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What Does It Mean to Really Know Something?

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

August 2010

The following is a common occurrence in many classrooms.  Billy and Sally both get 100% on a test, yet Billy finishes his test 15 minutes earlier than Sally. Unfortunately, their identical scores do not indicate the difference between their testing experiences, nor do they indicate the time it took each to complete the task.  Obviously, there is a difference between Billy and Sally’s performances on the test, but the percent correct measure does not capture that difference.  Why did Billy go so much faster, and what does this difference in performance mean regarding Billy and Sally’s mastery of the subject matter?  The answer is fluency.

To thoroughly know something is to be fluent at it.  For example, after a bit of high school and college Spanish and spending some time in the country, you can be 100% accurate in the language.  To say that you knew Spanish, or was fluent in the language could be a stretch.  How do you know that you are not fluent at Spanish?  You cannot speak it at a rapid pace, especially when distracted. You have to pause and think about the translation of a word, how the verb is conjugated etc.  You could be accurate, but sound like a robot.  Therefore, it is not simply accuracy that defines whether or not you know something but speed as well.  As such, the definition of fluency is accuracy plus speed.

Why would the amount of time it takes to complete a task be important when considering the completion of schoolwork?  Consider this: If Sally takes that much longer to finish the test than Billy, it is safe to assume that she doesn’t “grasp” the material as well as Billy.  But, what exactly does it mean to grasp the material?  To “grasp” is to perform quickly and without hesitation: to truly “grasp” is to be fluent.  If math performance was being evaluated, it is likely that Billy was quickly able to identify the answers to computation questions and quickly identify the operation needed to solve the problem; however, Sally may have had to stop and think about these things, “Is that a nine or a six? What do I do if the numbers add to more than ten?” Having to stop and think about identifying numbers, and simple rules regarding solving basic math problems, for example, leads to trouble academically for students when schoolwork gets harder.  This is problem is exasperated when the harder stuff builds on those tool skills the student is having difficulty with.  This is why fluent behavior is so important when considering your child’s academic behavior.

Fluent behavior is when you see someone behave without hesitation, in other words, “automatically”.  Compare the difference between the speed of your first grader’s reading and your own.  You are probably fluent at reading most books, while your child may be fluent at reading basic Dr. Seuss books, if that.  Compare the difference between Billy and Sally; if your child has to pause, sound out words, or makes frequent mistakes, then they are not fluent at performing the task. 

Reading, math, or writing, like any other behavior, has to be trained. Excellent performance of these skills also has to be trained. Like an athlete, training and practicing important skills beyond the point of accuracy alone will help those behaviors become automatic and easy to perform for your child; thus, providing a solid academic foundation of which to build on for many years to come. 

I encourage teachers to adopt measuring the time that it takes students to perform a task and use that as your criterion for mastery.  Simply measuring percent correct hides the distinction between students.  Months after the test, Billy and Sally’s teacher would look in his/her grade book and see the two 100% scores.  But, as you and I know, their performance on the test was completely different.