Developing Automaticity of Letter and Word Recognition

Reading and Working Memory, a Component of the Human Cognitive System

The most important task facing the child who has mastered letter recognition and letter-sound correspondences is turning those skills into automatic processes.  To understand why automaticity of low level skills is important we need to understand a component of the human cognitive system called “working memory.”  The human memory system is divided into three components called declarative memory, procedural memory, and working memory.  Declarative memory and procedural memory store vast amounts of information, sort of like a hard disk on a computer can store massive amounts of information.  Working memory is analogous to RAM memory on a computer; it holds that information that the person is currently using in whatever activity is being performed.  Working memory has two very important limitations.  First, it can only hold about 7 items of separate information at a time, and second, information can only be held in working memory for about 10 seconds.

Getting Complete Thoughts into Working Memory

When we read we must have a complete thought (a meaningful unit of text such as a sentence or phrase) in working memory in order to in interpret what the thought means. To unpack this idea a little, comprehension does not occur by stringing together the meaning of individual words.  Rather, we must have a complete thought all together and then interpret it.  For example, suppose you saw the sentence fragment, “Billy went to the bank to…”  The fragment could be about bank in the money sense or about bank in the river sense.  You can’t interpret the fragment without the whole thought.

The requirement that a complete thought must get into working memory in order for comprehension to occur places an emphasis on speed of processing, and this in turn makes automaticity of letter and word recognition a requirement for skilled reading.  Consider, for example, a child who is reading a 10 word sentence and is consciously sounding out each word, and that the sounding out process takes, on average, about 1.5 seconds per word.  As the child reaches the 7th word in the sentence the 10 second limit for working memory is hit and the first word in the sentence that was read drops out of working memory.  Since comprehension cannot occur without a complete thought in working memory, the child has to go back and re-read in order to comprehend the sentence.

Automatic Skills through Practice

In school and at home we develop automatic reading skills and math skills through lots and lots of practice.  In addition, most of us have a vast repertoire of automatic skills such as those used in driving a car.  The important benefit of automatic skills is that they are so fast in execution they take up little of the 10 second limit on working memory and they are also not limited by the 7 units of information at a time in working memory.  In effect, if we automate a skill, we circumvent many of the limitations associated with working memory.

Individual Words

Reading researchers often talk about developing automatic word recognition skills, but what they really mean is the ability to automatically process individual words.  Most readers develop automatic word recognition skills for large numbers of words by the third grade, but the number of words we can process automatically continues to grow throughout the life span if we are active readers.

Poor Automatic Skills Lead to Reading Difficulty

Readers who do not develop automatic letter and word recognition skills are certain to experience reading comprehension difficulties.  A child can read words with 100% accuracy, but if those words are not read rapidly enough to get a complete thought in working memory within the 10 second constraint, comprehension will be difficult.

How Do You Know if a Child Has Good Automaticity Skills?

Parents and teachers should be acutely aware of whether children are developing good automaticity skills. A rough rule of thumb is that a child is reading with acceptable automaticity if the child can accurately read grade level text at less than one-second per word with understanding. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often slower than this benchmark, and children with specific reading disabilities (dyslexia) are almost always slow and/or inaccurate in reading individual words.

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