On teaching skills to mastery vs fluency


Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me . . .

In my work with learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and diverse needs, I always focused on teaching skills to mastery, or at least that was my intent.  I typically measured the percentage of correct responses, and depending on the skill and a number of factors, set mastery criteria between 80% and 100% correct.  Once the learner had “mastered” the skill, I would turn my efforts to generalization and maintenance.  I made sure that the programs I developed always included steps and strategies for teaching learners to demonstrate skills with new people, using new materials, and in a variety of settings.  I outlined the process for ensuring that learners practiced and maintained skills over days, weeks, and months.  However, sometimes I would discover that, even with this systematic approach, there were learners who had difficulty maintaining some skills over time; other learners seemed to develop gaps in their skill repertoires, even when I was very careful to build a solid foundation of prerequisites.  Reflecting on this recently sent me digging into the research on behavioral fluency, and has caused me to wonder if I was always truly teaching to mastery.

Carl Binder (1996) defined behavioral fluency as “a fluid combination of accuracy plus speed that characterizes competent performance” (p. 164).  He suggested that, in the real world, fluent performance of a particular skill means that we do something almost as second-nature or automatically, which can only happen when we’ve learned to do something well enough that we do not have to spend time thinking about how to do it every time.  I think, for example, about young children who have difficulty with articulation.  If they receive intervention to improve articulation, at first saying a word in a different way takes a great deal of effort.  However, in many cases, if intervention continues long enough, if there is sufficient opportunity to practice, and if the learner achieves fluency, saying the word in the correct way becomes as easy and as automatic as saying it in the way he or she did before intervention.  When it comes to building important skills in individuals with ASD, I wonder if we always support learners to achieve the necessary level of fluency.

Defining mastery criteria and programming for generalization and maintenance are critical components of skill acquisition programs, to be certain; however, some researchers suggest that we fail to focus enough on another essential step – fluency.  Alberto and Troutman (2003) outline the levels, or stages, of learning as acquisition, fluency, maintenance, and generalization.  Kubina and Wolfe (2005) assert that a learner must achieve accurate responding, followed by fluency in order for long-term retention of the skill to result.  This reminded me of a comment made by an adjudicator to a group of aspiring musicians at a music competition I attended a number of years back.  The adjudicator pointed out that each piece of music is to be played at a particular speed, indicated on the sheet music.  She then drew upon commonly-shared words of wisdom, explaining that once musicians are able to play the selection at the appropriate tempo, it’s not enough for them to practice until they get it right; they must practice until they can’t get it wrong.

Requiring learners with ASD to continue to practice until they achieve fluent responding, rather than simply correct responding, may address a number of potential problems.  Weiss and colleagues point out that “fluency problems in learners with autism can manifest in many ways, including effortful or laborious motor responses, long durations of responses, and long latencies in responding, all of which can result in poor learning and social outcomes” (p. 245).   A wide range of skills, including academic and social skills, whether completing computation tasks in math class or responding to questions or social interactions from peers, require individuals to respond both quickly and accurately.

Fluency training has been the topic of a number of conference presentations and professional learning workshops in recent years.  As a systematic approach to teaching, fluency building involves more than just repeated practice to improve a skill.  It requires identifying an optimal rate of performing a particular skill and having a learner repeatedly practice the skill during scheduled time intervals until he or she achieves the pre-determined speed and accuracy of responding (Binder, 1996).  However, some experts urge caution, pointing out that well-controlled scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals on the use of fluency training as a specific approach (i.e. outside of an empirically-validated system such as Precision Teaching) for building skills in learners with ASD are still limited.  They are concerned that many questions remain about fluency training for learners with ASD, calling upon supporters of this approach to publish additional research and urging practitioners to ensure that intervention selection is guided by the best available evidence (Heinicke, Carr,LeBlanc, & Severtson, 2010).

