggling reader is all about. It’s not that they can’t read. That may happen, but it’s very rare. But it’s how much effort they have to put into it.

David Boulton: The bandwidth they’re consuming to do the processing to get to that level of fluency that can allow them to run.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That’s right.

Sally Shaywitz, Pediatric Neuroscience, Yale University, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia. Source: COTC Interview – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shaywitz.htm#TheChalle

Hesitation Impedes Fluency

Dr. Zvia Breznitz: The dyslexic mind has some additional problems and one of them is that the template of the word is not stored properly. And every time he has to look for it, he has to connect the grapheme to phoneme almost every time that he reads. So he learns to hesitate in order to produce it as much as he can in an accurate way.

David Boulton: So his or her brain learned to hesitate in order to allow the syncromesh to happen between the different components that have to feed in

Dr. Zvia Breznitz: Right, exactly.

Zvia Breznitz, Director, Laboratory for Neurocognitive Research, University of Haifa. Source: COTC Interview – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/breznitz.htm#Hesitation

Disfluency and Public Shame

Typically, from first through third grades there is a lot of oral reading, and there are interactions where the kids are expected to read out loud, orally or in round robin. When kids are hesitant, disfluent, inaccurate, slow and labored in reading, that is very visible to their peers and remember the peers, the other kids, again look at reading as a proxy for intelligence. It doesn’t matter if this kid is already a genius and can do algebra in the second grade, reading produces particular perceptions. Better said, lousy reading produces a perception of stupidity and dumbness to peers and clearly to the youngster who is struggling. That is the shame. There are very visible differences between kids who are doing well with print and youngsters who are struggling with print. They feel like they’re failures; they tell us that.

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human DevelopmentNational Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates.  Source: COTC Interview – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/lyon.htm#ShameAvoidance

Fluency and the Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect describes what happens over time when some children enter into a positive feedback loop, whereby those who learn to read and break the code with relative ease experience a positive affect and are able to read the text that they are given in schools with fluency. That fluency develops a level of automaticity and because they develop automaticity with sounds and words they’re cognitive work space is freed to operate on the meaning of print, the purpose of why children are engaged in it. And so the world opens up to children who have that cognitive space left, who have automatized the code and words.

The converse of this Matthew Effect that Stanovich outlined in the mid eighties where he developed a model of the educational have’s and have not’s in reading is a sadder tale. Those children who experience inordinate difficulty in breaking the code, who aren’t able to quickly assemble these sounds and put them into larger units we call words, and rapidly proceed through the sentences don’t develop the level of automaticity that allows them to have the cognitive work space available to them. As a result of that lack of automaticity, their resources are taken away and focused on the word level and they aren’t able to operate on the meaning.

So, as a result they find reading to be discouraging, it’s less satisfying and this feedback loop begins where because it’s not pleasurable, because it’s difficult, they don’t engage in it. And because they don’t engage in it as often they don’t develop the automaticity and on and on you go. Now that’s even further compounded by the fact that these educational have not’s are given material that’s well beyond their reading ability. So, the cycle gets exacerbated because we don’t tack or calibrate children’s reading level with the print we give them. And so the cycle just gets worse and worse.

Anne Cunningham, Director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley. Source: COTC Interview: –https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/cunningham.htm#MatthewEffect

Radiant Effects of Disfluent Reading

One of the experiences that can bring home what we’re talking about here is to look at a child who’s struggling with reading. Try to read a passage in a book. Reading that for a fluent reader would involve sixty or seventy words a minute. I have video tapes back from my prior life as a researcher where we have first graders who are taking seven or eight minutes to get through a short, age appropriate paragraph. By the time they get to end of that paragraph, struggling to sound out the words, with parents help, I can’t remember what the child said ten minutes ago, much less the child who is struggling with all the consequences of reading failure.

It’s like any skill, once you’ve acquired it it seems easy, it seems natural. I think parents, teachers and children don’t appreciate how extraordinarily difficult this is. And how if the bar of expectations for what you’re supposed to be doing is way in advance of what you are actually able to do, then theemotional consequences, the frustration feeds into the process.So, you have an explosive mixture of delays in the development of phonologically related skills, delays in the development of semantic knowledge and background knowledge and a contrast between what everybody knows you’re supposed to be able to do and what you are actually able to do. That interferes with the process, as well as a performance problem that often leaves children showing that they’re able to do less than they’re actually able to do because the frustration and emotions, the demands of the task interfere with the child expressing what she’s actually able to do if she relaxed and wasn’t concerned about performance.

Vocabulary and Fluency

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: From the very beginning we have to teach a whole variety of things to kids. In fact, in terms of what I tell teachers or how I organize things in schools that I work in, is that there really are four big things that have to be addressed with literacy instruction.

