Five Ways to: Build Fluency

Five Ways. A series of short posts summarising some everyday classroom practices.

Fluency is a concept in learning that suggests recall from memory with minimal effort and a level of automaticity.  Where we can do and say things fluently, recalling with relative ease, we have more capacity to engage with newer knowledge and unfamiliar situations. Where we lack fluency it can seriously inhibit our capacity to engage with newer knowledge. It applies to numerous scenarios: physical aspects of playing sport or an instrument; performing a manual task; driving; reading and using language; performing computational tasks; retrieving factual knowledge. 

As Daniel Willingham explores in the Why Don’t Students Like School chapter ‘Is Drilling Worth It?’, we don’t realistically have time to practise everything to fluency… so there’s an underlying strategic selection process needed to identify the areas of the curriculum where fluency will yield the greatest gains – those areas of knowledge and skill that are used repeatedly and that unlock other areas of knowledge and skill.

Fluency is typically secured through:

  • repeated practice: cycles of recall and evaluation with corrective feedback need to be run through over and over and over.
  • a high success rate: we need to be accurate in our recall so the practice needs to be highly consolidatory
  • sustained practice: genuine fluency with the knowledge and skills we’re dealing with accumulates over many weeks and months.
  • variety: if we want to be able to apply knowledge and skills flexibly and fluently, we need to practise using them flexibly.

In seeking to build students’ fluency within a curriculum area, we need to attend to all four elements. And, as ever, we want all students to develop fluency, not just a few. So our approaches need to include everyone.

Here are Five Ways:

Verbal Repetition

  • Unison – the quickest way to get everyone saying a word or phrase is all at once. Make choral repetition a natural everyday feature of lessons, say new words together, repeatedly. Then cold call a few students to check individual responses – this guards against individuals masking their half-hearted mumbles in the choral throng, not really practising.
  • My Turn, Your Turn – this builds in the modelling aspect with the choral and is common, successful strategy in many primary classrooms.
    • Everyone. My turn: the marvellous machine.
    • Your turn: the marvellous machine. (everyone together)
    • James. My turn: the marvellous machine
    • Your turn: the marvellous machine. (James on his own)
  • Call and Response – this can be teacher-led or via a scaffolded pair activity (with prompt cards, for example). This helps build fluency with connected ideas:
    • What is your name/My name is; How old are you?/ I am twelve years old. (In MFL)
    • Speed?… Distance over time. Density? Mass over volume.
    • 85? 15. 37? 63. (Bonds to 100)

I find some teachers are rather inhibited when enacting these strategies – but then also find it hard to get all students using new vocab. So it’s well worth trying and becoming comfortable with these approaches rather than avoiding them.

Drill for accuracy and speed.

A drill suggests doing the same thing over and over again in quick succession. People baulk and the idea of rote learning and yet, drilling can be incredibly useful. Think of it as intensive practice! (People are happier with that terminology)

  • playing piano scales or playing a tricky trill on the flute;
  • trapping and passing in football;
  • touch typing
  • reciting times tables and number bonds on cue;
  • saying j’aime jouer au foot, le steak est bien cuit – with accurate pronunciation and a good accent;
  • knowing the steps in a dance or the words to a song.
  • knowing that v = u + at and F = ma

It’s more interesting and engaging and therefore easier to sustain if a small set of ideas are included in a drill; it also adds an element of interleaving that can support deeper recall. The activities can vary but the key goal is for all students to repeatedly use the same knowledge in quick succession, with repeated questions or tasks of a similar type, checking for accuracy at first – getting it right, doing it properly – then increasing the speed once accuracy is at a good level.

Flex it. Drill one way and then the other.

