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Why Fluency (Automaticity) Matters

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Customers sometime ask why so many FastBridge assessments are timed. The answer is that timing is necessary in order to document a student’s fluency with tasks. Fluency means being able to complete a task with the right accuracy and timing. Fluency is important because when one is fluent with a skill, the brain is able to focus on higher level components of the overall task and not the individual steps. Fluency is necessary, but not sufficient, to become an expert at a task. That said, it is an essential precursor to mastery of basic academic skills.

An example of the importance of fluency is automotive driving. Remember back to when you learned to drive a car. There are many steps to learn such as turning the ignition while keeping your foot on the brake, putting the car in gear (while keeping your foot on the brake!) and, for those of us old enough to have learned on a standard transmission, changing gears while driving. Then, add in changing lanes and other traffic navigation and you have a complex set of skills. When first learning any new skill, just putting each of the subskills together in the right order, and with the right timing, is the main goal. That is fluency. In all cases, accuracy of the steps is more important than speed. In order to build driving fluency, it’s best to practice at slow speeds on back roads before driving on the highway. With practice, our accuracy improves and we are ready for faster driving. Eventually, most drivers reach the point where they don’t have to “think” about the steps needed to operate the vehicle and we just get in and drive while thinking about other things. At this stage our driving skills have become so fluent that they are automatic and our brains can focus on other, more important, things.

Automaticity

Another word that conveys the importance of fluency is automaticity. The research about the role of fluency in learning academic skills comes from investigations of cognitive automaticity. This research includes using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see which neurons are activated when students read or do math skills. The studies have shown that during the initial learning stages, when accuracy is the primary focus, certain brain regions are active, but then once the learner becomes automatic with the task, different regions become active. In particular, the brain uses the temporal and occipital regions during initial learning and then switches resources to use the frontal lobe once automaticity is achieved. Importantly, this is an interactive process so that we can always learn new skills and then use those skills for more advanced purposes.

Eventually, the frontal lobe mediates learning activities by helping us determine if we are automatic with a skill or if more focused attention is necessary at certain points. An example is encountering a new word in text. Even advanced readers will need to slow down and use basic decoding and vocabulary skills to read the word. Then, the frontal lobe can connect that word to other information and resume faster processing. As all teachers know, students vary in the amount of instruction needed to become automatic with skills. Additionally, each student can vary in terms of how much instruction is needed for one area (e.g., math) as compared to another (basketball). In thinking about fluency instruction, it is important to remember that accuracy must always come before speed. But, once accuracy is strong, fluency instruction can help the student master the skill so that it will become automatic.

Teaching Fluency

In recent years many “fluency” interventions have become available. This is partly due to the recognition given fluency in the 2000 National Reading Panel report which identified it as one of the 5 “big” areas of reading. As noted above, fluency is important for learning all new skills, not just reading. There are key components of fluency instruction that must be present for it to be effective. These include selecting the right level of instructional material, using enough repetitions, and timing.

Instructional Level. Fluency instruction should always happen with material that a student can complete with a high level of accuracy. For reading, the target accuracy is 95%. For math, there is less research but 90-95% is a good target. Before starting any fluency intervention be sure to confirm that the student can complete the tasks with enough accuracy, otherwise, the student will end up practicing errors.

Repetitions. Fluency comes from repeated practice. But, too little or too much practice is not effective. Most published fluency interventions have specified numbers of practice repetitions for students to complete. The number necessary for each student to reach mastery will vary and adding more for those students who need them is okay. For homemade fluency interventions, plan to start with 3-5 repetitions per item set (e.g., reading passage or math problems). Then, adjust the number in relation to the student’s progress over time.

Timing. As explained, timing is a necessary part of fluency. This is because it is the only way to capture (e.g., measure) improvements over time. Fluency interventions will need to include some timing, but not always for each practice. Timing also plays an important role in evaluating student fluency improvement.

Measuring Fluency

In order to measure a student’s fluency progress, a timed measure must be used. Many FAST™ assessments incorporate timing for this reason.  One approach to timing is to have students complete a “cold” and “hot” version of the task at the start and end of each lesson.  The cold version means completing the task without immediate prior practice while being timed.  The hot version is completing the same timed task again after practicing.  Using cold and hot samples is a good way to see the immediate effects of practice on student performance.  If a student does not demonstrate gains from the cold to hot version, it suggests that the level of material is not right or that other instruction is needed.

In addition to using cold and hot assessments as part of the lessons, teachers can also use selected FAST™ assessments to track student fluency progress in general outcome measures (GOM). GOMs are assessments that include the same level and type of skill being taught but not the same exact words, numbers, stories, etc. Using GOMs for progress monitoring students helps to show if the fluency gains from intervention carry over into other instances of the same task.

Fluency is important because it shows a student’s automaticity with important skills. As students become more fluent with important academic skills such as word decoding and math facts, their brains transition from using focused cognitive energy on the steps to putting all the information together in the frontal cortex. The more automatic a student’s basic skills are, the more content the brain has to make sense of and act on information. Fluency can be taught by selecting the right level of material, providing practice opportunities, and timing student performance. FAST™ assessments can also be used to track student improvement over time.

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