Data – Discrete Trial vs Fluency {Guest Post from Sasha Hallagan – The Autism Helper}

I’m so excited to share today’s post! I’ve asked the AMAZING Sasha Hallagan from The Autism Helper to help explain how we should be effectively teaching new skills through Discrete Trial Training, as well as how we can make those skills more functional through Fluency Instruction.

Enjoy, loves… 🙂

When it comes to academic data, all of my goals and programs fall into two categories: Discrete Trial Training and Fluency Instruction. I choose different skills for different reasons. It’s essential to include both types of programming into your classroom curriculum in order to develop skills that are mastered and functional. So let’s scale back and review the what and why behind each type of instructional approach.

Discrete Trial Training

What?: Discrete trial training is a one-on-one teaching strategy that teaches a new skill in a structured and controlled setting. Each trial has a defined start and end point (hence discrete).

Why?: Discrete trial is all about repetition and reinforcement. You want to present multiple trials and provide immediate reinforcement for correct responses. The idea is the more times the correct response is reinforced, the quickly the learning will occur.

Fluency Instruction

What?: Fluency is accuracy plus speed. We want our learners to have skills that can be produced quickly and correctly. A fluency program looks at the rate of performance – how many responses can the student produce within a specific amount of time.

Why?: Fluency is all about being functional. We live in a fast paced world. Nobody is waiting behind you in the grocery store while you painfully count out each an every coin to pay your bill. We want the skills we teach our students to be second nature. Fluency builds that.


In a perfect curricular world, we need both.

Using Discrete Trial Training to teach a new skill and then use Fluency Instruction to make that skill functional. Don’t linger in Discrete Trial too long we want to make sure the student is not relying on reinforcement for every response.

Let’s run through a sample skill set and see how this would look in a classroom setting. Let us the example of teaching Expressive Color Identification.

Start with a specific set of color options. Never pick only 2 options. They will have 50% chance of getting the answer correct! I like to use 3-5 options depending on the student. Make sure you use multiple exemplars. Don’t use only type of blue. Use a range of blue shades, shapes, and depictions of the stimuli.


The Autism Helper - Data 

The teacher will present the color and say, “What’s this?” If the student answers correctly, provide immediate reinforcement for the response. If they answer incorrectly, provide error correction.

I write out the complete program script and staff expectations. This is essential when you are having paraprofessionals run a program like this. Lay out exactly what should be done and said. Also, lay out the order you will be introducing new stimuli. Be sure to include discrimination trials. Once you have two sets of colored mastered, next include a set of all colors within both sets. Also include mastery criteria.

Here is what a sample data sheet would look like:
The Autism Helper - Data
Once one set has been mastered, move to fluency instruction. Start with a short time period if fluency instruction is new for your student. Begin the timer, scroll through the flashcards, put corrects in one pill, and incorrects in another pile. Count up the piles when you are done and fill in the data sheet. Easy peasy.
The Autism Helper - Data
Fluency instruction makes it easy to compare data and gives the most information. You know how many they got correct and in how long. Percentage, consecutive opportunities, etc, doesn’t tell us all that. If we say a student can identify letters with 90% accuracy – what does that really mean? How many letters? How long does it take them? Taking 2 minutes to identify each letter is not functional and will not pave a yellow brick road toward reading. If we say a student can identify 20 letters minute – that gives us a ton more information. Fluency instruction is a classroom must have. It’s easy to run, relatively easy to set up (check out my fluency mega pack), and is perfect for a paraprofessional to run.
Although this seems like a whole lotta hoopla just to learn colors, for many of our students – they require this structure and consistency in order to fully master and generalize new skills. As a teacher, I love seeing the skills progress. Tracking data can be so rewarding because we see our hard work pay off!

Sasha Long, M.A., BCBA
The Autism Helper
Helping You, Help Children With Autism  

Thanks SASHA – You ROCK! 

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  1. Cara C. on April 15, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Great explanation on the importance of fluency!

  2. Jenn on April 15, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    I love using fluency programs in my classroom. They are so easy to train staff in completing and so great for collecting data!!

  3. lauralea1018 on April 20, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    We used ABA for a year with my son so I am somewhat familiar with the method. In this example, is the point to teach color identification, color word identification or a little bit of both? I'm trying to work on color words with my son but am unsure if I should write them in color to help him at first. They aren't sticking.

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