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Frequency and Fluency - New Ways to Measure Student Performance

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #57, 2004.

What are frequency and fluency and how can you use them in your homeschool?
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Michael Maloney

"When is my child's performance good enough?" That is one question that continually plagues homeschoolers. The question arises in response to concerns about requirements set by oversight agencies or by the parent's ability to teach what the student plan requires. The question is also raised by the concern for what will happen when the child attempts the next piece of curriculum, the next statewide testing, or the next college entrance examination.

There are many answers to the question, but most of them do not do much to allay a parent's concern. Chapter tests and periodic exams are one measure, but the scores might vary depending on the evaluator. If the tests are set and evaluated by a third party, the parent can probably have some reassurance that the result in some way represents what the student has learned. Many times the homeschooling parent is simply left to do the evaluation and make the judgment about adequate progress single-handedly. Standardized achievement tests are another way to measure learning gains but they are expensive, time-consuming, and tend to have delayed feedback for a question to which we want an answer now.

An Option

There is another option. In the 1970s, Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley of Kansas University developed a measurement system called Precision Teaching. Precision Teaching provides direct measures of student performance, usually in a minute or less. It is easy to administer and gives immediate feedback to both the learner and the teacher. It compares the student's current performance on a specific task to a known standard developed from the attempts of millions of other students on the same or similar tasks. It is a purely behavioral measure, unaffected by statistical treatments of norms, standard deviation, percentiles, and so on, which makes it easy to understand. It tells both teacher and the learner, not only whether the performance meets the standard, but also how close to the standard that this particular attempt came. It allows comparison with the student's previous attempts and allows us to see how much change occurred and how much more is required to reach the fluency standard.

What is Fluency?

Most people think of fluency in a somewhat limited way, typically as it relates to learning languages. If a person speaks the language quickly and correctly we consider the speaker to be "fluent." To the degree that the speaker hesitates, speaks haltingly, and/or makes numerous errors, we consider him or her less and less fluent. But fluency can be considered in a much wider sense. It can be used to measure any behavior.

Think of it this way. All behaviors occur within a framework of time; from the 248 years it takes Pluto to circle the sun to the beat of a humming bird's wings at 2,000 beats per minute. All behaviors have a range of frequencies in which they occur. We can walk quickly at 120 steps per minute or stroll slowly at 100 per minute. We can talk fast at 275 words per minute or speak with deliberate slowness for emphasis and impact at 180 words per minute. When our behavior does not fall within the range of frequencies that we are comfortable with, we see that behavior as problematic. It is difficult to listen to someone for any length of time who speaks either very slowly or very quickly. We are more comfortable when people speak at rates within the range of fluency (180-250 words per minute).

Some typical fluencies are listed below:

  • Oral Reading (Primary Grades) 100-150 words/minute, 0-2 errors

  • Oral Reading (Grades 4 and above) 200-250/min, 0-2 errors

  • Silent Reading 400-500 words/minute, 0-2 errors

  • Simple Math Facts 60-80 facts/minute, 0-2 errors

  • Writing Words 20-30 words/minute, 0-2 errors

  • Typing Words (Beginner) 25-30 words/ minute, 0-2 errors

  • Typing Words (Intermediate) 30-50 words/ min. 0-2 errors

  • Typing Words (Advanced) 50-80 words/minute, 0-2 errors.

This list of fluencies will be expanded to include others that are specific to each topic in the series of articles that is to follow in this column.

Frequency as Measurement

When highly precise measures are required, the world of sport often turns to frequency as a measure. Olympic athletes are routinely measured using rate per unit time as a way to determine their placement within a group of competitors. Personal bests, event records, and world records are often reported as frequency measures. The TV sports announcer can often describe the current stroke rate of a swimmer or rower and determine his likelihood of winning given that particular pace, even before the event is completed. Coaches and judges routinely accept rate measures in many sports. Because of these measures, there are far fewer problems in determining an Olympic gold swimmer as opposed to an Olympic gold figure skater, where judgment overrides measurement.

Frequency and Academics

Unfortunately, despite its practice of producing better students during the past three decades, educators have not accepted Precision Teaching. The closest that a frequency measure comes to being used as a measure of academic proficiency occurs in typing classes. Keyboarding students are taught that 30 words per minute is acceptable for an introductory course, 60 words per minute for an intermediate course and 80-100 words per minute for an advanced course. This has been a tried and true standard of fluency for many years for millions of students, readily accepted by teachers and students alike. But frequency can also be used to measure other academic tasks.

Dr. Lindsley began by measuring the reading rates of students in different grades. His data indicated that fluent readers could decode words in passages at the same rates at which they carried on conversation. Their teachers considered children who could not do so as "poor readers." Once their reading rates were increased and their errors decreased, these students also became proficient readers. In the Sacajawea study, which used simple one-minute daily timings of reading, spelling and math with thousands of elementary school students in 22 states over a nine-year period, scores increased an average of two years for each year of the study as measured by standardized tests.

One minute a day for each of a few critical measures can give a homeschooling parent the satisfaction of knowing the degree of proficiency their children have reached on various academic tasks. It is a simple, reliable method with a rich research history that will help you determine when your child has learned this particular skill well enough.

Applying Frequency as a Measure for Your Students

In the next several columns, I will outline the use of frequency as a measure of proficiency in various areas of academic curriculum. I will provide the known fluency standards from Precision Teaching for specific tasks. I will outline some tips on how to implement particular measures and on some methods for practicing specific skills. The next column will concentrate on the decoding aspects of reading and how you can use frequency and fluency to produce competent readers.

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