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Mass Literacy

Automaticity and Fluency Can Be an Underlying Cause of Difficulties With Fluent Word Reading as Well as Comprehension

Difficulties with fluent word reading can stem from different underlying causes. Problems with automatic word recognition can contribute to difficulties with fluency, and in turn, often cause problems with comprehension. Fluent reading is necessary for comprehension, because attention required for effortful reading draws resources away from comprehension (Perfetti, 1985).

How Problems with Reading Automaticity and Fluency May Present

Problems with automaticity and fluency may appear as problems with dysfluent word reading and/or with reading comprehension, including:

  • slow and labored reading; frequent stopping at unknown words
  • lacking expression appropriate to the meaning in oral reading
  • inefficient or inaccurate decoding of unfamiliar words
  • lack of memory of words that have been read and practiced previously
  • automatic recognition of few words
  • poor comprehension even at a literal level.

Screening for Automaticity and Fluency

Universal screening starting in Kindergarten should assess automaticity, in order to identify children who are experiencing problems developing early skills, such as letter names and letter-sound correspondences, which are associated with later difficulty. These children may require instructional support or additional practice to prevent future difficulties. Older children should be assessed for oral reading fluency. For more information about universal screening and a list of Massachusetts-approved screening assessments, see Early Literacy Screening Assessments.

Underlying Causes of Difficulty With Reading Automaticity and Fluency

Possible root cause(s) of problems with automaticity and fluency include:

  • Problems with phonological skills, and/or phonics and decoding, leading to inefficient and labored decoding and difficulty developing automatic recognition of words
  • Insufficient time and practice reading connected text with accuracy once basic decoding is secured
  • Insufficient exposure to and practice with fluent, expressive oral reading
  • A core problem with processing speed/orthographic processing which affects speed and accuracy of printed world recognition (Moats & Tolman, 2019)

Preventing Problems With Reading Automaticity and Fluency

  • Many children who experience problems with automaticity and fluency did not receive systematic and explicit instruction and practice in foundational skills of reading. For many children, problems with automaticity and fluency can be prevented with strong core instruction, that includes phonological awareness, phonics, and decoding.

  • Following a systematic scope and sequence for teaching phonics patterns and providing enough practice for each new letter pattern is critical for preventing automaticity problems.

  • Targeted fluency practice builds prosody and automaticity (Rasinski et al, 2016 ).

  • Once students have secured basic decoding, independent reading promotes growth in fluency.

Beth Villani
"When I have a struggling reader, when they break through a struggle, it's the best thing that I ever experience, because not only are you proud of them, but you see them actually grow, you see the confidence in them, they sit up straighter, you see the biggest and brightest smile on their faces. And when they say to you, 'I can do it. I didn't need your help. I figured it out.' It's the most rewarding experience ever."

Beth Villani
Reading Specialist
Sweetsir School, Merrimac, MA

Approaches to Intervention for Students Who Have Difficulty With Reading Automaticity and Fluency

Intervention is necessary when children do not make adequate progress with reading automaticity and fluency even after receiving strong core instruction with opportunities to practice. It is important to determine whether a difficulty with automaticity and fluency is stemming from a problem with phonological skills, phonics and/or decoding before proceeding with intervention.

For Additional Information

Scientific Information About Difficulties With Automaticity and Fluency

Benjamin, C. F., & Gaab, N. (2012). What's the story? The tale of reading fluency told at speed. Human brain mapping, 33(11), 2572–2585.

Kim, M. K., Bryant, D. P., Bryant, B. R., & Park, Y. (2017). A synthesis of interventions for improving oral reading fluency of elementary students with learning disabilities. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 61, 116–125. doi:10.1080/1045988X.2016.1212321

Kuhn, M., Schwanenflugel, P., & Meisinger, E. (2010). Aligning theory and assessment of reading fluency: Automaticity, prosody, and definitions of fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 232–253.

Kuhn, M. R. (2005) A comparative study of small group fluency instruction. Reading Psychology, 26, 127–146. doi:10.1080/02702710590930492

Lee, J., & Yoon, S. Y. (2017). The effects of repeated reading on reading fluency for students with reading disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50, 213–224. doi:10.1177/0022219415605194

Mathes, P. G., & Fuchs, L. S. (1993). Peer-mediated reading instruction in special education resource rooms. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 8, 233–243.

O'Connor, R. E., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1–19. doi:10.1037/a0017488

O'Connor, R. E., White, A., & Swanson, H. L. (2007). Repeated reading versus continuous reading: Influences on reading fluency and comprehension. Exceptional Children, 74, 31–46. doi:10.1177/001440290707400102

O'Keeffe, B. V., Slocum, T. A., Burlingame, C., Snyder, K., & Bundock, K., (2012). Comparing results of systematic reviews: Parallel reviews of research on repeated reading. Education and Treatment of Children, 35, 333–366. doi:10.1353/etc.2012.0006

Schwanenflugel, P. J., Kuhn, M. R., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Meisinger, E. B., Woo, D. G., … Sevcik, R. (2009). Insights into fluency instruction: Short- and long-term effects of two reading programs. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48, 318–36. doi:10.1080/19388070802422415

Stevens, E. A., Walker, M. A., & Vaughn, S. (2017). The effects of reading fluency interventions on the reading fluency and reading comprehension performance of elementary students with learning disabilities: A synthesis of the research from 2001 to 2014. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50, 576–590. doi:10.1177/0022219416638028

Swanson, H. L., & O'Connor, R. (2009). The role of working memory and fluency practice on the reading comprehension of students who are dysfluent readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, 548–575. doi:10.1177/002221940933874

Therrien, W. J. (2004). Fluency and comprehension gains as a result of repeated reading: A meta-analysis. Remedial and Special Education, 25, 252–261. doi:10.1177/07419325040250040801

Therrien, W. J., Kirk, J. F., & Woods-Groves, S. (2012). Comparison of a reading fluency intervention with and without passage repetition on reading achievement. Remedial and Special Education, 33, 309–319. doi:10.1177/0741932511410360

Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., Edmonds, M., & Reutebuch, C. K. (2008). A synthesis of fluency interventions for secondary struggling readers. Reading and Writing, 21, 317–347. doi:10.1007/s11145-007-9085-7

Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., Roberts, G., & Denton, C. A. (2010). The efficacy of repeated reading and wide reading practice for high school students with severe reading disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25, 2–10. doi:10.1111/j.15405826.2009.00296.x

Yoon, J.C. (2002). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A meta-analytic review of the effects of SSR on attitude toward reading. Reading Improvement, 39(4), 186–195.


Moats. L.C.& Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd edition). Voyager Sopris Learning.

Perfetti, C.A. (1985). Reading ability. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Last Updated: November 20, 2020

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