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.
I really think the common core in schools now does not do an adequate job teaching our youngster to read. My son would come home and the way they were showing him to read was horrendous! I had to re-teach him, finally after months of working with him he caught on but I really think this early negative learning that he had affected him for the long run. When my son was younger he loved books now at 10 it’s all I can do to try and get him to pick up a book without pictures or minimal pictures in it.
I do think reading comprehension is much harder for children than actually learning to read. My son can now read pretty much anything but he has a hard time comprehending it. Any tips on how to help him with that?
This was another great article, thank you for taking the time to post it. This is such an informative site!
Thanks Trista, son’s reading experience is not uncommon. Almost always, the issue is too much brain power is spent decoding the text, leaving very little capacity for comprehending what is being read. The way forward is to make the decoding automatic and subconscious, so that decoding is like listening, natural and easy. That’s the first goal of our program. After that, we make sure all the other building blocks of reading comprehension are in place — working memory to hold what is being read, vocabulary, language syntax, etc.
I just started to read Guy Claxtons’s book. Thanks for the recommendation. …and thank you for your thought provoking posts.
The earlier the love of learning is crushed, the harder it is to rebuild it. I worry that Common Core, like so many other educational initiatives are trying to have a one size fits all and since brains are all different, it’s guaranteed to leave some, if not many, children behind. What I think is so neat about Fast ForWord is that it really goes at the individual’s learning pace instead of assuming a skill will be mastered i X amount of time and automatically move on.
I am sympathetic to the motivation of politicians to get everyone to a certain reading standard, but I agree with you that using rigid standards of progress year by year completely misses the fact that every kid is different, every brain comes to reading at a different pace and at a different trajectory depending on when the cognitive skills required for reading eventually click in. This disconnection to the reality of humans all being wired a little differently applies to all standards, not just Common Core.
My son just started middle school this past year. It’s been a struggle this year. Homework for the first time, testing, “real grades” on a report card – you get the idea. The teachers state that he’s reading at grade level or just below it. His grades are “just meh” at best. After reading this article I’m wondering if I should be concerned at this point in time and take action with additional learning support? Is Fast ForWord geared towards a young 6th grader? Is it just a program online or is it customized for a child?
Fast ForWord is appropriate from 1st grade and higher. Most children in middle school that struggle are struggling because they have not mastered the fundamentals. So rather than adding learning support for your child right off the bat, make sure he is reading fluently and easily — the precursor to sound reading comprehension. If he is not, try to find books at this reading level and try to keep a positive connection to reading.
I think the “fundamentals” might be the biggest part of his puzzle at this point in time. Reading isn’t an “easy” task for the boy. It’s a struggle.