The Importance of Automaticity and Fluency For Efficient Reading
by Pamela E. Hook and Sandra
Reprinted with permission from the International
Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Winter,
2002, vol. 28, no. 1, pages 9-14. IDA website: http://www.interdys.org.
That issue of Perspectives also includes:
What Does it Take to Read a Letter? (Pages 6-8),
Repeated Reading: An Old Standard is Revisited and Renovated
Creating Rich Associations for the Rapid Recognition of
Words (Pages 19-21) and
Coaching Reading Fluency in Students with Moderate To Severe
Dyslexia (Pages 22-24, and 29)
The reading process involves two separate but highly interrelated
areas - word identification and comprehension. It is well
established that difficulties in automatic word recognition
significantly affect a reader's ability to effectively comprehend
what they are reading (Lyon, 1995; Torgeson, Rashotte, and
Alexander, 2001). Even mild difficulties in word identification
can pull attention away from the underlying meaning, reduce
the speed of reading, and create the need to reread selections
to grasp the meaning. Many students who struggle to learn
to read are able, with appropriate instruction, to compensate
for initial reading problems by becoming accurate decoders
but fail to reach a level of sufficient fluency to become
fast and efficient readers. Thus, the development of techniques
for improving automaticity and fluency is critical. Although
the research is clear that a systematic alphabetic approach
to teaching beginning readers is more effective than a whole
word approach (Adams, 1990; Chall, 1996; Snow, Burns and Griffin,
1009), the most effect ways to develop fluency are less well
understood. Although current research has given us some direction
about effective methods for increasing fluency (National Reading
Panel, 2000), further systematic research is needed to give
us more comprehensive answers to questions concerning the
best methodologies, types of materials, and length/intensity
of interventions necessary for optimal gains. The purpose
of this article is to suggest some techniques that are consistent
with the research and have been found to be either clinically
effective or logically appropriate.
What are Automaticity and Fluency?
Automaticity is defined as fast, accurate and effortless word
identification at the single word level. The speed and accuracy
at which single words are identified is the best predictor
of comprehension. Fluency, on the other hand, involves not
only automatic word identification but also the application
of appropriate prosodic features (rhythm, intonation, and
phrasing) at the phrase, sentence, and text levels. Wood,
Flowers, and Grigorenko (2001) emphasize that fluency also
involves anticipation of what will come next in the text and
that speeded practice alone is not sufficient. Anticipation
facilitates reaction time and is particularly important for
What are the relationships among phonemic awareness,
phonics and orthographic reading?
The ability to read fluently develops during Jeanne Chall's
Stage 2 of reading, Ungluing from Print, which for most students
occurs around second to third grade. (For a complete discussion
of Chall's stage theory of reading acquisition, please see
Chall, 1983.) This is the last stage where the student is
developing skills related to "learning to read"
and after this stage, the child will be required to shift
to an emphasis on "reading to learn." The type of
text being read shifts from being primarily narrative to expository
and the language complexity of the written material begins
to increase dramatically (including vocabulary level, sentence
complexity, and text structure). The importance of background
knowledge for comprehension also increases. Fluent reading
at this point is essential.
Automatic reading involves the development of strong orthographic
representations, which allows fast and accurate identification
of whole words made up of specific letter patterns. English
orthography is generally alphabetic in nature and initially
word identification is based on the application of phonic
word attack strategies (letter-sound association). These word
attack strategies are in turn based on the development of
phonemic awareness, which is necessary to learn how to map
speech to print. It is important to keep in mind that prior
to the stage where children read orthographically, they apply
alphabetic strategies to analyze words (Frith, 1985).
Figure 1: Relationships Among Phonemic Awareness, Phonics,
and Sight Word Recognition Skills.
Figure 1 illustrates the relationships among the processes
involved in word identification. The bottom of the figure
depicts a strong base in phonemic awareness upon which word
identification skills are built. There is, however, a reciprocal
relationship between the development of phonemic awareness
and the development of phonic word attack strategies. As the
child becomes more familiar with letters, phonemic awareness
also improves. Ultimately, strong underlying orthographic
patterns begin to emerge.
