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The importance of automaticity

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

This is the third post in a series of posts about word reading. I am interested in removing all barriers to reading and I am particularly interested in freeing up working memory and automating parts of the reading process to allow children to concentrate on understanding, enjoying and appreciating the texts they read.

The blog covers a number of issues:

  • Theory - The relevance of automaticity of processing words when reading.

  • Practical - Examples of how theory can be applied in the classroom.

  • Problems - Barriers pupils may experience.

There are a number of video clips embedded in the blog.

SIGHT WORDS - Researchers use this term to refer to the words that we can automatically read when we see the word in print; instantaneously. Because the phrase 'sight words' is used in different ways in schools, I am going to refer to these words as instant recall words. Adults have between 30,000 and 70,000 words that they read without decoding. This allows the reading process to be quick and efficient. All written words can become instant recall words, not just high frequency or irregularly spelled words. But how did we gain the ability to automatically know these words?

Effortless access to sight vocabulary makes reading much easier and improves reading comprehension. Eye-movement research suggests that sight words can be recognised in about 250 msec, a speed that obviates decoding (Just & Carpenter, 1987). Words seem to leap effortlessly from the printed page to the mind, allowing readers to focus their attention on comprehending the message of a text. Murray et al., 2019.

THE STORAGE OF WORDS FOR INSTANT RECALL IS CALLED ORTHOGRAPHIC MAPPING. We map the sounds to the patterns of letters that make up that word.

Letter knowledge and phonemic awareness are therefore critical components in orthographic mapping. Pupils need to break words down and look really carefully at the print to help the words be transferred to the bank of automatic recall words. This is one of the reasons why children who struggle with phonics also struggle with adding to their bank of instant recall words, and have difficulties with spelling. We therefore need to ensure that any struggling readers are supported to acquire strong phonological awareness skills (see separate blog post), then build phonics knowledge because this will help them to pull apart words and commit their structure to memory. We can also help pupils by: repeated exposure to words; quantity of reading; ensuring pupils have opportunities to interact with new vocabulary; saying new vocabulary aloud, lots of opportunities to write.

Theories on how we move words to memory and turn them into instant recall words:

Repeated exposure of words in reading, plus spelling and writing the words, enables these words to be read as single units, without any pauses between parts of the word. DL Share's research (2004) suggests that the act of reading and decoding serves as a natural teaching mechanism in helping children to move words into memory for later instant recall.

5 minute video (may take a few moments to load)

Alphabet - We also need pupils to have automatic knowledge of letters to help them be able to break down words and store the words in long term memory. Letter shapes, letter sounds, upper and lower case - ability to visualise the letters in the mind, instant recall when given a letter name or letter sound, ability to write the letters, ability to pick the correct letter from a variety of letters when asked, the ability to discern the sound of the letter, the ability to produce the correct sound.

The sight word process ordinarily begins with decoding to make initial connections between graphemes and phonemes, followed by crosschecking (i.e., correcting a decoding attempt in context), mental marking to flag odd letters in memory (e.g., the w in sword) and rereading a few times to consolidate the orthographic map. Murray et al, 2019.

As teachers (and leaders) we can consider how the knowledge of orthographic mapping might help us to ensure pupils make progress in reading and writing:

  • It highlights the critical importance of phonological awareness (as a primer for phonics and addressing gaps for older pupils) as pupils need this to be able to break words down into their sounds when they hear words being spoken. Children with weak or slow phonological awareness skills will continue to struggle with reading, spelling and writing acquisition until the limitation is addressed - they may find work arounds, but learning will not be as efficient.

  • Patterns - onset and rime, syllables, phonemes - including lots of emphasis on phoneme manipulation should be emphasised for all pupils (young and old).

  • A systematic program of phonics with lots of emphasis on pulling words apart and manipulation is always going to be important for the development of reading and writing.

  • Seek to emphasise patterns when teaching vocabulary and introducing new terms.

  • Repeated exposure to words (e.g. reading the same text more than once; reading different books with the same vocabulary; vocabulary cards; look/say/cover/write/check) and the importance of reading quantity.

  • Think about the ways that pupils are asked to interact with new vocabulary, particularly subject related terms, e.g. saying new words, using vocabulary in sentences, seeking to link the word to already known words, roots/suffixes/word families, spelling. Using two small pieces of card to cover parts of the word - drawing attention to the chunks and the word order and the spelling.

