Reading Fluency and DHH Readers

The issue

All parents and teachers want their children and students to become fluent readers who understand what they read. So did the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000). Yet two decades later, we still struggle with this concept. In fact, reading fluency is poorly understood and poorly researched among the Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) population, and the amount of fluency research is only 16% of the research on reading comprehension (Easterbrooks & Schwanenflugel, 2020). Even though reading fluency is poorly understood, we have extensive literature on its relation to reading comprehension, which, after all, is what reading is all about. We want our children to understand what they are reading so they can pursue their studies, hobbies, interests, jobs, and careers efficiently.

Three issues impede our understanding of reading fluency: 1) the definition of fluency, 2) the way we measure fluency (albeit the first two are intertwined), and finally, 3) the lack of quality interventions available to teach the range of DHH readers successfully.

First, our definition of reading fluency is insufficient to explain the challenges across the range of DHH readers (Easterbrooks & Schwanenflugel, 2020). According to the NRP (2000), fluency is the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. Our definition does not consider the confounding factors of age, ability, communication, and opportunity. DHH children with age-appropriate sensory and cognitive skills have different needs from DHH children who are also blind (DB) or who have additional disabilities (DWD). Teaching DHH readers using spoken English requires different instructional strategies from teaching readers who use a signed language or a sign-speech combination. And DHH readers raised in environments where reading was valued and promoted have different outcomes from those who had little opportunity. The 12-year-old hard-of-hearing child with a vision weakness from a supportive home environment who uses a signed language learns differently from the 4-year-old, intellectually gifted deaf child whose family is struggling to put food on the table, much less purchase toys and books.

The second challenge to reading fluency is the field’s entrenched practice of measuring fluency by the speed at which a reader can produce lists of words, sentences, or passages. Most school-based and research-based assessments measure fluency in this manner. This is a short-sighted way of viewing reading fluency. In fact, many children with typical hearing can read quickly but do not understand what they read, so why would this not be true for DHH children?

What we know and don’t know

There are countless studies of the role of speed and accuracy in reading comprehension.  We know much less about proper expression in DHH readers because proper expression looks quite different when the child is a signer versus a speaker.

Further, we do not have a good grasp of the myriad skills that comprise fluent reading. While their role in hearing children’s fluency may be well-known, little is known of their role in DHH readers. Easterbrooks and Schwanenflugel (2020) expanded the definition of fluency to include more complex components. These include but are not limited to:

  1. Speed and accuracy of
  2. verbal expression (i.e., saying or signing lists of words off the top of your head at age-appropriate levels),
  3. decoding unknown words, whether signed or spoken,
  4. correct vocabulary use,
  5. correct prosody (i.e., the rise and fall of spoken or signed patterns), whether conveyed by the voice or conveyed by visual patterns,
  6. phrase-level units (i.e., lumping words into patterns based on understandable language, such as to the store or was about to),
  7. Comprehension of phrase-level patterns that form meaningful connections,
  8. Background knowledge,
  9. Text complexity,
  10. Ability to draw inferences, and
  11. Cognitive experience and capacity for memory, processing, and metacognition.


One implication of this expanded definition of fluency is that we need better ways of assessing these skills in all children. Further, we need better ways of assessing these skills in spoken language and signed language.  More importantly, we need better intervention research. It is all well and good to list the things that our children cannot do, but much more important to tell parents and teachers what to do about it when a child is not becoming a fluent reader.

This brief begins a series of segments on reading fluency. Upcoming issues will examine the following topics:

  1. The role of prosody as a bridge between fluency and comprehension.
  2. Assessment of fluency when a child uses sign language and fingerspelling, and
  3. Teaching fluent renderings of the printed word.

Posted on April 20, 2021 by
Susan R. Easterbrooks
Center on Literacy and Deafness
Georgia State University

Further reading