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Why Reading Fluency Is the Bridge to Reading Comprehension

The purpose of reading is to comprehend and gain information from text. In order for text to have meaning, readers need to be able to decode words accurately and automatically, understand the meanings of words, and read with expression. Reading fluency bridges the gap between decoding and comprehension. That is, reading fluency shifts the cognitive aspects of reading from trying to decipher sound-symbol relationships and decoding words to comprehension.

Fluent reading is the ability to read connected text with ease and accuracy in order to focus on the meaning of that text. During fluent reading, two simultaneous processes occur: decoding and comprehension. Fluent readers recognize words and comprehend at the same time. In contrast, less fluent readers must focus their attention primarily on decoding individual words, which leaves little attention left for comprehending the text. Readers who decode words effortlessly can focus more of their conscious attention to making meaning for text. They can make connections among the ideas in the text and between the text and their background knowledge.

Fluent reading has three main components: Accuracy; Rate; and Prosody.

Accuracy is the ability to decode words in connected text without error. Letter and word identification skills, identifying and decoding letters and words in isolation, are pre-requisites to accuracy. Accuracy increases as readers develop an understanding of orthographic relationships as well as relationships between sounds and written symbols. Fluent readers have “cracked the code” and are able to accurately identify words in isolation and in context.

Rate refers to the automaticity of word decoding, that is, how quickly a word is recognized. The more automatic decoding is the more cognitive resources that are available for comprehension. Fluent readers are able to automatically recognize words, which frees up attention and working memory in order to focus on comprehension.

Prosody is reading while providing the appropriate expression implied by the text. It is the use of intonation, emphasis, and timing through the understanding of punctuation and syntax as conveyors of meaning. Prosody includes the ability to chunk words into phrases and clauses in order to focus on meaning. Fluent readers understand that slight fluctuations in pitch, timing, and emphasis can change a question to a statement or exclamation. In addition, fluent readers use stress, pitch, and tone so that their reading sounds like conversational language. In essence, prosody allows readers to progress from word-by-word identification to effortless processing characterized by reading text in a manner that mirrors spoken language.

As stated above, fluent readers develop automaticity in their ability to read connected text with expression. Therefore, they are not burdened with the demands of decoding. These readers are then able to use their cognitive resources to construct meaning by accessing and retrieving word meanings, connecting new information to background knowledge, and drawing inferences. While reading fluency is not comprehension, it is a bridge that allows readers to comprehend text.