Most children go through this process relatively seamlessly,
moving easily from the use of alphabetic strategies to the
formulation of strong orthographic representations that can
be accessed automatically. There is, however, a percentage
of "at risk" children (approximately 20-40% depending
on the specific school demographics) who benefit from having
phonemic awareness and phonic word attack strategies systematically
taught. There is also a smaller percentage of children who
will need more intensive work in this area (See Sanders 2001
for a more in-depth discussion). The children who struggle
the most with learning to read also fail to develop adequate
automaticity (orthographic reading) and need structured, systematic
training in this area. It appears that early preventive intervention
may be particularly important in the development of automaticity
and fluency (Torgeson et al, 2001).
How do we develop this automatic, orthographic reading
ability in our students?
In the beginning - the six syllable types
One of the most powerful tools to begin instruction in this
area is using the visual patterns inherent in the six syllable
types (Steere, Peck and Kahn, 1988.) (See Figure 2.)
|Figure 2. The Six Syllable Types
1. closed -not
(closed in by a consonant - vowel makes its short
2. open - no
(ends in a vowel - vowel makes its long
3. silent e - note
(ends in vowel consonant e - vowel makes its long
4. Vowel combination - nail
(the two vowels together make a sound)
5. r controlled
(contains a vowel plus 4 - vowel sound is changed)
6. consonant- l -e - table
(at the end of a word)
It is these letter (orthographic) patterns that signal vowel
pronunciation. For example, while one or more consonants at
the end of a syllable (closed syllable type) signals a short
vowel sound, a vowel at the end signals a long vowel sound,
Highlighting, underlining, or enhancing the saliency of the
visual pattern in some way is recommended to direct the student's
attention to the critical components of the orthographic image.
Students must become able not only to apply their knowledge
of these patterns to recognize the syllable types, but to
see these patterns automatically, and ultimately read words
as wholes rather than through the application of word attack
strategies. This need to move from decoding to automatic recognition
was recognized years ago by Anna Gillingham when she incorporated
the Phonetic Word Cards activity into the Orton-Gillingham
lesson plan (Gillingham and Stillman, 1997). This activity
involves having the student practice reading words (and some
nonwords) on cards as wholes beginning with simple syllables
and moving systematically through the syllable types to complex
syllables and two-syllable words. The words are divided into
groups that correspond to the specific sequence of skills
In addition to acquiring phonic word attack strategies,
prosodic features at the word level such as stress on syllables
are important. At times, poor readers can accurately decode
a word but true recognition of the word eludes them because
they have not correctly accented one of the syllables. Dyslexic
students often have difficulty hearing the accented syllables
in a word, so teachers should first determine if a student
is able to discriminate and identify through listening alone.
If a student cannot hear differences, lessons should begin
with listening practice and then move to oral production.
Visual and tactile/kinesthetic strategies can be incorporated
with listening if necessary.
A teacher can begin to practice listening for and
producing accented syllables using the alphabet.
The alphabet is presented in pairs and one letter of the pair
is accented until a student is successful. The teacher begins
presenting the accent only on the first letter until the student
is consistent and then presents the accent only on the second
letter. When a student can do both of these successfully,
the teacher can then present mixed pairs to practice (e.g.,
A'B C'D EF or GH' IJ' KL'
or M'N O P' Q'R). Instruction should
move as quickly as possible from using the alphabet to using
real words. The teacher can begin with names to practice listening
for accented syllables (e.g., Court' ney,
Michelle', Ty ler, Je sus').
Mirrors can be used for visual reinforcement so students
can see that their mouths open wider when they produce an
accented syllable. If students need more reinforcement, they
can place their hands along their jawline and feel the jaw
opening wider on the accented syllable. Visual signals such
as bolding or accent marks can be used to indicate which syllable
is accented. Manipulatives such as tokens or blocks can also
be used to indicate accent placement by moving the token for
the accented syllable higher than the tokens for the unaccented
syllables (see Bell, 1997 for a complete description of this
Training and Linking the Orthographic Processor
Although most students learn to apply the rules of phonic
word attack strategies and later of prefix, stem, and suffix
through multisensory, structured systematic teaching techniques
and become quite accurate in their reading, many remain slow
and laborious. They have trouble moving to the next level
of automatic orthographic reading and thus comprehension suffers.
