Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Frontloading: How pre-reading builds a bridge to comprehension

Recently I was fortunate to attend a fluency seminar in New York as part of a sponsorship of a literacy series from the New York City Department of Education. The lead speaker, Dr. Esther Friedman, Executive Director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services for the DoE, had me furiously capturing notes and doing a lot of underlining. 

One of Dr. Friedman's key points was the importance of "frontloading" fluency and vocabulary development in struggling readers. I am often asked why BrightFish spends so much time on word recognition fluency when it's a reading practice program.  Now I can answer with a single word: frontloading.

Reducing cognitive load
Frontloading is a pretty simple concept: if readers can process words almost automatically, then cognitive resources can be applied to comprehending what we're reading. If you think of the brain as a limited processor, that makes sense. New information is processed in short-term memory, which can hold about 5-7 items at a time and churns through a lot of brain power. The more we can overlearn and move information to long-term memory where capacity is virtually limitless, the more we can apply cognitive resources to higher-order thinking.

In BrightFish, we take word recognition fluency to the phrases level. Once students can demonstrate that they are processing words from a passage automatically, then we present phrases and ask students to match visual and sound targets accurately and at an appropriate rate. Frontloading the ability to process chunks of text facilitates comprehension by freeing up more capacity for the brain to work on meaning.

Frontloading word meaning
The ability to process words and phrases at an accurate and appropriate rate is second nature for proficient readers. The other critical piece is word knowledge and "Matthew Effects," where the more you read, the more words you know. For struggling readers, taking time to frontload word meaning reduces the cognitive load of trying to understand a lot of new words while reading a piece of text. In BrightFish, we tackle this barrier by working on skills in sequence - words to phrases to word meaning - and by chunking information so that it can be more easily accessed.

So the next time I'm asked if students can skip the word recognition fluency activities in BrightFish Reading and go straight to comprehension, I will have a ready response.