One of the things I love to talk to students and teachers about is how reading fluency helps make reading comprehension possible. A key insight to understanding this relationship is the recognition that fluent reading is not really about speed, but what reading scientist Charles Perfetti referred to as efficiency. Fluent reading is efficient reading, meaning that words are recognized and connected to meaning with very little conscious effort. To understand how reading efficiency facilitates reading comprehension, one of my favorite analogies involves recalling when you learned how to drive a car.
Think back to the first time someone took you out to drive, and recall those first experiences behind the wheel. You probably firmly gripped the wheel, with white knuckles, at 10 and 2 o-clock. You had to think about how to move your feet to push the accelerator, and how hard to press. You probably had to locate the brake pedal and think about how much pressure to apply. A stick-shift added additional layers of complexity, because now you had to think about how to operate the clutch and accelerator in reciprocal fashion while simultaneously using the gear shift.
Your first forays out of the empty parking lot and onto a road brought a host of new perils. Your concentration, already overloaded with having to operate the vehicle, was also tasked with keeping the car between the lines and away from oncoming cars, monitoring your speed, and navigating turns. Amid this immense cognitive load, you were probably unable to do anything apart from the actions needed to keep from crashing. You were not thinking about your day, what you wanted to watch on TV later, or what to have for dinner. You were probably not listening to music or a podcast. You were likely not talking with whoever was with you, in fact, you had probably told them be quiet by this point. You had no cognitive space left to think about anything else other than drive.
But as you practiced more, things changed. Each time you went out for a drive it got easier. You may not have realized it, but you eventually stopped having to actively think about how to hold the steering wheel, where the brake pedal was located, or how hard to press the accelerator. You just did it. You became more used to driving on the road, so keeping the car between the lines came more naturally. You were no longer unnerved by approaching cars or an upcoming curve. Gradually, the actions of driving the car become similar to reflexes, because you no longer had to actively think about them anymore. As a result, you began to find it easier to think about things other than driving, like what you were looking forward to doing that weekend. Over time you also found it easier to do things other than driving, such as listening to music, having a conversation, or eating. The actions involved in driving had become efficient and automatic – the cognitive resources previously needed to operate the car could now be devoted to other things.
Similar things happen with reading comprehension. A beginning reader, or a student with word-reading difficulties, is like you when you were learning to drive a car. Reading words is slow and laborious, and requires considerable effort and attention to each word. Errors are frequent, which means that the right word meanings are not activated. Reading is resource-intensive – all cognitive resources are devoted to reading words and grasping at what they mean, leaving little left over to comprehend the text on a larger level. The laborious pace and frequent errors further impede comprehension. Reading is exhausting.
But through instruction and practice, reading skills improve. Repeated exposures to words, with feedback, allows letter sequences and word spellings to become linked to pronunciations, where they can be retrieved easily and very quickly. Word reading is becoming more efficient–a student no longer has to sound out or think about a word, they just know it. Reading words requires less effort. It has become, as Perfetti said, resource-efficient. Similar to how the actions of driving became automatic for you, this increasing efficiency in word reading means that a student no longer has to devote attention and significant cognitive resources to reading words, which means that more cognitive space is left over to do other things. Students can now more easily construct and maintain a mental image (i.e., a “situation model") from the text, make connections to their experiences or other parts of the passage, and make inferences. The more that word-level reading processes become easier and effortless, the greater opportunity the reader has to understand and learn from text.
Let’s further extend the car-driving analogy to what happens when we encounter difficult text. Consider times when you, a skilled driver, encounter adverse driving conditions. Maybe it’s blinding rain, heavy traffic, or a snowstorm. As soon as you add adversity to the situation, your attention must refocus on the basic mechanics of driving. It requires more effort. You slow down. You strive for concentration and seek to minimize distractions by turning down the radio or asking fellow car riders to be quiet. Your thoughts are no longer on what’s going on at work or what you want to do that evening; you are focused exclusively on preventing a crash.
Similar things happen when readers (of any skill level) encounter challenging text, such as text with a lot of words that are difficult to pronounce, words or phrases that are archaic or unfamiliar in meaning, or text written in style that is difficult to comprehend. Ever read something from the 1600s? Like a driver on a snowy road, reading slows down. You have to concentrate on individual words and phrases. Your comprehension becomes strained or breaks down because you have to focus more energy and attention on reading the text. You might have to back up and reread often. You may find yourself having to consciously monitor and fix up your understanding.
Then, like the snowstorm clearing, shifting back to easier text allows the efficiency to return, and with it, your comprehension.
The analogy is not perfect, because efficient reading of words and text is not the only thing necessary for comprehension. We left out language comprehension, a massive set of skills and knowledge sources involving vocabulary, syntax, background knowledge, and inference-making. We also did not include motivation. Nevertheless, the car-driving analogy helps illustrate how the brain has a remarkable way of automatizing basic skills and behaviors to enable higher-order processes.
© 2021, Nathan Clemens. All Rights Reserved.