Even adults who have seemingly compensated for their reading
difficulties still require extended time when taking tests.
These students need systematic training in the development
of strong orthographic representations that will allow them
to read quickly and effortlessly.
Approaches have been developed that use a variety of repeated
reading strategies to strengthen these orthographic images.The
automatic recognition of single graphemes is a critical first
step to the development of the letter patterns that make up
words or word parts (Adams, 1990). English orthography is
made up of four basic kinds of words: 1) regular for reading
and spelling (e.g., mat, sprint; 2) regular for reading
but not for spelling (e.g. boat, rain - could be spelled
"bote" or "rane" respectively); 3) rule
based (e.g., planning - doubling rule, baking
- drop e rule); and 4) irregular (e.g. beauty - it
should be noted that most parts of an "irregular"
word are actually regular and only the irregular part needs
to be specifically addressed).
Students must learn to recognize all four types of words
automatically in order to be effective readers; thus, techniques
for developing strong orthographic representations for all
types of words are essential. Extensive opportunity for repeated
practice in pattern recognition is often necessary. In order
to strengthen the letter patterns associated with the six
syllable types and other rule based orthographic patterns
in English (such as e, i and y signalling
the pronunciation of c and g, Fischer (1994)
has developed drills to "train the orthographic processor"
which involve having the student mark the vowels long or short
based solely on the letter patterns contained in the word.
They do not actually read these words, but instead focus attention
on the letter pattern. The next step is to "link the
phonological and orthographic processors" which involves
saying only the vowel sound of the words rather than reading
the word. Again, the focus is primarily on the orthography.
Other ways of emphasizing orthography would be card sorts
where students sort different syllable types into appropriate
categories as quickly as possible and then say the vowel sounds
of each syllable type as quickly as possible.
Single word level word drills - regular and irregular
Once these orthographic signals have become automatically
recognized, the students complete speed drills in which they
read lists of isolated words with contrasting vowel sounds
that are signaled by the syllable type. For example, six to
eight closed syllable and vowel-consonant-e words containing
the vowel a are arranged randomly on pages containing
about 12 lines and read for one minute. Individual goals are
established and charts are kept of the number of words read
correctly in successive sessions. The same word lists are
repeated in sessions until the goal has been achieved for
several sessions in a row. When selecting words for these
word lists, the use of high-frequency words within a syllable
category would increase the likelihood of generalization to
text reading. (See the SPIRE program, Clark-Edmands, 1998,
for word lists based on frequency.)
These same kinds of speed drills can be used for irregular
words as well as multisyllable words that incorporate higher-level
concepts of structural analysis (prefix, stem, and suffix).
At the multi-syllable level, automatically recognizing both
the visual patterns related to syllable division as well as
prefixes, stems, and suffixes (larger chunks) can be very
helpful. The syllable division rules around vccv and vcv syllable
patterns can train the student to recognize visual patterns
that signal pronunciation. The SPIRE program contains speed
drills that at first mark these syllable breaks as well as
prefixes and suffixes and then fade the cues as the student
progresses through the skill.
|Not only do good readers
read fluently with
when they read
they also use appropriate
intonation, and their
reading mirrors their
Air writing - development of symbol imagery
In addition to repeated readings of words or word parts,
specific techniques have been developed to strengthen the
orthographic representations by the use of multisensory activities
that link the motor and visual modalities to reinforce the
auditory. Tracing, copying, and writing words have long been
a part of many multisensory, structured language approaches
(e.g., see Gillingham and Stillman, 1997 and Raines 1980 for
a complete discussion of these techniques.) Sky writing, which
involves using gross motor movements of the whole arm to form
letters in the air, has also been used to help reinforce single
letter formation by combining visual, auditory and tactile-kinesthetic
cues. More recently an air writing technique has been included
as a component of a program intended to improve symbol imagery,
or the formation of orthographic representations (i.e., Seeing
Stars Nanci Bell, 1997). This technique involves having
the student look at a word or word part pronounced by the
teacher, name the letters, and then use his finger to write
the word in the air directly in his visual field while looking
at his finger. The student then reads the word from memory
and the teacher questions him about the order and placement
of specific letters in the word (e.g., "What is the third
letter in the syllable?" "What is the second letter?"