It’s essential that students learn to apply knowledge – to use it flexibly. Fluency-building needs to work towards this explicitly by drilling the same knowledge in related but different ways. For example:

  • piano scale – you play it going up and then going down; left hand, right hand, both together;
  • In languages we translate from English to French and from French to English; we use I went to the cinema and then we went to the cinema.
  • With concrete examples, we might say ‘which of these words is a verb?’ and then also ‘what type of word is “walked” an example of?’
  • We learn multiplication facts all ways always: 6 x 4 = 24; 4 x 6 = 24; 24 divided by 4 = 6; 24 divided by 6 = 4.
  • With any symbols: symbols to items; items to symbols
  • With any paired items test both ways: enzymes to food types; food types to enzymes
  • With any sequence: going forwards; going backwards; alternate in pairs eg paired retrieval of multiples of 7 – one student is saying 7–21–35–49, the other gives 14–28–42–56

Workouts: From High Frequency to Spaced revisits.

As explained in recent masterclass from Efrat Furst, there’s a distinction between rehearsal and retrieval. Early stage rehearsal focuses on repetition of small knowledge elements – such as linking number facts and most of the paired items listed above. You do these repeatedly as a rehearsal of that element, cementing their connectedness as a chunk of knowledge.

However, retrieval is what we need in order to use those chunks in any useful scenario. This needs us to space practice over time. So, for fluency in most areas, we need to start with high frequency repeated rehearsal and then, revisit at intervals over weeks and months. A ‘workout’ is what I call an activity where you go back to an earlier topic to engage in a fluency drill, much later than when it was first introduced. It feels familiar and consolidatory but is still necessary with time having passed.

This is then the overarching strategy:

  • Rehearse: Early stage: Introduce/explain, rehearse.
  • Drill: Early weeks: high intensity drill; high volume and frequency; practise, practise, practise
  • Workout: Later weeks: revisit with spaced workouts; integrate into other areas; retrieve and practise.

This is very much how I see formal language fluency and something like learning a piano tune. This is how you learn to say and use the term ‘electrolysis’ and how to play the riff to Get Back.

Increase the range; Build up the elements.

Fluency-building with elements to form chunks then leads to fluency-building with chunks to form bigger schema. eg. We become fluent with a set of words and phrases, then a set of sentence structures, then with an ever wider range of vocabulary and grammar. In learning multiplication tables, we start with a few series of multiples, then extend to the full range 1-10, then we drill on any combination from 1 x1 to 10 x 10 and beyond. The same applies to fronted adverbials, chord shapes on the guitar, structures for analytic writing in English literature. Again this is a macro strategy but needs to be enacted deliberately – starting small but then weaving more and more possible items into the practice drills and later workouts.


Here’s the David Goodwin one-pager to download:

2 comments

  1. Thanks so much for this, Tom!
    I agree with your post, and would add 3 evidence-based interventions that can support fluency, specifically in reading. I have worked with many schools here in Australia, to build reading fluency as a bridge to comprehension – through automaticity in decoding!
    Firstly, check out Repeated Reading, as there is research over decades to support this – especially with the addition of daily graphing of words read correctly in one minute! So motivating for students to experience daily success and improve on themselves for a “daily personal best ever”!! The easiest way to implement this is to pair students at similar reading fluency levels, at the start of the intervention. And be clear that they are each supporting their partner to read. As well, make sure the text is at independent reading level for students, easy texts are simply great for low-stakes practice, along with reading to their partner.
    Secondly, using Readers Theatre, with some explicit instruction in the aspects of fluency. This is relatively easy to implement with mixed ability and some professional teacher judgements for giving students different roles in a simple play. It also supports students to support each other as a team for their performance, and you can add an “audience feedback” loop. This needs some teacher explicit instruction for positive feedback, modelling how to improve rather be critical.
    Lastly, Scaffolded Silent Reading alters some aspects of DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) or Silent Reading. Again, teachers ensure books or texts are at independent reading levels for all students, and teachers show interest by interviewing students regularly and asking questions about their reading. During these reading interviews, teachers also set goals for where the student might be up to in their book on the next interview. Some teachers even ask student to present book reviews to their class or other classes.
    Hope this adds to your post, Tom? Thanks again for this post, as it is so supportive of these reading interventions that really do work well in schools!
    ps I’m also posting this into my blog, and will try to post there more regularly in 2022!

    Liked by 1 person

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