+ Fluency and Comprehension: The “Dangerous Moment”

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I remember distinctly the suddenness with which a key turned in a lock and I found I could read… All a long summer holiday I kept my secret, as I believed: I did not want anybody to know that I could read.  I suppose I half cousncously realized even then that  this was the dangerous moment.      -GRAHAM GREENE

Dangerous, for many, many reasons.

Maryanne Wolf, in “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” has quoted Graham Green in order to introduce the topic of fluency.  She and Tami Katzir, a colleague from Haifa University, have offered a comprehensive definition of reading fluency:

“In its beginning, reading fluency is the product of the initial development of accuracy and the subsequent development of automaticity in underlying sublexical processes, lexical processes, and their integration in single-word reading and connected text.  These include perceptual, phonological, orthographic, and morphological processes at the letter, letter-pattern, and word levels, as well as sementic and syntactic processes at the word level and connected-text level.  After it is fully developed, reading fluency refers to a level of accuracy and rate at which decoding is relatively effortless, oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody, and attention can be allocated to comprehension.”  (page 268)

Not Simply a Matter of Speed

She insists: fluency is not simply a matter of speed.  It is a matter of being able to utilize all the special knowledge a child has about a word — its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots, and endings — fast enough to have time to think and comprehend.

So, in a nutshell, the point of becoming fluent is to read — really read — and understand. 

The end of the decoding reader phase leads directly to Greene’s “dangerous moment” and the parallel universe described by one child who said, “I was THERE…  I wasn’t just reading it; I was in it!.”  

Neuroscientist Laurie Cutting of Johns Hopkins explains some nonlinguistic skills that contribute to the development of reading comprehension in children: for example, how well they can enlist key executive functions such as working memory and the comprehension skills of inference and analogy.  Working memory provides a temporary space for holding information about letters and words just long enough that the brain can connect it to the child’s increasingly sophisticated conceptual information.

This is the moment when a young reader stops being simply a “decoder.”  Comprehension becomes inextricably bound to these executive processes, to what they know about words and to fluency.

Incremental increases in fluency allow for inference making, because there is added time for inferences and insight.  Fluency does not ensure better comprehensionRather, fluency gives enough extra time to the executive system to direct attention where it’s most needed: to infer, understand, predict, repair discordant understanding, and to interpret meaning in a fresh way.

These emerging comprehenders also need direct instruction in what “good” readers know: that sometimes we need to read a word or a paragraph more than once to understand it. 

[Model a “think aloud” for students, as you share your own inner monologue during the reading of a passage: this is a striking way to get this message across.]

Canadian researcher Maureen Lovett calls this “comprehension-monitoring.”  She has studied children’s meta-cognitive abilities, particularly their ability to think about how well they are understanding what they read in a text.  She emphasizes the importance at this phase of development of a child’s being able to change strategies if something does not make sense, and of a teacher’s powerful role in facilitating that change.

By the end of this period, decoders who have made it to that “dangerous moment” are really thinking in a new way as they read.

Emotional Engagement

Wolf quotes Elizabeth Bowen at this juncture:

At any age, the reader must come across: the child reader is the most eager and quick to do so; he not only lends to the story, he flings into the story the whole of his sensuous experience which from being limited is the more intense.

Emotional engagement is what tips the emerging reader over the edge, what triggers the leap into the reading life.  Without an emotional hook, that young reader will remain in a childhood swamp where reading is just a necessary slog to reach an end of some sort.

Once he can remember, predict and infer, he can feel; he can identify; he can understand more fully.  He can’t wait to turn that page.

It is often heartfelt support from teachers and parents and older siblings that moves children from decoding well to decoding fluently.  It will encourage them to make a stab at more difficult reading material, to take some chances and discover the strength of their skills  and how far those skills can carry them. 

Once the emotional attachment begins, it grows into a love affair and becomes what Adrienne Rich has called a “leap into transcendence” that makes all the difference in the world.

this is adapted from Maryanne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid: The  Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” Harper Collins 2007, pp130-133.  ISBN 978-0-06-018639-5.  Wolf’s book is a great resource for those who have read Sally Shaywitz’s “Overcoming Dyslexia” and would like to dig deeper — quite a bit deeper — into how the reading brain functions.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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