Students who read words, but don’t understand them, often struggle with comprehension.
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 about the importance of vocabulary practice, which includes both word recognition and word meaning.  Take it away, Dr. Rasinski:
Tim Rasinski, Ph.D.

 Tim Rasinski led a Dec. 1 webinar on best practices in vocabulary instruction, hosted by VocabularySpellingCity.

It just makes sense that word knowledge is important for reading. Readers need to be able to decode (sound) the words they encounter when they read, and they also need to know the meaning of the words encountered. Difficulties in either of these competencies will affect reading comprehension.

The question I would like to address in this blog entry is: “What level of word learning should we aim for in instruction?”  Traditionally, word learning competency has been measured in terms of mere accuracy – competent readers are able to decode and understand a high percentage of words in texts. While I certainly agree with this notion, I also believe that word learning knowledge needs to be taken to a high level of competency with words. Good readers not only are able to decode and understand the words they encounter in reading, they also are able to do it effortlessly or automatically (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974).

The concept of automaticity in reading suggests that all readers have a limited amount of “cognitive energy” that they can use when reading. More cognitive energy needed to decode and understand the individual words in texts means less energy available for that more important task in reading – comprehension. In our reading clinic, we see accurate but not automatic readers all the time – they are able to read and understand most words in text, but their reading is excessively slow and laborious. They are using too much of that precious cognitive energy for processing words, and the result is poor comprehension. With an instructional emphasis on automaticity, these readers are more effortless in their word processing. Their reading speed increases, comprehension improves, and their confidence in themselves as readers rises.

So how can we nurture automatic word processing in our students?  The answer is simple – practice. Just as with nearly any task, practice and repetition lead to more automatic performance. Practice, however, can take a variety of forms.

“So how can we nurture automatic word processing
in our students?
The answer is simple: practice.”

When we think of practice in reading, we often think of what is termed wide reading practice. Wide reading involves reading one text and then moving onto another. While wide reading is critical for reading success, students who struggle to develop fluency in reading may also need another form of practice – repeated reading. Repeated reading involves reading a text multiple times until the reader achieves a level of fluency – accuracy and automaticity – in the reading. Once achieved, the reader moves onto a new text and reads it several times until fluency is achieved.

Research shows that the improvement in reading that comes from repeated reading of one text transfers to next passages not previously encountered (Rasinski, Reutzel, Chard, Linan-Thompson, 2011).  Practice in word learning can also occur in a third important way – intentional word study. In this form of practice the teacher provides students with a variety of instructional experiences designed to draw students’ attention to particular words or word constructions. This is the type of instruction found in the phonics, vocabulary, and spelling portions of the reading curriculum and can take the form of phonogram (word family) instruction, affixes, morphemes (mostly Latin and Greek roots found in English), word sorts, word walls, morphological word games, and the like.

The key notion I would like to share here is simply that our goal in word instruction needs to go beyond accurate recognition and understanding of words. Automatic and accurate instruction is the appropriate goal, and when students achieve this goal their reading comprehension is bound to improve.

LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S.A. (1974). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.

Rasinski, T. V., Reutzel, C. R., Chard, D. & Linan-Thompson, S. (2011).  Reading Fluency.  In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, B. Moje, & P. Afflerbach E (Eds), Handbook of Reading Research, Volume IV (pp. 286-319).  New York:  Routledge.


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 ResearchRead more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1

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.

Automaticity in Word Learning: That’s the Goal

5 thoughts on “Automaticity in Word Learning: That’s the Goal

  • September 6, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    Believe it or not, Spelling City is useful to me as a teacher in an adult male prison system. The challenge, invariably, is getting the students to believe they can learn to read. Repetition has always been my best practice. Although, my non-traditional student population may have made (poor) lifestyle choices that diminished their capacity to learn (cognition) they can learn to read.

    I get a lot of push back from my students until I remind them that as we age we naturally lose our mental agility to some degree. Even I may need to re-read a passage to better comprehend. Learning to read takes practices regardless of age and even more so for adults who are learning to read. Thank you Mr. Rasinski for the confirmation.

    • September 11, 2016 at 6:35 pm

      That’s really interesting. This is the second time this week when the question of using VocabularySpellingCity in prisons showed up. I’m glad it’s helping you. The other question was about the use in a very high security setting in which internet access was no allowed and could we accommodate them.

  • September 10, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    The post mentions that “Readers need to be able to decode (sound) the words they encounter when they read”. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I have noticed that students who have hearing disabilities find reading comprehension difficult. Why exactly do learners need to ‘sound’ words (which students with hearing difficulties obviously find more difficult to do) to achieve good reading comprehension?

    • September 11, 2016 at 6:38 pm

      I don’t know as much as I’d like to about a number of special educational situations including the deaf and hard of hearing students.

      I would imagine that taking a phonics approach becomes increasing less useful as the students have less hearing and verbal abilities to leverage. I have read articles that there are some populations which are taught to read by word recognition and not by phonics. I think the students who are deaf and have down syndrome are on that list but I’m far from an expert on it.


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