Automaticity versus Fluency: same, same, or different?

By Robyn Monaghan


The more time we spend working in schools, the more we realise there is some confusion around the term ‘fluency’ when applied at a word (or sub-word) level.

As someone who has been reading scientific papers on literacy for longer than I care to mention, I was curious to investigate this semantic conundrum with my live-in lay person... 

Does it matter if we use the term Fluency or Automaticity?

In asking my husband about the difference between the two terms, he said
“Something needs to become automatic to be fluent.”
“So, is automaticity and fluency the same thing?” I asked.
“Pretty much”, he said.

So, why the confusion about these two terms?

How fluency is defined in research circles

Let’s go back to the beginning of “reading fluency” research. I think back then, anything that was automatic was considered 'fluent'.

For example, the DIBELS (Diagnostic Indicator of Basic Early Literacy Skills) has been around for decades and uses the following test terms: First Sound Fluency, Letter Naming Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, Oral Reading Fluency.

When subword skills were automatic, they were deemed to be fluent. That was the term used in scientific research and it is still used in those circles today. 

How fluency is defined in educational circles

In the educational context, fluency refers to text level reading and writing skills that encompass the skills of reading rate, prosody or expression, and attention to punctuation. Quite rightly, that is fluent reading.

My understanding is that fluency can refer to all levels of reading development: from letter-sound links (phoneme-grapheme correspondences) to sub-word segments (onset clusters, rimes, morphemes), to syllables, to words, to phrases, to sentences, and to text. However a quick google search these days will inevitably bring up a narrowed definition of fluency at the text-level only.   

Same, same, or different?

So, does it matter if we use the term ‘automaticity’ or ‘fluency’ at each of these skill levels?

The answer is a bit like the old saying “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”.

The two options are virtually identical, suggesting that either alternative will yield the same outcome. In essence, it implies a 'lack of significant difference between the two possibilities' (

And that's a bit how I see the debate on the term fluency versus automaticity: lacking significance or largely irrelevant.

However, in an effort to reduce confusion, Read3 has made an adjustment to the terminology used throughout the program in relation to building fluency/automaticity. The term ‘fluency’ will be used in the educational text-level reading sense, and the term ‘automaticity’ will be used when referring to automating skills required on the path to text-level fluency. The last thing we want is anyone bogging down on semantics when the focus should be on instruction.

Regardless of the term, the most important thing is that we stay focused on developing automatic skills at every level, leading to text-level when teaching children to read.

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