Cumulative Fluency – How small gaps can become bigger gaps later on

Posted by Lee Northern on May 9, 2023

Truly inclusive classrooms are essential for equity, social mobility and success for all, providing a platform from which pupils from all backgrounds can thrive.

Focusing on learning in the classroom, progress can be quickly made – but as Lee Northern, Tribal’s Principal Inspections Consultant for the Middle East, explains below – there are methods that can prove essential in preventing larger issues arising: beginning with stopping smaller issues before they are given a chance to grow. Through numerous conversations and productive research, Lee has been led to consider the idea of ‘cumulative fluency’, as he writes on his thoughts below following his previous article:

The idea of cumulative fluency has been a ‘game changer’ in terms of how I – and others- come to conceive of inclusive approaches in the classroom. It provides a concrete model for what can sometimes be rather loosely thought of as ‘quality-first teaching’. QFT is one of those phrases in education which feels like it’s widely understood, but it’s often the equivalent of ‘educational jelly’ – everyone thinks they know what it is, but when you ask, it’s actually quite hard to nail down or to get the same definition twice.

What is cumulative fluency?

To understand what cumulative fluency is, first you must understand its opposite – cumulative dysfluency. Dysfluency is what happens when pupils encounter difficulties in their learning which mean that they struggle to build future learning on top of these difficulties, or the gaps in their knowledge and understanding. In this sense – such as never having mastered the basics of punctuation, or grasped place value, or become fluent in linking letters and sounds – this dysfluency accumulates and compounds as pupils move through the curriculum. We can see this ‘accumulation of dysfluency’ reflected in the attainment gaps noted in the EPI report shown in our previous blog on inclusive education – widening further and further as pupils progress from Early Years through primary school and to the end of secondary education: the small problems have become bigger problems later on.

Ofsted has also used this term to describe the accumulation of gaps in learning. In their ‘School Inspection Update’ (here) from January 2019, they make the crucial link between the curriculum and the accumulation of dysfluency. Ofsted states:

“There are serious consequences for pupils when a curriculum is not sequenced or designed effectively. Gaps in pupils’ knowledge accumulate as they become layered on top of one another in a curriculum sequence. This accumulation of gaps, known as dysfluency, limits pupils’ ability to acquire the complex skills that depend on them, and may even prevent them entirely from gaining those skills. This problem is sometimes called ‘cumulative dysfluency’”.

Other educators have also drawn attention to this way of thinking about the compounding effect of gaps or misconceptions in learning. Further Education teacher Mike Tyler has produced a presentation which explains how he attempts to ‘overcome cumulative dysfluency’ through his approach to teaching – in this case, teaching sport (here).

What should not be advocated for is the ‘dumbing down’ of curriculum content, or the establishment of streams (sets, or tracks) in which some children are offered a less demanding diet or easier work where they can ‘be successful’. That’s not inclusion – in Lee’s opinion, this is hard-wiring exclusion; the exclusion of some children from a curriculum entitlement provided to others. Instead, this about offering broadly the same curriculum to all pupils but doing so in a way where they can access it successfully. As Amanda Ripley points out in her book “The smartest kids in the world”, schools in many countries (such as in Finland) follow a ‘strict code of equity’:

[In some countries], schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material. Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not hold kids back or promote them. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind...”

This is ‘keep up’ writ large. This is focusing on ‘cumulative fluency’ as a strategy and a belief system. In these countries, inclusion is not a ‘buzzword’ – it is fundamental to, and deeply rooted in, the educational culture of schools.

Putting the ‘keep up’ approach at the heart of inclusion

Successful learning – children ‘keeping up’ with their learning, all the time - comes from a focus on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment together, working in harmony. Success in learning comes from success in the mastery of a series of smaller building blocks (components) of learning, securely held in pupils’ long-term memory (in schema). Where these building blocks are missing, or poorly understood, these gaps are points of ‘dysfluency’. Over time, these gaps accumulate and pupils fall behind their peers, achieve poorly and are left with significant ‘cumulative dysfluency’.

Educational institutions can and should engineer curricula, teaching and assessment to focus relentlessly on building all pupils’ cumulative fluency, step by step, with care and precision. This should be the aim of a truly inclusive education, and the key to social mobility, equity and equality of opportunity.



To keep up to date with Lee’s latest activities, talks, and blogs – connect with him on LinkedIn, visit his blog, or follow Tribal Group for our company-wide announcements and activity.


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