In my most recent posts I have talked a bit about the importance of making sure that students develop fundamental skills to a level of mastery.  But what is the best way to measure mastery?

In many schools and educational settings, the measure used most frequently is accuracy. We give students tests and see how much of the work they got right. Of course, accuracy is a part of mastery, but it is not a sufficient measure of mastery by itself. To see see what is missing, let us consider two students who read a paragraph of 100 words without any oral reading errors. The first student read the passage in 1 minute, while the other did so in 3 minutes. If we look solely at the accuracy of the reading, these students look equal. But when we examine the rate at which they performed the task correctly, we see that they are quite different.

What this example suggests is that mastery involves fluency, that is, the ability to perform a task correctly at a certain rate. Rate is important because it signals how much conscious attention and effort a person needs to do something.  A skill that is mastered can be done automatically. Indeed, in the cognitive psychology literature, “automaticity” is the term generally used to refer to mastery. This “automaticity” of component skills is necessary so that a person can use her limited resources of attention to solve some more complex task. If we return for a moment to consider the two students who read a passage accurately but at very different rates, we can easily imagine that the student who read the passage in one minute recognized most of the words almost automatically and so could pay attention to what the sentences meant.  The student who read much more slowly, in contrast, probably had to spend a considerable amount of effort sounding out the words or using other tools to figure out what the words were, and so had much less attention available to understand what she was reading.

There is quite a bit of evidence that the attainment of fluent levels of performance is important. As part of a large meta-analysis of reading research, for instance, The National Research Panel identified oral reading fluency as a critical component of successful reading. There are numerous studies in math, also, that show a connection between fluency in component math skills and understanding of math concepts. We know from other fields, as well, such as music and sports, that fluent performance of component skills is essential for success.

In spite of this evidence, some schools and teachers de-emphasize the development of component skills, arguing that skill practice makes lessons boring, reduces student engagement and motivation, and fails to develop creativity.  Indeed, this dispute is one of the central points oflongstanding contention between so-called traditional and progressive education.

It is possible, of course, that in some classrooms, skills are practiced incessantly, with little opportunity for students to use them to pursue more complex and challenging investigations or problems. There are first and second grade classes, for example, that are consumed by the so-called “mad minute” tests on arithmetic facts, where math seems only to be about the automatic recall of facts and not about more involved exploration of number relationships. But this over-emphasis of practice is an error in judgment about how to organize a student’s time in the classroom. There is really no necessary, fundamental antagonism between the work necessary to develop fluent skills and work that is more “creative.”  

On the contrary, creativity should be understood properly as the combining of existing behaviors in a new way. And that means that a person’s creativity requires a stock of well-developed, that is, fluent, skills. Moreover, far from killing student motivation, as is so often claimed, helping student’s to perform “tool skills” fluently keeps them engaged and enthusiastic as they see, over and over again, that they are able to do more things and do them well.

Another problem to be alert to is giving students various timed tests on tasks for which they have been inadequately prepared. Many kindergarten students, for instance, are required to memorize several dozen so-called “sight words.”  It is true that students need to learn to read most words automatically, but the acquisition of this ability usually requires quite a bit of knowledge about letter/sounds, and the development of segmenting and blending skill. Another example is the “mad minute” of math fact practice that I just referred to. Yes, indeed, it is important to be able to retrieve these facts from memory automatically, but for most students, this involves extensive opportunities to explore numbers and number relationships in a variety of ways. The moral of the story is that when accessing a student’s fluency, it is important to make sure that she has the necessary component abilities. Skill development is exactly that, a kind of development, and hence, something that takes time, experience, and practice.  Giving students tasks they are not ready for is just bad teaching.

In my next blog, I will take a stab at identifying some key “tool skills” and sketch out a little bit of a road map for the proper sequence of addressing them.  In the meantime, I leave you with some resources with some additional information about fluency assessment.


There is a very interesting program called Precision Teaching developed a while ago by a psychologist named Ogden Lindsley and his associates, and their are numerous resources on the web with information about this program.

A useful resource for teachers based on the ideas of Precision Teaching is One Minute Academic Functional Assessment and Interventions by Joe Witt and Ray Beck.

The University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning has a useful website with information on the Big Ideas in Beginning Reading. Here is a link to their content regarding fluency:  http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/flu/index.php