December 8, 2017

By Dr. Rachel Brown, NCSP, Senior Research Consultant

Educators sometimes ask me why so many FastBridge assessments are timed. The answer is that timing is necessary in order to document a student’s fluency with tasks.

So, what exactly is academic fluency—and why is it so important? In this blog, I’ll explore this concept in detail and explain how best to assess it.

What is academic fluency?

Academic fluency is the ability to complete a task with the right accuracy and timing. Fluency is important because when students are fluent with a skill, their brains are able to focus on higher-level components of the overall task and not on the individual steps.

Fluency is necessary, but not sufficient, to become an expert at a task. That said, fluency is an essential precursor to the mastery of academic skills.

An example of the importance of fluency in everyday life

One example of the importance of fluency is driving a car. Do you remember when you learned how to drive, perhaps in a high school drivers’ ed course? There were many steps to learn, such as turning the ignition while keeping your foot on the brake, putting the car in gear, and—for those of us old enough to have learned on a manual transmission—changing gears while driving. Add in parallel parking, 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, the 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 individual steps needed to operate the vehicle. Instead, 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.

We can relate this example to gaining a foundation of the basic building blocks of educational concepts, and then having those ideas come to us naturally as we learn more and more.

group of kids reading in library

The concept of automaticity within academic fluency

Another word that conveys the importance of academic 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 use math skills. Studies have shown that during the initial learning stages, when accuracy is the primary focus, certain brain regions are active. But 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, meaning 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 a 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 (such as basketball or swimming).

In thinking about fluency instruction, it is important to remember that accuracy must always come before speed, as I noted earlier. But once accuracy is strong, fluency instruction can help the student to master the skill so that it will become automatic.

Tools to support academic fluency

Discover solutions from Renaissance to assess and strengthen reading and math fluency.

Teaching academic fluency

In recent years, many fluency interventions have become available. This is partly due to the recognition given to fluency in the 2000 National Reading Panel report. This report identified fluency as one of the 5 “big areas” of reading.

Of course, fluency is important for learning all new skills, not just reading. There are three 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.

Selecting the right level of instructional material

Fluency instruction should always happen with material that a student can complete with a high level of accuracy.

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 and reinforcing errors.

Using enough repetitions

Fluency comes from repeated practice. However, 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.

Including the element of timing

Timing is a necessary part of fluency, 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.

boy reading on tablet

Two ways to measure academic fluency

In order to measure a student’s fluency progress, a timed measure must be used. Here are two strategies for using timed measures to assess fluency:

#1: “Cold” and “hot” tasks within a lesson

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 means 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 version to the hot version, it suggests that the level of material is not right or that other instruction is needed.

#2: Using general outcome measures

In addition to using cold and hot assessments as part of the lessons, teachers can also use selected FastBridge 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 helps to show if the fluency gains from the intervention carry over into other instances of the same task.

Renaissance: Supporting academic fluency in reading and mathematics

Fluency is important because it shows a student’s automaticity with important skills. As students become more fluent with skills such as word decoding and math facts, their brains transition from using focused cognitive energy on the individual 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.

Connect with an expert today to learn more about Renaissance assessment and instruction solutions that support academic fluency.

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