Studies of the effects of fluency training for learners with ASD continue to emerge (Nopprapun & Holloway, 2014; Lin & Kubina, 2015), and the body of research will determine whether or not there is sufficient empirical support for fluency training as a specific teaching approach.  However, given the potential impact of fluency problems for learners with ASD, it may be worthwhile to give additional consideration to this component of learners’ skill development programs and ensure that learners have truly mastered skills at a high level of fluency.  For practitioners who support learners with ASD and diverse needs to become as independent and as successful as possible, fluency-based instruction may be an area of research worth following.

What do you think about fluency training?  Have you used it in your practice?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2003). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 163-197.

Heinicke, M. R., Carr, J. E., LeBlanc, L. A., & Severtson, J. M. (2010). On the use of fluency training in the behavioral treatment of autism: A commentary. The Behavior Analyst, 33(2), 223-229.

Kubina, R. M., & Wolfe, P. (2005). Potential applications of behavioral fluency for students with autism. Exceptionality, 13(1), 35-44.

Lin, FY, & Kubina, R. M. (2015). Imitation fluency in a student with autism spectrum disorder: An experimental case study. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 16(1), 2-20.

Nopprapun, M., & Holloway, J. (2014). A comparison of fluency training and discrete trial instruction to teach letter sounds to children with ASD: Acquisition and learning outcomes. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8, 788-802.

Weiss, M. J., Pearson, N., Foley, K., & Pahl, S. (2010). The importance of fluency outcomes in learners with autism. The Behavior Analyst Today, 11(4), 245-252.

smclean-headshotShelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA is passionate about empowering educators with an understanding of behavioural principles to give them the tools and the confidence to ignite the potential in all of their learners.  She is the Coordinator of the interprovincial Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership for the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Shelley has worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, high school administrator, itinerant ASD consultant, and provincial Learning Specialist for ASD and Complex Cases during her career in education, which spans more than 17 years.  She has also served as a part-time instructor for ABA courses at the University of New Brunswick and Western University in Ontario.  Shelley holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Education, and a Master of Education degree in Counseling Psychology.  She completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of North Texas and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2010.  You can contact her at [email protected]

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2 Comments on "On teaching skills to mastery vs fluency"

  1. Hello Shelley,

    Very nice article, and I am sincerely hoping that your thoughts will be acted upon by many in the ABA community. My own experiences with fluency instruction, or fluency based instruction, OR Precision Teaching began with autistic teenagers in a program that I directed. My staff were amazing folks, most trained in errorless procedures through their work in Murray Sidman’s residential program WAY back at the Fernald State School. My staff and I wanted to assure that our students could learn new (and much more exciting!) tasks such as tool handling, fine motor vocational assembly tasks, etc. We used our excellent backward chaining skills to teach these tasks. BUT we kept seeing the tasks deteriorate over time. We were charting EVERYTHING our student’s did at the time, so we could see all too well that the well taught skills were falling apart, usually blocked by high frequency movements that were far better practiced. These “self stimulation” movements seemed almost impossible to stop! Eric Haughton, who we were fortunate to have as a consultant, noted that these movements were the best, most frequent movements of our students. We were regarding them as weeds in a garden of skills–he advised we learn to — USE these movements and adapt them to the skills we were trying to teach. Looking at small fragments of skill (the Big Six) changed our way of teaching AND our rate of success with our students! Keep up the good work!

  2. Marie-France Akinrolabu | February 1, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Reply

    It might be as simple as ensuring the social validity of the skills were are trying to build to the level of fluency. The more social validity a skill will have and the increased chances of it being reinforced in the natural environment where it matters. Considering the hierarchy of levels of learning might also be of essences. In short, what level of the Bloom’s taxonomy are we targeting for our students? Do we expect them to know (Knowledge), to comprehend (comprehension) to apply (application) what they know, to analyze (analysis), etc. the higher the level of learning the higher the functional use of a taught behavior or skills.

    As educators do we not hyper-focus on a hierarchy of response competence rather than focus on a hierarchy of levels of learning leading up to abstract thinking a.k.a. concept formation that transcends people, places and time?

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