Reading fluency and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

Is reading fluency important for academic success?

I’d imagine everyone reading this would agree it was very important – crucial in fact.

This description from Quirky Teacher of many children’s reading in year 6 must sound quite familiar to secondary teachers:

I am worried that children in KS2, despite being officially ‘able to read’, are still not really fluent, even when they get to year 6. When you ask them to read to you, they stumble slowly through a text, sometimes randomly substituting trickier and new words, never able to add intonation and not really getting the bigger picture.

As I outlined in my post yesterday that does not mean that at secondary level we ensure children get enough daily reading practice to ensure our students DO read fluently. One reason for this is that the need for bulk practice is not appreciated. There is another reason why, even when the importance of sustained reading is acknowledged, children still don’t end up with enough practice to become fluent readers. This reason can be explained using the economic principle of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

What is this principle?

I like using this cartoon to explain the principle when teaching my A level politics students (about ecologism).


The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.

At secondary level the ultimate goal of subject teachers is to ensure their students learn their subject, biology, geography, RE etc, probably measured through their success in public examinations. Aside from the ultimate benefit to the pupil, if children are fluent readers it helps all teachers achieve the academic goals they have for their students and therefore no teacher would quibble that reading fluency is important.  The reading fluency is a ‘common good’- a shared resource that benefits all teachers as they teach their subject to the student. However, that does NOT mean it benefits the individual teacher to focus on reading fluency. If you look at the wiki definition above, rather than gaining an individual advantage from ‘depleting’ a resource, subject teachers gain an advantage by not adding to a shared resource. It takes valuable lesson time away from subject learning to focus on building the commonly shared resource – fluent reading. I’ll explain using an example from my own teaching:

I want my year 9 students to learn about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. After a series of lessons the class will write an essay on whether the Somme was entirely a disaster. As a subject teacher I will get the most reward from getting the best possible essays as quickly and painlessly as possible. SO should I cover the key detail on the Somme by:

  1. Using a great article I found on the internet. I can abridge it to ensure that while it challenges the students it is accessible. I know this article covers the ground well but it will take a long time to read and the students won’t exactly be enthralled that they are doing lots of reading.
  2. Use a documentary from Youtube that covers all the issues in full technicolour and takes half the time the article would. Hey – we can practice note taking!
  3. Play some sort of fact finding games. Not as effective to get the content across as the article but it will look great if you are observed as the class will love it. They’ll walk out of the lesson saying they prefer history to geography. This means they’ll probably work harder on their history essay and opt for the subject at GCSE.

Let’s be honest. How often do we opt for A because we know it serves the greater good? The common goal of reading fluency is inevitably sacrificed. I don’t think individual teachers should be blamed for this. The incentives are all wrong. How many teachers can get by on a warm glow of self-righteousness when other teachers and other subjects get better results, no one opts for your subject at GCSE and the kids complain that (comparatively) your lessons are boring. We are far more likely to kid ourselves that what amounts to a tokenistic amount of reading is ‘doing our bit’ because we’re not into career suicide.

So what should be done? As my A level politics students know – this is an argument for centralised control. The incentives need to be changed by those with the power to do so – SLT. If sustained reading is the norm in ALL lessons then students just get used to it and will start to read the amount necessary each day to become fluent.

Perhaps this shift towards more sustained reading can be achieved as at Michaela School by having a quite centralised control over the materials used in class. Perhaps SLT can agree with subject departments a notional number of words a week that need to be read in each subject, as appropriate (i.e. not appropriate for maths!). Maybe lesson observation can be used or book scrutinies can look for evidence that there has been very regular sustained reading at the right level of challenge. Ultimately, a sensible, intelligently implemented,  way needs to be found to end what amounts to a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

11 thoughts on “Reading fluency and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

  1. Great way of thinking about this. We’ve introduced this in September at the primary where I’m head so I hope children will be that bit more fluent on hitting secondary- but even if every primary did the same, children need to become increasingly fluent with increasingly demanding texts through secondary school if they are to cope with the reading load at university- so what you are arguing for is really important

    1. I’m unsure what you mean. Do you mean that resource choices are not always that stark? If so I agree – I chose a genuine recent occasion where my choice had been that stark as my purpose was to illustrate the point of the post as clearly as possible.

  2. Hi Heather, Lindsay is referring to you listing the options by number, but referring to the first option by letter.

    Reading fluency starts at the beginning of formal reading instruction by applying evidence-informed teaching principles with plenty of cumulative, decodable material for children to apply and practise their phonics knowledge – in addition to a reading culture throughout the primary school. Sadly, we still have a dominating Book Bands cataloguing system meaning quite a lot of beginners are given reading books to read mainly ‘independently’ at home that include alphabetic code not yet taught/learnt. Many schools, perhaps most, provide boxes of books for beginners based on the Book Banding or Levelling reading system which sets some children off (many) on the wrong trajectory for reading behaviours as the earliest levels include books that are not decodable for many children.

    Teachers in England may not be aware of the findings of a body of research which America has summarised very simply as ‘the Five Pillars of Literacy’ or the ‘Big Five’. The list includes: phonemic awareness, phonics (teach the alphabetic code systematically and the phonics skills), vocabulary (teach explicitly with lots of repetition), fluency (involves plenty of repeat-reading) and comprehension.

    Regarding ‘fluency’, then, whereas systematic synthetic phonics may include repetition of seeing the letters and saying the sounds in quick response, provision may well not include sufficient repetition to build up confidence and fluency with cumulative word and text level material. Taking the Book Banding scenario into consideration whereby publishers STILL keep producing and promote books for beginners NOT based on cumulative content, then at least some of our children – perhaps many of those who flag up with lack of fluency in secondary schools – are being done a grave disservice – and teachers are, arguably, being misled.

    The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction has produced this leaflet regarding the issue of Book Bands and Levelling systems:

    There should be no doubt that what kind of teaching and experience transpires in the early years and infants will have a knock-on effect for reading fluency of older children.

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