Monday, August 17, 2020

Phonics, Fluency, and Flexibility

If you have ever read one of Peggy Parrish's delightful Amelia Bedelia books to young children, your efforts were no doubt greeted by howls of laughter. Children delight in the word play involved when Amelia "dresses the turkey" in coat and pants, or when she "pitches a tent" by throwing it poles and all, into the bushes. The children's delight comes, of course, from the humor derived from Amelia's totally literal understanding of words and the children's growing knowledge that words can have more than one meaning. If you are reading these books to first and second graders you may also notice that some children are not in on the joke. They may laugh along with others, but they may not yet have the cognitive flexibility to get the joke. 

Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts or to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. If you can't switch between two different concepts of "dress" or "pitch" you can't get the humor of Amelia Bedelia. Likewise, if you can't switch between two or more different concepts about how words are constructed, you will have great difficulty becoming a fluent reader. Recent research indicates that cognitive flexibility contributes to beginning reader's fluency, that low achieving readers lack cognitive flexibility, and perhaps, most importantly cognitive flexibility can be taught. (See References Below)

When you think about this it makes good sense. Phonics knowledge can only get us so far in decoding. If children approach every unknown word with only the "sound it out" strategy to help them, they will only be able to decode the most rudimentary words and will not achieve fluency in reading. Sounding out will work effectively enough for a words like "sun" or "moon" or even "June", but even here students must have the flexibility to see two different ways to represent the "oo" sound. What about the word "fight?" Sound it out won't work here, so the child must move to the analogy strategy: "I know the word "night" and this word ends the same, and it start like "fun", so it must be "fight"." 

Then when children move to multi-syllable words, new challenges present themselves. Compound words like "strawberry" or "baseball" may be fairly straightforward, but what do we do with a word like ""previewed?" Here children must apply their morphological knowledge: "I know "pre" is a suffix meaning "before" and "-ed" is a suffix indicating past tense." And then there are words like "cover" and "covert" and "model" and "motel" where flexibility is given a real workout. Here the reader must try an approximation of the word, using knowledge of closed and open syllables, and then try to determine what sounds right and makes sense in the context of the reading (Best guess and check).

Summing all this up would indicate that a fluent reader must flexibly and strategically use a combination of strategies to decode an unknown word.  Students who consistently use only the "sound it out" strategy will find that too many English words don't map easily to letter by letter decoding and that the fluency necessary for sustained comprehension eludes them. "Sounding out" is a necessary skill, but applying it too rigidly will hinder the development of fluency.

Children need to develop a "What could I try?", mentality when approaching unknown words. Teachers can help them develop this strategy through modeling. Modeling can perhaps best be achieved through the think aloud. While reading aloud to children the teacher stops at a variety of pre-planned points in the reading to model decoding strategies. Placing the target word on chart paper or white board can help to demonstrate the strategies being used. The teacher can model flexibility by trying different strategies and by orally labeling the strategies as "sound it out" or "analogy" (some say "compare" strategy), "morphology" or "word parts" or "best guess and check." 

When following up with individual readers, the prompt, "What could you try?" can be used to remind readers that a variety of strategies are at hand to help them. An  anchor chart in the room can be used to help readers see that a number of decoding strategies are available to them at all times.

Some children seemingly come by their flexibility in approaching reading problems naturally. Other children need systematic instruction to help them discover the many routes they may take into a word. Our language is rich and complex and often defies attempts to govern it with rigid rules. While that richness and unpredictability may be frustrating to young readers, Peggy Parrish shows us in her Amelia Bedelia books that that very richness and unpredictability can also be a great source of joy and humor. 


Cartwright, K.B., et al., (2019).  Executive function in the classroom: Cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teacher-identified low achieving readers. Research in Developmental Disabilities. retrieved from Aug. !5, 2020

Chard, D., Pikulski, J., Templeton, S.(2000). From phonemic awareness to fluency: Effective decoding instruction in a researchbased program. NY: Houghton Mifflin. retrieved from August 15, 2020

Pascale, C., Duncan, L., Blaye, A. (2104). Cognitive flexibility predicts early reading skills. Frontiers in Psychology. retrieved from Aug. 15, 2020.

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