etc.). The emphasis here is on enhancing the students' ability
to "see" the letter patterns in their minds.
TEXT LEVEL - FLUENCY
The lack of fluency in poor readers is evidenced by their
slow, halting, and inconsistent rate; poor phrasing; and inadequate
intonation patterns. Not only do good readers read fluently
with adequate speed, but when they read aloud, they also use
appropriate phrasing, intonation, and their oral reading mirrors
their spoken language. Although practices that incorporate
prosodic reading have not produced stronger fluency gains
(Torgesen et al., 2001), application of appropriate phrasing
and prosodic features is important for comprehension and should
be directly addressed particularly with children who do not
do this naturally. If fluency is a stepping-stone to comprehension,
then it is necessary to help readers transition from decoding
text to constructing meaning by connecting the prosodic features
that are inherent in text to their established spoken language
system. If their spoken language system is intact, making
this connection allows a reader to self-monitor and self-correct,
which in turn facilitates the comprehension of text.
Fluency training helps a student to connect the prosody
of spoken language to the prosodic features of text that are
signaled through punctuation. There are features present in
spoken language that provide clues to a speaker's intent such
as gestures, facial expression, intonation, and stress that
are not present in printed text. The absence of these prosodic
features in text inhibits some readers from chunking words
(grouping by semantic and syntactic features) into meaningful
units. Just as we teach students to make sound-symbol correspondence
during decoding instruction, we also must teach readers to
map the prosodic features of spoken language onto the printed
text. Structured and systematic instruction in this area will
facilitate spoken-to-print prosodic correspondences and enhance
To begin to develop awareness of the prosodic features of
language, teachers can introduce a short three-word sentence
with each of the three different words underlined for stress
(e.g. He is sick. He is sick. He is sick.
The teacher can then model the three sentences while discussing
the possible meaning for each variation. The students can
practice reading them with different stress until they are
fluent. These simple three-word sentences can be modified
and expanded to include various verbs, pronouns, and tenses.
(e.g. You are sick. I am sick. They
This strategy can also be used while increasing the length
of phrases and emphasizing the different meanings (e.g. Get
out of bed. Get out of bed. Get out of bed now.
) Teachers can also practice fluency with common phrases
that frequently occur in text. Prepositional phrases are good
syntactic structures for this type of work (e.g. on the
_____, in the _____, over the ________etc.).
Teachers can pair these printed phrases to oral intonational
patterns that include variations of rate, intensity, and pitch.
Students can infer the intended meaning as the teacher presents
different prosodic variations of a sentence. For example,
when speakers want to stress a concept they often slow their
rate of speech and may speak in a louder voice (e.g. Joshua,
get-out-of-bed-NOW!). Often, the only text marker
for this sentence will be the exclamation point (!) but the
speaker's intent will affect the manner in which it is delivered.
Practicing oral variations and then mapping the prosodic features
onto the text will assist students in making the connection
This strategy can also be used to alert students to the
prosodic features present in punctuation marks. In the early
stages using the alphabet helps to focus a student on the
punctuation marks without having to deal with meaning. The
teacher models for the students and then has them practice
the combinations using the correct intonational patterns to
fit the punctuation mark (e.g., ABC. DE? FGH! IJKL? or ABCD!
