Mar 3, 2015 by Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D
Share page with AddThis

Join Dr. Rasinski on March 11th for a free professional development session, The Role of Automaticity in Reading

As many of you know, I have spent a good deal of my career focusing on reading fluency. Along with other literacy scholars, I have found fluency to be a critical competency for proficient reading – one that many struggling readers, from first through twelfth grades, have not sufficiently mastered.

Yet, despite a growing body of evidence about the importance of fluency in reading, fluency has been dismissed by some scholars and even a number of teachers. I feel that this diminishment of fluency is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of one aspect of fluency – automaticity in word recognition.

The “Automatic” Response
Automaticity refers to the ability to do something with minimal cognitive effort. Think of all the things we do in life that are rather automatic: from swimming, to driving a car, to typing on a keyboard. When we began learning these activities, we had to employ a fair amount of our cognitive resources -- thinking about the leg and arm movements involved in a swim stroke, whether we turned the ignition switch in the car before or after shifting into gear, or even having to examine the specific keys on the keyboard in order to hit the correct one. 

Besides the cognitive energy used, did you also notice you were rather slow at doing the activity at first? This was because employing your cognitive resources requires time and effort. The more time it takes to think through and complete a task, the slower you do it.  

However, have you noticed that if you keep practicing the activity you become faster at it?  This is because you are developing automaticity in the task. 

As you practice the task repeatedly you have to use less and less of your cognitive resources; you don’t have to think through the task.  

With greater automaticity comes greater speed in the accomplishment of the task.

Ties to Fluency
The notion of automaticity is critical to reading fluency. When first beginning to read, youngsters have to use a great deal of their cognitive resources for word decoding; they have not yet developed automaticity in word recognition.

Lack of automaticity has two consequences:

  • First, young readers are generally slower in their reading than more advanced readers. 
  • Second, these students are likely to be less proficient in their comprehension as more advanced readers.

You see, comprehension requires the use of a reader’s cognitive resources (Dick Allington calls it thoughtful reading). If readers have to use too much of their cognitive resources for decoding, they have less available for comprehension. And so, comprehension also suffers.

Faster Reading, Improved Fluency?
Automaticity in word recognition leads to two results: faster reading and improved comprehension.

Since reading speed is an observable consequence of automaticity – and it can be easily and quickly measured – it is used as a method for assessing word recognition automaticity (e.g., DIBELS oral reading fluency).  In my own dissertation study over 30 years ago, I found that automaticity, as measured by reading speed, was strongly associated with reading comprehension and other general measures of reading proficiency in elementary grade students. 

The problem in fluency has been a confusion of automaticity and speed. Increased reading speed and improved reading comprehension are the outcomes of increased word recognition automaticity, but in many iterations of fluency instruction, speed has been viewed as the cause of automaticity (and comprehension).    

We have learned that regular practice in nearly any activity improves automaticity. In reading we have come to learn that practice can take two forms: wide  reading (reading a text once and then moving on to a new text) and what has been called repeated reading, where a student reads a text several times until they achieve a certain level of automaticity, as measured by reading speed.  

Because reading speed is the way that progress is measured in repeated readings, this form of fluency instruction has evolved into timed re-readings for the purpose of increasing reading speed.  Students attempt to make every new reading of an instructional passage faster than the previous one.  

What happens in such instructional scenarios is that students do indeed increase their reading speed; however, word recognition automaticity and comprehension are likely not to improve.

When students read for speed they do not have to pay attention to the meaning of the words or the passage; rather they try to read from the beginning of the passage to the end as quickly as possible.

Working directly to improve students’ reading speed does not necessarily result in improved comprehension or automaticity.

The Case Against “Timed Readings”
I think this reading-speed-oriented approach to fluency instruction confuses the reading process. Yet, it has become a ubiquitous practice in schools throughout the United States. Even our major professional reading organization, the International Literacy Association, has promoted “timed readings” as a way to improve fluency.  Indeed, I have had elementary students in our university reading clinic who, when prompted to read a passage have asked, “Do you want me to read this as fast as I can?”    

I know of no compelling research that has shown that instruction to improve reading speed actually leads to profound and lasting improvements in reading comprehension or overall reading proficiency.

Reading speed is a decent measure of word recognition automaticity, and can be used as a proxy for general reading achievement. However, we should be aiming to increase reading speed in the way that you who are reading this blog and other fluent readers have increased their reading speed – through plenty of authentic and meaningful reading experiences.

I cannot recall a time in my elementary school career where I was asked by a teacher to read as fast as possible. And yet, through my own authentic wide and repeated reading experiences, I have improved my word recognition automaticity, my reading speed, and my reading comprehension. 

A More Authentic Reading Experience
And so, if we keep our aim on improving word recognition automaticity through authentic reading practice for the purpose of improving comprehension, reading speed will follow without any direct instruction or prompting. 

The key is to come up with authentic reading experiences for students.

Wide reading is fairly simple – get students to engage in reading material they find interesting.

Repeated reading can be a bit more of a challenge. However, if we think of life outside of the classroom we can come up with plenty of ways in which adults engage in repeated reading (or rehearsal).

If you know you will have to perform a reading for an audience, then you have a natural and authentic reason to engage in repeated readings – you want to make your reading for the audience meaningful.   

Research by me and my colleagues has found that when students regularly engage in this more authentic form of repeated reading – through  the performance of readers theater scripts, poetry, songs, speeches, and the like – word  recognition automaticity improves, reading speed increases, comprehension improves, and students’ enjoyment of reading is enhanced.

The take-away is this: word recognition automaticity, as measured by reading speed, is critical for reading success. However, it is appropriately taught and promoted through authentic and meaningful wide and repeated reading experiences, NOT through reading experiences that aim primarily to increase reading speed.

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be "Hot!"

Five Fluency and Comprehension Strategies That Every Reader Can Use


Categories: Reading & Learning


We welcome your comments.  Submitted comments will appear as soon as the moderator reviews and approves.


Great informational that I

Great informational that I will apply with my ELL students immediately!

Add new comment