Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on developing automatic word recognition.
In my previous blog, I identified several essential foundational reading competencies. These are accuracy in word knowledge (phonics, spelling, and vocabulary), automaticity with words, and prosody. In this blog, I’d like to discuss the importance of automaticity in word recognition and how we can help nurture it in our students.
I like to describe automaticity this way – each one of us has a limited amount of cognitive energy in us. If we use it for one task, we lose it for another task that needs be done at the same time. There are essentially two important tasks to be done when reading. The first is to decode and understand the individual words in print. The second and more important task is to understand the message that the author is trying to convey. If readers use too much of their cognitive energy for the lower-level task of word recognition, they will have less available for comprehension. As a result, comprehension falters, not because readers are unable to understand the text, but because they have used too much of their limited cognitive resources.
The solution to the problem described above is automatizing the lower level word recognition task. When word recognition is not only accurate but also automatic, readers use only a very small amount of their cognitive resources for this task, thus allowing them to use more for the important task of comprehension. The best example of automaticity in word recognition is you reading this blog. When you encounter the words on the page, you do not have to analyze them – most are recognized instantly as sight words. Very little of your cognitive energy is devoted to word recognition, and so you are able to focus most of that energy where it needs to be – comprehension.
So, how did you develop your automaticity in word recognition? The answer is easy – practice! The more reading you did, the more automatic you recognized the words that you read over and over again. So, there is no doubt that getting students to read a lot is essential to developing automaticity.
However, there is another form of practice that is equally powerful, especially for students who struggle in developing automatic word recognition. It’s called repeated reading and involves having students read one text multiple times until they can read it with a degree of fluency. Not only do students improve their automaticity (faster reading) on the texts they practice, they also show improvements in automaticity and comprehension on brand new passages that they have never seen before. There is a transfer, or generalization effect, from practicing one passage to a new, previously unread passage.
You may think having students read texts repeatedly seems a bit odd. But think of all things we do repeatedly, like practicing for the big game or rehearsing for a play. I have often used learning how to drive as a good analogy for repeated reading. When you first learned how to drive, you probably only practiced on one car (the family car) and it is likely that for the first few times out you took the same route. But as you mastered that one route with that one car, you were soon able to successfully drive other routes in other cars (your brother or sister’s car). Moreover, as you developed automaticity in your driving you were able to multi-task. For most of us we can now drive almost any car safely and at the same time listen to the radio, converse with a passenger, or talk on the phone (if permitted by law where you live). This same idea is true for reading. The practice that allows you to automatically recognize the words in print allows you to multi-task too. The other task, of course, being comprehending what you read.
Repeated reading does indeed work. The challenge for teachers is finding how to create authentic situations where students will want to engage in repeated reading. In my next blog, I will explore making repeated reading a reality in our classrooms.
Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational Research. Read more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1.
For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”
Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.