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  • by Blaine Helwig

‘Fix’ Fluency --- or, Comprehension ‘Breaks Down!’

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Word fluency will drive comprehension proficiency since the students can read and not deplete their ‘CPU’ trying to decipher the most common words in the English language. As any experienced educator knows, fluency is not the whole story in any ELA elementary school program. In fact, word fluency is only one of the five (5) pillars of reading instruction as prescribed by the 1997 National Reading Panel (NRP). The NRP was a government body established by Congress that stipulated the instruction of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary development as its five recommendations for improving literacy outcomes for American public schools.

Almost a quarter century after the NRP’s conclusions and recommendations, there has NOT been significant improvement in literacy rates in elementary schools – especially Title 1 elementary schools. In 2013, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) found that a high percentage of American schoolchildren could not read on grade level.

The NAEP findings show that many primary aged students’ transition to the intermediate elementary grades (i.e. 3rd through 5th grades) unprepared for expected levels of grade level reading comprehension proficiency. In fact, many intermediate students attending Title 1 elementary schools possess significant deficit levels of word fluency; accordingly, instead of focusing on comprehension while reading, they expend tremendous mental energy struggling with the simultaneous challenges of decoding and fluidity. When students read printed text and they lack basic word fluency, they are unable to ascertain the literal comprehension of sentences only previously read. One of the main reasons that chronic reading proficiency issues remain unabated in American public schools is that word fluency has not been directly and systematically targeted and monitored for each student - weekly. Too many primary teachers provide sound balanced literacy practice as well as consistent phonics and phonemic awareness instruction; however, there is not an established, consistent, systematic individualized targeted process to ensure that EACH student possesses word fluency aligned with National Fluency Word Correct Per Minute (WCPM) Norms - especially in Title 1 elementary schools.

Most elementary teachers quickly conclude that students must possess high word fluency and decoding skills to increase comprehension. And, fortunately, the vast majority of children can be taught to read on grade level, but this instructional process cannot and will not be accomplished by pedagogical methodologies that have invariably proven unsuccessful for the last seven (7) decades. If a child does not possess word fluency and decoding skills, the probability of a proficient grade level reader is highly unlikely. However, educators do not possess a systematic method in their classrooms or schools that provides literacy stamina while instilling a love for reading.

How do teachers solve the fluency issue for ALL students in a targeted systematic way?

It is important that public school educators understand two major obstacles contributing to the struggle with basic reading competency. First, a brief but needed understanding of the development of the English language is an absolute necessity. The modern English language is a product of 1,500 years of many Indo-European cultural and language influences, and these historical rudiments present several unique challenges to contemporary language arts instruction in spelling versus oral pronunciation. For instance, it is exceedingly difficult to spell words like house, tough, said, about, what, while, voice, paid, leave, which, because, etc., etc. etc. without knowing the accepted standardized spelling of those words. Second, for low socioeconomic teaching environments, a literacy word gap exists. The actual size of this word gap is frequently debated by university academics, but it is a moot point from a school practitioner’s point of view. The literacy word gap exists, and more importantly, it is above an existential threshold value. In short, the actual magnitude of the literacy word gap is irrelevant since it is sufficiently significant to affect literacy outcomes! If this literacy gap is not rectified and eradicated, the majority of students attending Title 1 elementary schools will NOT read on grade level.

It is possible to resolve both of these impactful language acquisition hurdles with a very simple, targeted and inexpensive approach – actually at no cost only and approximately 10 minutes per day of class time. However, ELA elementary teachers should be familiar with a brief history of the evolution of the English language and its impact on oral pronunciation versus associated word spelling. ELA teachers should also be cognizant of the literacy word gap, and its effect on children’s grade level reading proficiency.

A free download document provides a pragmatic methodology using two literacy stop-gap resources that directly address both issues so the mass of students enrolled in public elementary schools can achieve grade level nationally accepted fluency rate (Word per Minute) norms. Thus, as students leave elementary school and transition to middle school, they do so as level proficient readers. However, there MUST be a systematic and targeted intervention process for ALL students.

Interested educators can download for FREE the complete document “How to Improve Word Fluency and Reading Proficiency” and associated instructional resources to fix fluency issues at The New 3Rs Academic Transformation under the “Stop-Gap Resources” tab.

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