Listening to proficient readers, it is easy to assume that the word you hear them say is the word their brain is processing. From the outside-in, it just looks like their comprehension coincides with the words they are saying. But this is one of the places where outside-in assumptions about the brain don’t hold up when we consider what is actually going on with the reader from the inside-out.

Remember, the human brain is hardwired for language comprehension, but we are not born with a mechanism in place for reading. To learn to read, we have to rewire the brain and repurpose parts that were previously used for other things.

When we teach children how to read–how to translate the marks on the page back into spoken language–we are bolting on a new processing system for orthography. But fluency can be the key to making the words on the page actually sound like the spoken language the brain can process, which is the only way it can comprehend written speech.

So, reading that sounds like fluent speech (whether aloud or in our heads) is easier for the brain to comprehend. When speech is choppy, disjointed, pronounced with inaccurate stress, or awkwardly phrased, it becomes less comprehensible.

But comprehensible speech requires automatic word recognition because our eyes have to get ahead of our voice so our voices can anticipate what’s coming. We can make our voices rise and fall with the melody of the sentence. Read the following sentences:

Her dog ran into the street.

Her dog ran into the street!

Her dog ran into the street?

When you read these sentences, you know how to let your voice rise and fall differently within each one because your eyes see the final punctuation mark before your voice ever gets to it. The distance between your eyes and your voice is sufficient enough for you to adjust your inflection appropriately and is referred to as your eye-voice span. The sentence below illustrates that, for a fluent reader, the eyes (and the brain) may be on the word ran when the mouth is just pronouncing the word dog.

Observing fluent reading with Shifting the Balance

So, in reality, fluent readers are actually thinking a bit ahead of the words they are saying aloud. The brain is prepping itself for pronunciation and intonation. Perhaps this idea of the brain reading ahead of the voice may seem a little counterintuitive, but it’s true. You can test it yourself. 

Pick a grown-up book and find a paragraph to read aloud to a partner.

Ask that partner to–in the middle of your reading and without any warning–cover up what you are reading with a piece of paper. Then see how many of the words ahead–the ones you haven’t actually said yet– you know. Depending on the difficulty of the text, the number may surprise you!

And if you want to explore the ways a lack of eye-voice span interferes with fluency and comprehension–as it would for a reader who still needs to focus on word-by-word decoding–have your partner use that same piece of paper but, this time, uncover only one word at a time from that same text. You will notice that when all the upcoming words and punctuation marks are covered, and you can only focus on one word at a time, it is impossible to read without compromising both rate and prosody.

This is because the eyes (and the brain) can’t stay a step ahead and preview what they are about to read in order to honor the melody of the sentence and make the most of its meaning.

So if fluent reading is necessary to give the brain language that is comprehensible, then word-by-word reading must be something we want to avoid, right?

Well, not exactly.

In order to get to a place where we don’t have to decode word-by-word, we actually have to spend a lot of time decoding word-by-word. Through this practice, we build orthographic knowledge and begin to acquire sight words. All of this, of course, is necessary for fluency.

Expecting beginning readers to sound fluent on a first-read of a text is a little like asking a beginning dancer to fluently perform a choreographed dance without practice. The dancer needs time to master the steps and the sequence. And while the dancer learns the new dance, the moves won’t all be pretty and fluid. But the process of practicing builds new neural pathways that will not only help the dancer perform this dance with ease but also learn future dances more quickly.

Similarly, expecting a beginning reader to read fluently in a new book is asking for something that they just can’t do. In some cases, they might be able to “sound” fluent by using pictures or relying on the memory of the text. Still, these strategies will later fall apart on them, actually slowing down their progress toward becoming fluent readers!

On a first read of a new text, beginning readers actually need to read word-by-word and will sound disfluent. That’s okay. Each time they reread that same text, their fluency will improve. And, what’s more, the words they are reading will contribute to their stores of orthographic knowledge, setting them up to read more fluently in other books in the future (something figuring out words by looking at the pictures or memorizing a pattern just can’t do). 

So, as long as children know the phonics that are a match for most of the words in a text and they have strong alphabetic principle (understanding of the reciprocal relationship between sounds and spellings), let them struggle through a bit. Effort spent decoding today will result in more fluency tomorrow. More fluency will lead to greater comprehension down the road.

Of course, we don’t want children to get really frustrated or sit over their books in tears. Nor do we mean to imply that children need to spend all of kindergarten and first-grade learning to decode so that they can later learn to comprehend (this is a big misunderstanding in the field!).

Even in their beginning reader texts, we want children to think about what they are reading. But they may need to work through the words a few times before they have the brain space to fully process the meaning.

Basically, making oral reading sound fluent and natural requires split-second and on-the-run decision-making about how to raise or lower the pitch of our voice, what words or syllables to stress, where to pause, and for how long. Teaching children to read with expression is something we need to scaffold for many developing readers.

But first, we have to give students some time to practice decoding so that they can learn how words are built, collect vast stores of orthographic knowledge, and therefore become increasingly fluent day by day.

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