Teachers can then move to simple two-word or three-word
sentences. The sentences are punctuated with a period, question
mark and exclamation point and the differences in meaning
that occur with each different punctuation mark (e.g. Chris
hops. Chris hops? Chris hops!) are discussed. It may help
students to point out that the printed words convey the fact
that someone named Chris is engaged in the physical activity
of hopping, but the intonational patterns get their cue from
the punctuation mark. The meaning extracted from an encounter
with a punctuation mark is dependent upon a reader's prior
experiences or background knowledge in order to project an
appropriate intonational pattern onto the printed text. Keeping
the text static while changing the punctuation marks helps
students to attend to prosodic patterns.
Phrasing and Chunking Text
Students who read word-for-word may benefit initially from
practicing phrasing with the alphabet rather than words since
letters do not tax the meaning system. The letters are grouped,
an arc is drawn underneath, and students recite the alphabet
in chunks (e.g., ABC DE FGH IJK LM NOP QRS TU VW XYZ). Once
students understand the concept of phrasing, it is recommended
that teachers help students chunk text into syntactic (noun
phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases) or meaning units
until they are proficient themselves. Text can be formatted
for the student or the student may write the phrases on an
erasable sheet. There are no hard and fast rules for chunking
but syntactic units are most commonly used.
Short phrases with familiar words can be introduced through
chunking machines. A chunking machine is a tachistoscope that
allows a student to pull the reformatted or chunked text through
the window to increase speed of recognition. (See Figure 4
for an example of a chunking machine.) It is important to
put comprehension questions at the beginning and end of this
activity. Students benefit from an advanced organizer before
reading to help them anticipate what they will be reading.
The same series is read until the students can pull the phrase
strips through quickly and answer all of the questions correctly.
Chunking machines are simple to make and allow the student
to focus on small portions of text at one time. If teachers
wish to emphasize one particular word that is important for
comprehension, they may chunk it separately or underline it
for text. Once text has been reformatted, students can transfer
these phrases to the cards and make chunking machines for
For older or better readers, teachers can mark the phrasal
boundaries with slashes for short passages. Eventually, the
slashes are used only at the beginning of long passages and
then students are asked to continue, "phrase reading"
even after the marks stop. Marking phrases can be done together
with students or those on an independent level may divide
passages into phrases themselves. Comparisons can be made
to clarify reasons for differences in phrasing.
Another way to encourage students to focus on phrase meaning
and prosody in addition to word identification is to provide
tasks that require them to identify or supply a paraphrase
of an original statement. There are semantic paraphrases and
syntactic paraphrases (Pearson and Johnson, 1978). Some examples
Jim jumped over the bushes.
Jim leaped over the hedge.
Jim flew the kite. (active voice)
The kite was flown by Jim. (passive voice)
Teachers can change the punctuation and vary intonation
of paraphrases to increase student's ability to quickly adapt
to changes. Discussion can focus on the differences between
"jumped over the bushes" and "leaped over the
hedge." "Leaped" is a somewhat more interesting
image so students might give it more stress during oral reading.
They could then replace it with "bounded over the shrubbery"
and discuss if this paraphrase changes the meaning and practice
reading it. Because texts in different content areas tend
to contain slightly different syntactic patterns, diverse
reading of undemanding materials in different subjects and
genres can be valuable during activities for improving fluency
The incorporation of a multisensory component of scooping
under syntactic chunks may benefit some students as they read
at the text level, where the appropriate application of intonation
and stress in conjunction with speed and accuracy are considered
primary. The following is a suggested progression for repeated
readings of a paragraph that incorporates systematic work
at the phrase and sentence levels:
Developing Anticipatory Set
As noted above, in addition to repeated readings and other
sorts of speeded practice, it has been suggested that fluency
is enhanced by being able to anticipate what is to come in
the text, which in turn enhances comprehension. Wood et al.
(2001) suggest that in addition to activities that involve
developing automaticity, helping children to predict what
is coming next is important. "Setting the stage"
through activation of prior knowledge and reviewing what will
be happening in the story can be instrumental in helping students
predict text content. Summarizing the story and discussing
the characters or previewing the pictures to get ideas of
what the story may be about may serve the purpose of improving
anticipatory set and thus enhance fluency. Other commonly
used strategies such as reviewing the vocabulary and comprehension
questions before reading the passage may also be helpful in
this regard. (See the J and J Language Readers, Greene
and Woods, 1993 for examples of these kinds of activities.)
