“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
As a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter in the alphabet, this one is wonderfully concise, quick and easy to process. You probably read it and understood it all in less than a single second. You didn’t have to think about what the individual letters or sound out the syllables. You knew how the ideas fit together because of how well you have internalized the parts of speech. You were able to digest the text with what is known as automaticity.
Automaticity is that ability to do things without having to think about them at a conscious level. When we do something automatically, the mind isn’t occupied with the small details of the task. Imagine some of the common every day activities you do with automaticity: driving a car, adding five plus three, riding a bicycle, catching a ball, dialing a telephone, and, yes, reading and writing. We acquire these skills through simple repetition and practice. Over time, such repetition establishes automatic response patterns that our brains call upon constantly throughout our daily lives. In achieving automaticity, we free our brains – our working memories – from the details of the task, allowing us to use that brain power to do more, building on those sets of automatic skills.
For our students, achieving automaticity in reading is essential not only to their becoming effective readers, but becoming effective all-around learners. The majority of students make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around second or third grade. At this stage, their reading skills have developed to a point of automaticity where they no longer need to use their working memory to facilitate the task of reading, and they can use that memory for things like interpretation, comprehension and creative thinking.
On the other hand, imagine what learning becomes for the struggling student who does not develop this automaticity alongside his or her fellow students. As others begin to learn more and more from their reading, the struggling reader must engage their working memory in the challenge of getting through the letters and words of each sentence as opposed to using that valuable memory to glean meanings and assimilate information. As their reading skills lag, their overall ability to learn suffers.
We cannot underestimate the importance of building rock-solid foundations in reading and math for exactly this reason. If we are to successfully teach students, we must help them develop the automaticity in these basic skills that will free their minds to soar and explore all that lies ahead.
For more information and ideas to help students develop reading automaticity, read The Importance of Automaticity and Fluency For Efficient Reading Comprehension by Pamela E. Hook and Sandra D. Jones, from Perspectives, Winter, 2002, vol. 28, no. 1.
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