Fluency and High Frequency Words

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Logic of English curriculum has a comprehensive approach to developing fluency. Instruction begins with:

  • A linguistically accurate phonetic system
  • Interwoven instruction on morphology
  • Explicit instruction on how words are read and spelled
  • An emphasis on mastering high frequency words

Logic of English lessons explicitly teach the rules and phonograms that describe 98% of English words. As students learn each concept, they practice applying it to reading and spelling a variety of words that represent the pattern. In this manner, students gain mastery of the concept and begin to develop fluency and strategies needed for approaching new words within texts.

The rules and phonograms are then applied to high frequency words. Rather than drilling these words as exception words that must be memorized by rote, Logic of English students learn why every high frequency word is spelled in a particular manner and how to decode it. Students then practice the high frequency words through engaging games and activities so that they develop fluency and automaticity.

The third step leading to comprehension is to develop fluency. Fluency is one of the key gateways leading to making meaning from texts (Rasinski, 2009). Though the importance of fluency is widely grasped, how to achieve fluency is arguably one of the most misunderstood subjects of reading pedagogy. Nevertheless recent research has increasingly made clear the process by which students become fluent readers.

A fluent reader reads automatically with appropriate and meaningful expression (Rasinski, 2009). No conscious attention is diverted from the thoughts underlying the text (Rasinski, 2009) and students are therefore able to focus on the higher order processes of comprehending during reading (La Berge & Samuels, 1974) and composing content during writing (Scardamalia, 1981).

In addition, fluent readers use prosodic cues to access a written text like a spoken text (Allington, 1983 from Schreiber, 1980). These cues — phrases, emphasized words, dramatic pauses, when the voice is raised and lowered, or when the pace is quickened or slowed — are detected by the speech areas of the brain, and further enhance the readers’ understanding of the text (Rasinski, 2009).

Fluency in reading is a vital step for reading comprehension; however, reading instruction should not begin with fluency practice. The prerequisite capabilities to begin developing fluency are:

  • Letter familiarity
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence (Ehri, 1998)

These skills allow students to see connections between how the words are spelled and how they are pronounced (Ehri, 1992; 1998). Students use this knowledge to decode words. Once students are able to decode, they must repeatedly practice decoding so that it becomes automatic (La Berge & Samuels, 1974) or instantaneous. Many teachers refer to this ability to read a word instantaneously as reading by sight. An important property of sight word reading is that words are unitized which means they are read as single units with no pauses between word parts (Ehri, 2005). Sight words are known so well that readers recognize their pronunciations and meanings automatically without seeming to sound them out (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974).

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Logic of English lessons all include carefully chosen spelling lists that are taught through a unique method called spelling dictation. In this method, students are taught how to analyze the spelling of every word; therefore, they develop a clear mapping of the phonemes to the graphemes.

In these lists students will never encounter a rule or a phonogram that has not been explicitly taught. However, once a concept has been introduced it is now “fair play” and may appear in any future list. In this manner students encounter new words and must apply the linguistic tools they have learned to the spelling, further developing mastery of the code.

These lists place a high emphasis on high frequency words, further developing the students’ fluency.

In addition Logic of English lessons include a wide variety of activities to ensure that students develop fluency, including:

  • High frequency word games
  • Repeated readings
  • Take home readers
  • Reading activities that target specific linguistic skills

Students have repeated exposure to high frequency words and targeted linguistic skills in a wide variety of engaging reading games, puzzles, stories, and texts facilitating mastery.

Fluency is best developed through a combination of mastering systematic phonics, practicing high frequency words, and repeated readings (Moats, 1998; LeBerge & Samuels, 1974; Rasinski, 2009).

Readers who read by sight form connections between letters in spellings and sounds in pronunciations of the words (Ehri, 1995, 1998). These connections are formed out of the readers’ knowledge of the alphabetic system. This includes knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence, phonemic awareness, and an understanding of spelling patterns that re-occur in different words (Ehri, 2005). Numerous fMRI studies have demonstrated that fluent readers are using Broca’s area and the planum temporale area of the brain to access the written word (Dehaene, 2009). This area of the brain is the same one that is used for speaking and listening (Dehaene, 2009). Fluent readers, therefore, are hearing the text in their brain (Dehaene, 2009) and making sound-symbol correspondences (Ehri, 2005). The process is so fast that it appears that they are reading whole words, when in fact they are converting the letters on the page into sounds. The brain then recognizes the groups of sounds as words (Myers, 2008).