Effective reading comprehension requires not only accurate
reading skills but also automatic and fluent reading ability.
Many struggling readers have difficulty moving to a level
of automaticity and fluency that allows them to easily comprehend
what they are reading. We have discussed the underlying processes
involved in developing fluent reading as well as suggested
some techniques for improving fluency. Research in the area
of developing accurate decoding has consistently indicated
that a systematic code based approach is important for teaching
beginning reading skills. The best techniques for developing
fluency, however, have not yet been clearly established. The
suggestions here are based on clinical experience and more
systematic research is needed to determine which methods or
their components will be the most efficient.
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning
about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Chall, J. (1996). Learning to read: The great debate (Third
Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Chall, J. (1983). Stages of reading development. New
Bell, N. (1997). Seeing stars. San Luis Obispo, CA:
Gander Educational Publishing.
Clark-Edmands, S. (1998). Specialized program individualizing
reading excellence (SPIRE). Kennebunk, ME: Progress Learning,
Fischer, P.E. (1994). Concept Phonics. Farmington,
ME: Oxton House.
Frith, U. (1985). Beneath the surface of developmental dyslexia.
In Paterson, K.E., Marshall, J.C. and Coltheart, M. (Eds.),
Surface dyslexia: neuropsychological and cognitive studies
of phonological reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Gillingham, A. and Stillman, B.W. (1997). Remedial training
for children with specific disability in reading, spelling,
and penmanship. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.
Greene, J.F., and Woods, J.F. (1993). J and J language
readers. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
Lyon, G.R. (1995). Towards a definition of dyslexia. Annals
of Dyslexia, 45:3-27.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read:
An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature
on reading and its implications for reading instruction. US
Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development, NIH Pub. No. 00-4753.
Pearson, P.D. and Johnson, D.D. (1978). Teaching Reading
Comprehension. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.
Sanders, M. (2001). Understanding dyslexia and the reading
process: A guide for educators and parents. Needham Heights,
MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., and Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing
reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press.
Steere, A., Peck, C., and Kahn, L. (1988). Solving language
difficulties. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.
Raines, B.J. (1980). Alphabetic Phonics. Cambridge,
MA: Educators Publishing Service.
Torgesen, J.K., Rashotte, C.A., and Alexander, A.W. (2001).
Principles of fluency instruction in reading: Relationships
with established empirical outcomes. In M. Wolf (Ed.), Dyslexia,
fluency, and the brain. Timonium, MD: York Press.
Wood, F.B., Flowers, L., and Grigorenko, E. (2001). On the
functional neuroanatomy of fluency or why walking is just
as important to reading as talking is. In M. Wolf (Ed.), Dyslexia,
fluency, and the brain. Timonium: York Press.
Carreker, S. (1999). Teaching reading: Accurate decoding
and fluency. In J.R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching
of basic language skills. Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes.
Honig, B., Diamond, L., and Gutlohn, L. (2000). Teaching
reading: Sourcebook for kindergarten through eighth grade.
Novato, CA: Arena Press.
Pamela E. Hook, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor
in Communication Sciences and Disorders at the Massachusetts
General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, a graduate-level
training program in speech-language pathology and reading.
Her research interests include the relationship between oral
and written language, auditory processing and nonverbal learning
disabilities. She has been a consultant to schools, designing
language arts curriculum, training teachers, and working with
parents. She also designs computer software to teach phonemic
awareness and reading skills.
Sandra D. Jones, Ph.D. is the Program Coordinator for
the Hanson Initiative for Language and Literacy (HILL), a
whole school model for professional development, research
and educational outreach that is affiliated with the MGH Institute
of Health Professions. She has conducted research in the areas
of auditory, visual, and cognitive intervention strategies
for dyslexic students. She has been a consultant to schools
in the areas of literacy, learning disabilities, behavior
management, technology, strategic planning and group facilitation
techniques, and policy.