With global competitiveness playing a central role in the education proposals of both President Bush and several governors this year (see Bush to Congress: Renew NCLB this year and States tackle global competitiveness), strengthening math and science instruction has become a primary focal point of these plans. But at least one nationally recognized reading expert has an important message for policy makers and education leaders: Don’t forget about reading fluency.

In a recent interview with eSchool News, Jon Bower, a Stanford-trained reading specialist with an MBA from Harvard, said he believes reading fluency is critical to ensuring that American students are prepared to succeed in an ever-evolving, global economy. Bower is president and CEO of Soliloquy Learning.

The United States, Bower said, has a 95 percent literacy rate, but only a 34 percent proficiency rate–meaning the vast majority of adults and children can’t read well enough to excel at their jobs or their school work.

This is holding the U.S. back, he continued, preventing the nation from being more competitive internationally and more productive in the workplace.

In the interview, Bower–a former Stanford University instructor who has spoken at numerous education conferences about cognitive development, reading, and technology–discussed proven reading strategies and explained how technology can help the many children not reading at a proficient level. The entire interview is available for viewing in streaming video format here: Bower video interview.

Educators can do specific things to ensure that all of their students, regardless of their skill level or learning pace, grow to become proficient readers, Bower said. He encouraged educators to choose a reading framework they can understand and implement it faithfully, following every step, to guarantee real reading proficiency.

“The science of reading is pretty well understood,” he said. “The five key reading skill sets are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The trick to all of that is not to get lost in one or another; it’s not how well we just do phonics, or how well we only focus on comprehension. [We should] make sure all students out there achieve all five of the skill sets, and then we’ll get 100-percent proficiency.”

Although there are just five basic skill sets, “there are about 400 discrete skills needed to learn English well,” Bower said. These 400 skills range in order from simpler ones, such as learning vowel sounds, to more complex skills, such as understanding how syntax affects meaning.