Data {Discrete Trial vs. Fluency} - The Autism Helper

Data {Discrete Trial vs. Fluency}

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

The Autism Helper - Data

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
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  1. Great post! I really liked your example of why fluency is an important skill in a fast-paced world; especially, at the check-out counter.

  2. Ok. I tend to overthink things, so I could use an opinion before I make myself crazy. I am starting to teach receptive identification object by function. If I am making a set to work on, would you suggest having a set of cards that have 4 examples of 3 different functions, like 4 objects that you wear, 4 you eat, and 4 you write with, for example, or would you only work on one function at a time? Like just work on items you eat, before teaching another function? Hope this makes some sense!

  3. Just emailed you about this! 🙂

  4. Hi Sasha,

    I restructured my self-contained classroom (grades 6-8) to include rotating centers for math, writing, reading, and life-skills. I have created tasks for each (am still working on creating more) but have been struggling with creating my master rotation schedules. I have 10 kiddos (3 of which are 1:1s, one who recently moved from 1:1 to small group and one who should be 1:1) and 5 paras. Because of the 1:1 situation, I am really having a hard time breaking up the pairs bc I do not have enough support for each pair. I could really use some advice on setting up my schedules and rotations so that all my students are getting what they need.

  5. I totally understand! The grouping can be so hard. A few suggestions – Can you pair the student without 1:1 in bigger groups? Also – look at adding in more independent work centers for those kids who will be without a 1:1 ie. those students would be working mostly with you or independently. Students with 1:1 would be working less time with you directly because you will be training/managing their 1:1 so they get “your time” that way. Also, what about pairing a more challenging student with a less challenging student. Then if the more challenging student acts up it will be less like for the less challenging student to engage in behaviors as well and he may be able to work independently while behavior is being dealt with. Hope this helps! The schedule is the hardest part sometimes!

  6. I am a big fan of your website, I own your discrete trial goal sheets – before I use them (again) I went looking for a video you used to have on DTT (I found the pic of the red and blue flashcards) – but I can’t find the video anymore. Do you still have it available anywhere? – I have watched in the past and was hoping to get a refresher.

  7. Hi!
    Thanks for this awesome post! This year I have a lower functioning student who requires DTT. I purchased your data sheets and want to start using them for DTT and Fluency. I had a question… The student is learning his colors and is nonverbal. He currently does not know any colors. His current objective is to point to the color red. For DTT would I place 3 different colors (red, yellow, blue) in front of him and ask him to point to red? And if he gets it wrong, I would just keep redirecting him to the correct answer? I just want to make sure I am doing correctly!!!

  8. Yes! Stick with one color but have two distractors. And make sure to mix up the cards (i.e. red is not always in the center). Provide TONS of reinforcement when he gets it right and error correction when he gets it wrong. Once red is mastered – do blue. Then red and blue together!

  9. Just out of curiosity how often do you assess your students on goals/benchmarks? Weekly, daily?

  10. Depends on the student and the goal. For DTT and fluency – every time we run the program. If the data is built right in, it’s no extra effort to track the data that day. Hope this helps!

  11. I cannot tell you enough how much I have used your products and read your posts!! Thank you!! I am a relatively new teacher in a middle school room. How does this work with students who read very well and have 5 comprehension questions with each story? Comprehension is being measured. Thanks!

  12. Hi Megan, Thanks for reading! So glad to hear my posts are helpful. Yes this can absolutely work with reading comprehension. Keep the trial numbers consistent and provide reinforcement and error correction accordingly. Working on some posts about this for the future! 🙂

  13. Love your blog! I have a student who is able to sort/match colours but is not able to identify one colour in DTT with 3 blank (white) distractor card and one colour card. I’m at a loss as how to proceed. Any suggestions would be great appreciated.

  14. Hi Jules! That’s a tricky situation. Maybe try mixing up the reinforcer?

  15. Interested what the answer was for this. I had the same issue.

  16. Hi! I was finally able to get a second IA in my reading class so she is going to be taking over a station. I really want her to focus on DTT/Fluency with the students for sight words, but I do not want to confuse her.

    For instance, if a student has mastered set 1 of primer words, and is now working on learning set 2.
    Should she do Fluency of set 1 on one day and DTT of set 2 on the next day?

    I hope that makes sense!
    Any suggestions you have to keep it simple for the IA would be great! Thank you!


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