The Key to Confident Reading is Automaticity
Think how many accidents would occur if riding a bike required thinking about constantly moving the pedals in a steady clockwise motion and where to move the hands to constantly steer and adjust balance.
A mind that needed to focus on these actions would be over-loaded, possibly missing upcoming obstacles, and exhausted, leading to mistakes. Riding a bike under with all this going on in the conscious mind would not only make riding difficult, it would also be terrifying.
But with a little practice, these skills can be automated — done subconsciously, without thinking — which makes riding a bike not only easy, but also fun.
The same is true in reading.
Having to think about sounding out every syllable in every word requires deep concentration which is exhausting and joyless. The syllable by syllable grind also slows reading down substantially, eroding comprehension and satisfaction from reading.
Only when decoding is automatic, subconscious, can reading be easy and fun. Automaticity in reading not only allows for much faster decoding, it also frees the mind for comprehension and higher level thinking, making the text more interesting and stimulating for the reader.
And so automatic decoding is a necessary first step to reading comprehension and a lifelong reading habit.
New Educational Goals Require Automaticity Earlier
As Guy Claxton outlines in his landmark book, What’s The Point of School, there is more at stake here than reading proficiency. The goal of education, now that knowledge is freely available to all, should be to create enthusiastic, curious, creative lifelong learners.
A love of learning cannot develop if any aspect of learning — reading, listening, attending, writing, thinking — is arduous. A love of learning requires automaticity in all essential cognitive and learning skills.
In reaction to these knowledge economy requirements, i.e., a move away from rote memorization knowledge toward higher-order thinking, many states have adopted the new new Common Core State reading standards.
These standards focus on the steps needed to be a lifelong learner, namely the capacity for critical thinking and deep understanding. This requires the ability to read with comprehension in elementary school, which in turn requires automaticity in reading, decoding, by 2nd or 3rd grade.
Automaticity in Reading Does Not Always Come Naturally
Automaticity in learning and reading requires sound phonological awareness which in turn requires strong language processing skills. If you are able to listen without having to strain or read without having to concentrate, you have achieved automaticity. For most children, the processing practice associated with listening while being read to, participating in conversation and listening to teachers is sufficient to get to a level of language processing skill that is automatic.
For many children though, these natural life opportunities to develop language processing efficiency, required for automaticity in reading and learning, are not enough. For them, language is anything but automatic — listening in class is exhausting and/or reading is a grind. It requires concentration, making listening, reading and thinking exhausting and inefficient. These difficulties often do not show up in speech, only in reading and/or learning, where the processing efficiency requirement is higher.
From Automaticity to Learning Confidence
In most cases, by the time your child is an adult he/she will get enough practice to finally develop some measure of automaticity. But, this delayed development often comes too late to change attitudes to learning and eventual academic outcomes.
The sooner a child can develop automaticity the better. The best path to automatic decoding is reading practice, reading “just right” books. But if reading is just too difficult, and so there is resistance to reading practice then you may want to seek outside help. Programs like Fast ForWord improve the language processing skills needed for automaticity.