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How Automaticity Drives Learning

In an interesting article titled “Why Do You Turn The Radio Down When You Are Lost?”  Carole Latham discusses  how attention capacity is finite. This simple idea reminds us how crucial it is to automate the listening, reading and learning process as much as possible.

Here’s what Latham’s article had to say about turning the radio down to think:

“In talk­ing about using a cell phone while dri­ving, Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, had this to say:

‘Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain. The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited – a zero-sum game. When attention is deployed to one modality – say, in this case, talking on a cell phone – it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality – in this case, the visual task of driving.’

He’s talking about divided attention, or the ability to multitask and pay attention to two things at once. It’s generally much harder than selective, or focused, attention. The factors that come into play are your attentional capacity and the processing requirements – essentially how much of which areas of your brain are needed to process the input.”

The Importance of Automaticity

The idea behind Fast ForWord software — and other programs that target the cognitive skills required for reading — is to automate the decoding aspect of reading, freeing up attention for reading comprehension.  Most struggling readers are not automatic decoders, meaning that the actual reading uses up some of the reader’s attention capacity. Even if these readers become somewhat fluent, reading comprehension will always be a challenge.

This same phenomenon applies to children with auditory processing difficulties.  They have to use some attention capacity and concentration to make out the words being said by the teacher in class.  This leaves less attention capacity to understand what is being said and/or to keep up with extended periods of speech, often leading to a diagnosis of inattentive ADD.

By improving processing, listening, and reading, decoding can become automatic, leading to comprehension gains that  are often dramatic . . . about as dramatic as figuring out where you are after being lost. Now you are ready to turn the radio up again!