How to Improve Fluency and Processing Speed

We like to think that we are in charge of our choices.  But what if making a choice or decision is actually based on things that we don’t notice?

Sometimes we are faced with a task that will require one or more choices. What we choose depends on what we process about the situation. This may seem obvious, but research that looked at judgment, choice, and processing style produced some results that will encourage you to think—and notice—before you act.

Fluency: Processing Ease

There are many variables that facilitate or impair our information processing and hence our decisions, no matter the type of choice. Fluency, or how easily and automatically we process information, affects emotions as well as cognition. When faced with tasks of varying degrees of challenge, we are sensitive to our own feelings of ease or difficulty, but we are not usually aware of what drives these feelings or how they affect our choices.

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” ( Daniel Goleman)

“The range of what we think and do

is limited by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice,

there is little we can do to change

until we notice how failing to notice

shapes our thoughts and deeds.” ( Daniel Goleman)

The words of the above quotations are the same, but the structures and contexts are not. The first version is presented in italics, in prose, in a shaded text box, and you as the reader would need to break this up into meaningful phrases to facilitate comprehension. The second example is broken into meaningful phrases in verse format. The change in structure may improve understanding, or, if you thought that it was a little poem that was just designed to be clever and did not apply to you, you might have thought it easy and only processed at a superficial level.  Did you feel that you needed to read the first version over again to get the meaning?

Since the context of a task is often more important than the task itself, you cannot make an informed choice unless you are able to notice what may prevent more fluent processing. In this case, representing the prompt differently can have significant effects on understanding. But what if all I did was change the background color to improve the figure-ground or change the font to make the text more or less legible?  These choices may seem irrelevant, but they will affect how fluently a student processes the words.

More than clear easy-to-follow directions are thus necessary. People have to feel they can do a task. Since choices are affected by irrelevancies, the person assigning the task must consider what may affect the set of choices necessary to facilitate an outcome. Research has found that when identical directions are in a difficult-to-read font, participants think the exercise will take nearly twice as long to do. In other words, teachers often forget that they understand the directions.

Familiarity Feeds Fluency

A topic or piece of work that is familiar may be easier to process, recognize, and choose skills to use than a topic that is unfamiliar or in a different context. To improve reading, children increase familiarity by reading more. To master the times tables, they practice until the answers are automatic. The familiarity principle also explains why we can often be top-notch proofreaders of someone else’s work but not of our own writing. We become so familiar as we have read and reread it many times that we may miss even obvious errors.

Repetition makes things seem familiar, and familiarity feeds fluency. Fluent processing of familiar things feels good, but because it is automatic, we don’t pay attention to seemingly irrelevant details. That is, of course, unless we are invited to scrutinize tasks for the very things that can make us more attentive to details. This feels less good, but it is an example of a time when negative affect may be useful.

Some Take-Aways for Teaching (and Parenting)

  1. If you are teaching content, make the learning task fluent. This may mean making adjustments for the skill level of individual learners rather than challenging them to bump up their effort.
  2. If you are teaching skills, keep the content fluent. This may mean having less difficult content at first, or at the least, more familiar content.
  3. If you are testing, keep dysfluent context to a minimum so that the focus is on the content you are assessing.
  4. Point out the difficult things coming up. If a copy of a worksheet is hard to read and you cannot rewrite it, point this out. For research participants, merely telling them that something was hard to read made their performance consistent with the higher fluency group.
  5. Take advantage of color to improve figure ground, and use clean easy-to-read fonts.

And…remember what Daniel Goleman said.

Find out more about improving fluency and processing speed.