One of them has to do with words. Initially, you’re talking word recognition. You’re talking all those phonics skills and letters and stuff like that. Eventually, that goes away and it becomes about working with word meanings, working with vocabulary, building up kids’ knowledge of academic language. That’s one piece if it.

The second piece of it is what’s come to be called fluency, which really means you cannot just recognize words, but you must string those words together so that if you read a text aloud it would sound like language. The words would be grouped properly. You would have the emphasis on the right ones.

David Boulton: And it would be flowing at a pace that is consistent with our attention, our natural flow of listening.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: You’ve got it, exactly. 

Connections Between Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary & Comprehension

Dr. Reid Lyon: If I had my druthers, instructional methods wouldn’t be the big deal out there. What would be the big deal is if teachers could ask themselves what does it take to learn to read? It takes phonemic awareness, it takes phonics, it takes the rapid application of those print level skills to text – fluency, it’s called. Even when they do all of those kinds of things, phonemic awareness and phonics and fluency, if kids don’t have vocabulary they won’t understand what the heck they’re reading. So, they’ve got to have vocabulary. We’ve got kids with good phonemic awareness, good phonics, good fluency, good vocabulary – and they still don’t comprehend well. And the reason is they’re not active, they don’t structure their interaction with the print, they don’t summarize, they don’t predict and so on.

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human DevelopmentNational Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates.  Source: COTC Interview – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/lyon.htm#Teachersquestions

Fluency and the DIBELS Assessment

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: …The piece that’s been missing that represents, I think, a new genre of assessment is assessment that’s timely, efficient, parsimonious, targeted to the most essential active ingredients that kids can participate in their writing system readily. It’s recursive, in that you get feedback from it, and has the capacity to go to scale with the information technology that’s available.

For example, most assessment we think about is outcome assessment, achievement tests and high stakes tests.

David Boulton: Which is way downstream from where the learning is actually happening.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, downstream — end of third grade, end of fourth grade, end of eighth grade, end of twelfth grade.

David Boulton: Or end of the actual stream of flow that’s at the core of the progress.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: Whether it’s a day later or an hour later, it’s still downstream.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right. It’s not timely, it’s not in real time. The assessment system we’ve been working with, I think, is a significant departure from traditional assessment because it takes a sample of behavior in one minute, a one-minute sample of a child’s reading behavior. It’s fluency based and it’s predictive of the future.

So, if you think about it, what I’m asserting is that in a one-minute sample you can get a sufficient representation of a child’s ability to negotiate the alphabetic writing system. And that sample is predictive of how that child is going to be down the road. If I take a sample of a child’s behavior in kindergarten, it’s predictive of how that child will do at the end of third grade. Now that, to me, is an assessment system that is powerful, is necessary, and also is one that we can get to scale, and that’s what we’re using right now.

…Then the third piece we rely on is oral reading fluency. This is a measure of a child reading a passage that he or she has not read before, a novel passage at grade level, reading it for one minute and we count the number of words they read correctly. We don’t ask any comprehension questions, yet that indicator of correct words read per minute is highly predictive of children’s comprehension ability.

Edward Kame’enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research under the Institute of Education Scienceshttps://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/kameenui.htm#Assessment

Code Processing, Fluency and Comprehension

David Boulton: I noticed that you mentioned that you infer comprehension from part three of DIBELS.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Or reading fluency.

David Boulton: Based on the rate that they’re moving through text because that implies that they’re processing efficiency/ecologyis up to a certain level, it’s not consuming brain bandwidth, it’s now easier for them to comprehend.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: That’s your assumption?

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s my assumption, exactly. 

David Boulton: Some argue that there’s a lot of kids that are reading words very clearly, without errors, and have a great word stream, yet they still don’t understanding anything.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: I don’t know about a lot of kids.

David Boulton: But my sense is the biggest impedance to comprehension is right here where you’ve put your finger.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely.

David Boulton: That it’s the poor ecology/efficiency of the underlying processing that’s dragging the processing resources down that are necessary for reflective comprehension…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s right.

David Boulton: Not subsequent to that.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Well, you can’t comprehend words if you can’t read the words. You’ve got to first read the words.

David Boulton: Sure. But the argument is, at least in this case, you’ve got kids that are reading the words fine but they’re still not getting it.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Absolutely. That’s a different problem.

David Boulton: I’m asking in the spectrum of things…

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: That’s a small problem. Those are hyperlexic kids. Those are kids that somehow get access to the code, but can’t comprehend and don’t have the semantic experience with words to make connection to the…

David Boulton: They can’t go meta and implicate it all into something they can understand.

