The word fluency is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “The ability to do something in a way that seems very easy.” This is exactly what teachers mean when they speak about reading fluency, writing fluency, and math fact fluency. Performing basic functions in these three areas with facility allows children to use their mental energy to address more demanding higher level thinking tasks. Parents can support their children’s pursuit of more complex skills and acquisition of knowledge by helping them to think about and develop their own fluency.
In the area of reading, fluency is more than merely decoding words, although it begins with the ability to sound out words with ease. Students need to be able to apply their knowledge of phonics rules to unfamiliar words, multi-syllabic words, and compound words. Breaking these down into manageable parts makes them far less intimidating. Further, students can determine the meanings of unfamiliar words by using word parts such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
In addition to possessing the ability to decode, one must know the rules of punctuation and apply them while reading. Children should observe commas, pause at periods, and understand the meaning of quotation marks. Stating the meanings of these conventions, and applying them in one’s own writing will develop this skill. There are several witty and educational children’s books available that illustrate the importance of these and other conventions. If your child needs to work through sounding out words during a first read of any text, whether it’s a history book, a story for fun, or a math story problem, she should read through it a second or third time for fluency. Once the hard work of decoding has been accomplished, mental energy can be applied to comprehension, which is really the end goal.
In the area of writing, children frequently become overwhelmed by all the various aspects of the task, and flounder. Students need to be able to generate ideas for writing, as well as employ conventions such as correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Students who struggle to begin writing often benefit from talking about their ideas or creating visual representations that do not demand use of conventions. These may include drawing a picture or creating a web. Writing a list of key words that relate to their subject can also help students to generate and organize ideas. If spelling is a major hurtle, an adult may help the child to write the web or vocabulary in order to provide a bank of properly spelled words to support more fluid writing.
Students may also require support in editing first drafts for punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. A checklist or frequent review of rules of mechanics can support students in this area. Helping to identify errors, while allowing the student to correct them will help solidify the skill.
Fluent writing also demands stamina. Journal writing can help to develop stamina and perseverance by allowing children to write without worrying about. Set a timer for one, two, or three minutes, and ask your child to write without stopping. She can write anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make sense or seems disjointed, without making corrections. She will probably be amazed by how much she produces in such a short period of time, and this will serve as a guide for how much writing can be produced, once fluency is obtained.
Math fact fluency means having a firm command of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. Students must also understand basic concepts such as number sense (place value, greater than, less than, and one-to-one correspondence), money concepts (names and values of coins and bills), time concepts (telling time with digital and analog clocks and understanding elapsed time), and measurement (such as how many centimeters are equal to a meter). When students know these, they can apply them to addition and subtraction with regrouping, multiplication of multi-digit numbers, and long division. Further, students can focus on understanding and answering the questions being asked in story problems, without being encumbered by the computation involved. These skills will be applied in science, technology, and the arts as well.
Helping children to understand how the basic operations work can help develop fluency. For example, division means sharing and multiplication is repeated addition; a sum is greater than its addends, just as a product is greater than its factors. Addition and subtraction are inverse operations, and we can build fact families from division and multiplication facts just as we do for addition and subtraction. Demonstrating math facts with objects or pictures helps students to develop this basic understanding.
To help students develop understanding of money, time, and measurement, point out their applications in relevant situations. Trips to the grocery store, utilizing schedules, cooking, and following directions to create or make anything, are all circumstances that require basic knowledge of math concepts. Engage in them together and discuss the steps your brain uses to make sense of things like directions or how to make sure there is time for homework before soccer practice. Math games and flashcards are more effective when children set goals and track their progress. For example, when learning multiplication facts, if a child can see that by learning all of her “times one and times two” facts, she has already mastered 20% of the “times eight” facts, she will be encouraged rather than overwhelmed. Keep a notebook, make a bar graph, or color in the facts that your child is already fluent with on a multiplication grid. Use triangle-shaped flashcards to demonstrate the relationship between addition and subtraction facts or multiplication and division facts. Making flashcards of her own provides your child additional practice with facts.
By helping our children to develop greater facility with basic skills in these discrete academic areas, we will help them develop greater fluency across subjects. Reading and writing fluency allows students to access information and communicate with a focus on ideas and processes, rather than mechanics. Likewise, math fluency allows students to access information and demonstrate their thinking not only in math, but in the vast variety of related subjects. Metacognition, or thinking about the ways we think, helps students to develop and practice the skills addressed here, and practice makes them habits that are performed with ease. Allowing students to free up their mental energy to address the tasks of higher level thinking allows them not only to meet expectations for rigor in the classroom, but to pursue their own interests and engage in creative endeavors that and enrich their experiences and excite their imaginations.