New Research on an Old Problem: A Brief History of Fluency

By Maryanne Wolf
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Fluency is one of those seemingly simple concepts that rewards you well for digging deeper. At the basic level, reading fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, quickly, and with good expression so that time can be allocated to understanding what is read (Meyer & Felton, 1999). There has been a flurry of attention to reading fluency in the last few years because of a growing realization of its importance in reading comprehension. Simultaneously, many researchers and teachers have become increasingly aware of the number of children who have problems in fluency and comprehension, some of whom have adequate but slow decoding skills.

A brief look at a history of research on reading fluency reveals how complicated and how important it is for reading’s development in the child. One of the first researchers who contributed to our understanding of fluency was William MacKeen Cattell (1886), a 19th century psychologist who became intrigued by the discovery that we can read a word (like tiger) faster than we name a picture of this pouncing feline creature! Cattell was the first to emphasize that humans become almost “automatic” when they read, much more so than speaking. Learning to read so that it is virtually automatic is an extraordinary achievement by our brain. It represents a unique capacity that humans have to learn something so well that they can do it almost without thinking.

To understand what I mean by “automatic”, consider the following two boxes. They are a version of what is called the Stroop Test. Say out loud the name of the color of the first box and then do the same for the second box.


Red box



Red box with word green in it


Notice that you named the color for the first box faster than the second, even though they were the same color. This is because you actually had to “fight” the word “green” (a contrasting color name) on the second box. You couldn’t not read the word, despite a different instruction, and it interfered with the time to name the actual color. Reading was automatic for you.

Becoming automatic in reading is a very complex task for children. David LaBerge and Jay Samuels (1974) were the first psychologists to construct a model of what it means to acquire “automaticity” in reading. They stressed that reading fluency is based on the rapidity of microlevel subskills (e.g., knowing letter-sound rules, letter combinations, and the meaning of words and their connections). Further, they argued that only when these lower-level microskills become automatic can time be allocated by the reader to more sophisticated comprehension skills.

Based on this conceptualization, Dahl (1974) and Samuels (1985) designed the Repeated Reading Technique, whereby a student reads a passage (at a level matched for each individual) over and over until a particular rate of words per minutes is achieved. The idea is that repeated reading speeds up fluency, and fluency contributes to comprehension. The Repeated Reading method is one of the very few techniques used in the past for fluency improvement. A variation of the technique by Pat Bowers and her colleagues (Bowers, 1993; Young, Bowers, & MacKinnon, 1996) is called assisted repeated reading where the child reads along with a fluent reader. In the process of listening and modeling, the child learns to read with better phrasing, more expression (called speech melody or prosody), and speed.

Pat Bowers and I have studied a way to detect children who will develop reading fluency problems before they ever learn to read. We have found that children who have early slowed naming speed problems (e.g., on Rapid Automatized Naming, Denckla & Rudel, 1976; and Rapid Alternating Stimulus tests, Wolf, 1986; Wolf & Denckla, in press) often go on to become children with later fluency and comprehension problems (Wolf & Bowers, 1999). The naming speed tasks are very simple and only require the child to name a number of visual symbols (like letters or color or objects) as fast as they can. We have found that a majority of children with developmental reading disabilities have significant weaknesses in naming speed from kindergarten on and that they go on to develop problems in reading fluency and comprehension.

In attempting to understand what causes naming speed and fluency deficits, my research group and several other labs around the country have come to a new conceptualization of fluency (Berninger, Abbot, Billingsley, & Nagy, 2001; Kame’enui, Simmons, Good, & Harn, 2001; Wolf, 2001). We look at fluency not so much as an outcome, as a developmental process that is shaped and influenced by all the linguistic systems that give us knowledge about words. In a recent paper by Tami Katzir and me, we defined fluency as:

In its beginnings, 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-level; as well as semantic 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, where decoding is relatively effortless; where oral reading is smooth and accurate with correct prosody; and where attention can be allocated to comprehension. (Wolf & Katzir-Cohen, 2001, p. 219)

Such a developmental, more encompassing view of reading fluency has, we believe, profound implications for prevention, intervention, and assessment. For, within a developmental perspective, efforts to address fluency must start at the beginning of the reading acquisition process, not after reading is already acquired. Most current fluency instruction tends to work on the connected text levels after reading is acquired. Our current research is aimed at designing and testing a comprehensive, developmentally based fluency intervention that addresses the underlying linguistic systems (e.g., phonology, orthography, semantics) at three levels---letter pattern, word, and connected text (Wolf, Miller, & Donnelly, 2000). Preliminary results show that even children with difficult reading fluency and naming speed deficits make significant gains in fluency and comprehension with such an approach.


Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Billingsley, F., & Nagy, W. (2001). Processes underlying timing and fluency of reading: Efficiency, automaticity, coordination, and morphological awareness. In M.Wolf (Ed.), Time, Fluency, and Dyslexia. Timonium, MD: York Press.

Bowers, P. G. (1993). Text reading and rereading: Predictors of fluency beyond word recognition. Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 133-153.

Cattell, M. (1886). The time it takes to see and name objects. Mind, 2, 63-85.

Dahl, P. (1974). An experimental program for teaching high speed word recognition and comprehension skills (Rep. No. Final report project #3-1154). Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Denckla, M. B. & Rudel, R.G. (1976). Rapid automatized naming (R.A.N.): Dyslexia differentiated from other learning disabilities. Neuropsychologia, 14: 471-479.

Kame'enui, E. J., Simmons, D. C., Good, R. H., & Harn, B. A. (2001). The use of fluency-based measures in early identification and evaluation of intervention efficacy in schools. In M.Wolf (Ed.), Time, Fluency, and Dyslexia:New-York: York Press.

LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S. J. (1974). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.

Meyer, M. S. & Felton, R. H. (1999). Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions. Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283-306.

Samuels, S.J. (1985). Automaticity and repeated reading. In Reading education: Foundations for a literate America, eds. J. Osborn, P.T. Wilson, and R.C. Anderson. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Wolf, M. (1986). Rapid Alternating Stimulus Naming in the Developmental Dyslexias. Brain and Language, 27: 360-379.

Wolf, M. (Ed.) (2001). Time, Fluency, and Dyslexia. Timonium, MD: York Press.

Wolf, M., & Bowers, P. (1999). The "Double-Deficit Hypothesis" for the developmental dyslexias. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 1-24.

Wolf, M. & Denckla. M.B. (in press). RAN and RAS Tests. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Wolf, M. & Katzir-Cohen, T. (2001). Reading fluency and its intervention. Scientific Studies of Reading. (Special Issue on Fluency. Editors: E. Kameenui & D. Simmons). 5: 211-238.

Wolf, M., Miller, L, & Donnelly, K. (2000). The Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabularly Elaboration, Orthography (RAVE-O).: A comprehensive fluency-based reading intervention program. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(4), 375-386.

Young, A., Bowers, P., & MacKinnon, G. (1996). Effects of prosodic modeling and repeated reading on poor readers' fluency and comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics, 17, 59-84.