Dr. Edward Kame’enui: Exactly, exactly. But those kids are very, very few. I mean, on a population basis, I’d be surprised if it’s one percent. 

Edward Kame’enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research
under the Institute of Education Sciences.  – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/kameenui.htm#CodeProcessingandComprehension

Success in School Depends on Fluent Reading

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: The functions of reading are many. At the fundamental level, the level I think everybody understands, reading is a critical academic task. It’s critical not only in the sense that Language Arts is a core component of the curriculum for elementary school children, but also in the sense that every area of the curriculum starting in elementary school depends on fluent reading.

… Writing has a unique function of incorporating within the written text everything that one needs to know in order to understand the text and it generates a different way of thinking. Preliterate societies, even adults in those societies, don’t think in the way that people do in societies that are literateAnd so the process of education, being an educated person in the Western tradition, I think, depends very much on being able to read and read fluently.

Slow Readers Need More Time

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: A very important thing is children grow up to be adolescents and young adults, and whatever they want to aspire to be, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a writer, they often have to take a series of tests. One of the things we know is that because children who struggle to read don’t develop that left word forming area that’s responsible for being able to read more fluently, they read very slowly and require extra time.

That becomes a really important thing because so many children who’ve worked so hard all their lives, they come to the point where they need to take an SAT or an ALSED Law School Admissions Test or a GRE, and they require extra time if they’re going to be able to show what they know. There’s been a very strong – it’s not a movement, I don’t know the right word – but these children are more and more being denied the extra time that they require.

David Boulton: There’s this general failure in the way that we think about assessment to actually meet the kids in some way that reflects what their situation is.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That’s right, not to feel that they’re somehow getting away with something or weak. If somebody needs glasses, you wouldn’t question it, or if a diabetic needs insulin, in the same we know that children or young adults and adults who have reading problems require extra time. For me, as a physician and as a scientist, one of the most exciting things has been that we’ve been able to now demonstrate that in children who are dyslexic, they don’t develop that word forming area but they do develop compensatory regions on the right side of the brain and also in the front that allow them to read. But not automatically so that they can become highly accurate readers, but by the investment of an extraordinary amount of time and energy. They can get there, but their route is much slower and more inefficient.

Sally Shaywitz, Pediatric Neuroscience, Yale University, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia. Source: COTC Interview – https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shaywitz.htm#SlowReaders

Disfluent Reading Costs Seven or Eight Times as Much to Remediate

I can tell you that for those children who need remediation, if children do not have reading fluency by the end of third grade, it’s going to cost seven to eight times as much in time and in money to address their reading problems and get them up to grade level in reading.

Children's Futures all but Fated by Reading

Children who are failing at reading at the end of the first grade are extremely likely to be failing at reading at the end of fourth grade. And failure in reading strongly predicts failure in all other academic subjects. So, a child who is not breaking the code well, who has not figured it out, who is falling behind, is a child whose academic life course is at risk and because of that whose life is at risk because the economic opportunities of life.

Again, at the lower end of the dimension are ones that have profound effects on not only obvious things: quality of life dimensions, how much money one earns, or the neighborhood one lives in, but actually have effects on longevity, on how long you will live.

So, reading again, is absolutely fundamental. It’s almost trite to say that. But in our society, as it is structured, the inability to be fluent is to consign children to failure in school and to consign adults to the lowest strata of job and life opportunities.

Fluent Reading is Not a Model of How to Teach Reading

Dr. Keith Stanovich: I think your point about it really takes an introspective leap to get into the mind of the learner, I think that’s the important point. It certainly resonates with a lot of problems the reading field has had by using the introspections of highly practiced people.

David Boulton: Yes. That was one of the pitfalls of the whole language argument, right?

Dr. Keith Stanovich: Exactly.

David Boulton: How a great reader reads is not a model of how to teach those who don’t know how to read.

Dr. Keith Stanovich: It’s not a model of how to teach someone reading. Now we’re going back to the beginning of the interview because that was exactly Frank Smith’s conjecture in understanding reading in that 1971 book; that a view into the processing mechanisms of the fluent reader was a perfect view into the world of the learner and how you should deal with the learner. And that turned out to be exactly wrong. 

Keith Stanovich, Canada’s Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto. Source: COTC Interview https://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/stanovich.htm#PerspectiveRefresh

Not Having Reading Fluency is Missing Out

To be able to be lost in a book, to enjoy that activity, to be able to engage in the empathy that comes out of literature and fiction is an experience that those of us who have been involved in it think of as one of the core aspects of living well. Individuals who are prevented from having that sort of experience because of lack of reading skills or reading fluency, I think, are missing out on a significant portion of what it means to enjoy life.