As students master phonics it is beneficial to use the skills to practice the 300 high frequency words which make up 65% of all texts (Fry, 2002). When readers learn a high frequency word, they should begin by looking at the spelling and pronouncing the word, then continue by distinguishing the separate phonemes in the pronunciation and recognizing how the graphemes match up to phonemes in that word. Reading the word several times will then secure its connection in memory (Ehri, 2005). Students should not be required to guess at the word or memorize the word by rote (Moats 1998).

A common method for helping students to develop fluency is repeated readings. With this method students read and reread a text, orally practicing prosodic cues and working on mastering the words within the text. Repeated reading strategies have well-documented evidence of improving fluency and word recognition as well as enhancing comprehension (Blum & Koskinen, 1982; Chomsky, 1976; Herman, 1985; O’Shea, Sindelar, & O’Shea, 1985; Samuels, 1979; Taylor, Wade, & Yekovich, 1985).

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Oral fluency practice is woven into the lessons beginning with words and gradually progressing to phrases, then sentences, then short paragraphs, and finally books. Activities respect the child’s growing capabilities and provide a clear path to becoming fluent.

One of the greatest misconceptions about how to achieve fluency is the belief that sight word reading is an initial strategy for learning how to read (Ehri, 2005). In this method teachers show students a word and ask the student to read it without sounding it out. This approach is based on the mistaken belief that students must be able to recognize the whole word, apart from its individual phonemes, as a step in developing fluency. This, however, limits the strategies that a student can apply to reading and asks them to rely on visual memory alone. In contrast, strategic readers will figure out unknown words by decoding, analogizing, or predicting (Ehri, 2005).

A second false assumption is that many high frequency words – such as, the, through, and, at, and to – are exceptions to the rules of English spelling. Reading high frequency words automatically is necessary to fully comprehending a text (Pikulski & Chard, 2005), which presents a dilemma for teachers who understand the importance of teaching phonics but also find that the most common words are all exceptions to the rules and therefore must be memorized by rote or by sight. However, when teachers are presented with a more complete and linguistically accurate understanding of the language, using phonograms and spelling rules, and know how to use morphology to provide logical explanations for words that appear to not follow the rules, this problem is resolved. Additionally, when students are explicitly taught the regularities that are within high frequency words, they gain instant recognition (Ehri 1995, 1998) more quickly and with fewer repetitions of the word (Reitsma, 1983; Share, 2004) and learn the patterns necessary to reading other words fluently. The key challenge in reading education at this point in time is teaching educators a linguistically sound understanding of English.

A third misunderstanding is that fluency is gained by mastering only the high frequency or irregularly spelled words by sight. However, students must be able to instantly recognize far more than the high frequency words to be fluent. Instant recognition of a large number of words depends upon the student developing knowledge of sound to symbol correspondences. If readers do not know various spellings for a long vowel sound, or if they do not know that ph symbolizes /f/, then when they encounter these letters in particular words, the letters will not become bonded to their phonemes in memory (Ehri, 2005), and the student will struggle to read the word fluently. Knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence must be learned and practiced for bonding to occur (Ehri, 2005). This will then aid students in reading fluently even words they have not previously seen.

In summary, readers learn to process spellings of words as phonemic maps that lay out elements of their pronunciations visually. Fluent readers have become skilled at computing these relationships almost instantaneously when they read. It is knowing the sound-symbol correspondence that bonds letters in written words to their pronunciations in memory, along with meanings. Once alphabetic mapping is learned, readers can build a vocabulary of sight words easily and efficiently (Ehri, 2005).

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Blum, I.H., & Koskinen, P.S. (1982). Enhancing fluency and comprehension through the use of repeated readings. Paper presented a the College Reading Association conference, Philadelphia, PA.

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Ehri, L. (1998). Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J. Metsala & L. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp. 3–40). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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