  • For older pupils (as well as younger pupils) taking the time to hear the sounds in the word before looking at the print and participating in oral activities, e.g. say minerals without the /als/, brake embroidered into syllables em-broi-dered. Listening to each other say the word, getting feedback if necessary, repeated opportunities to say the word aloud.

You can download the above file as a word file or PDF.

Vocabulary board
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Vocabulary board
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Rosenthal and Ehri (2008) point out that it is common for instructional programs to suggest many strategies that help pupils to learn new vocabulary words but ignore the value of attending to the spellings of words. Recently several studies have shown that exposing learners to the spellings of words whose pronunciation and meanings are being learned boosts their memory for words (Ehri, 2005; Miles, Ehri & Lauterback, 2016; Lucas & Norbury, 2014; Mengani, Nash & Hulme, 2013; Ricketts, Bishop & Naten, 2009).

Spelling contributes to vocabulary learning in both younger and older readers. The explanation rests on facilitation of orthographic mapping. Seeing spellings of words activates connections between graphemes and phonemes and bonds spellings to their pronunciation in memory. This orthographic mapping facilitates sight word memory - allowing us to instantly read words as soon as our eyes alight on them. Katherine Pace Miles & Linnea C. Ehri 2019

Because weaker readers are more likely to skip unfamiliar words without decoding them, the word deficit grows.

Cunningham and Stanovich (1990) found superior spelling outcomes among children who wrote words using pencil and paper (using the Simultaneous Oral Spelling technique), compared with typing them on a computer or manipulating letter tiles (experiment 1). Share (2008) found that attention to spelling aided orthographic mapping, particularly when pupils are asked to write the word.

When children write a word, they have to be able to hear the sounds, break the word into phonemes, and record the word paying attention to each individual letter. The physical act of recording the word on paper helps to tie memory of the letter order to long term memory of the word. Whereas, when decoding and reading, pupils can use more than one method to read the word and may therefore not need to read every letter with the same attention to detail that is needed when they spell words. (Share 2008)

Unfortunately, many of our struggling readers are also hampered by their limitations in writing. Their existing problems are compounded by slow text production and slow reading meaning that they don't acquire as many instant recall words as those children who read a lot and write a lot. It can be an ever increasing or not! It gives further calls to ensure struggling readers/writers are supported to improve handwriting - so that they can become faster writers and free up working memory to focus on other elements of text production.

Word chunks

When we come across an unfamiliar word, we can use a range of strategies to help us, for example:

  • ANALOGIZING - this entails finding a similarly spelled word in memory and using it to read the new word. Mountain to read fountain; moon to read boon.

  • DECODING - using graphemes and phonemes to break the word down into its sounds.

  • CHUNKS - using graho-syallbic units, e.g. -tion, -ing, ump. Our brains try to spot chunks we know, be that at the beginning, middle or end of a word. This is one of the reasons why breaking words into chunks is so important as we commit more and more chunks to our automatic recall list.

When teaching word reading, and when designing interventions and early reading programmes, we should emphasise patterns and chunks and particularly manipulation activities, e.g. say splat without the /spl/ sound; say pant without the /p/ sound; change the /p/ in pant to /g/ - gant; say station without that tion.

Using patterns and chunks makes us more efficient readers.

Knowledge of recurring letter patterns provides expectations and constraints about how any written word may be read and how any pronounced word might be spelled, thus providing an advantage to the knowledgeable child even before sight word reading develops (Ehri, 2005).

Words in context / words out of context

Research suggests that pupils learn to read words more efficiently and effectively when they see the words out of context. However, words read in context help pupils to understand the words and is more likely to lead to pupils being able to use the words in sentences. This would therefore suggest that a balance of in context / out of context activities would serve learners well. And targeting in context or out of context activities depending on the gaps / needs of any struggling learners.

It is easy to learn nouns out of context but function words and verbs usually need a context. Function words are determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary words and modal verbs. Function words are often lost within the sentence, e.g. she, this, and, be, have, could. Some pupils have difficulty in moving function words to be instant recall words. Although function words are often seen repeatedly because of their frequent use, pupils perhaps skip over them and do not fully focus on breaking down the word and storing it accurately. They don't see them as being important and sometimes fail to understand their use. This impacts on reading comprehension as well as reading accuracy. If pupils don't move these words to memory, you might find they sometimes omit them when reading, omit them when writing, misspell them.

You might find pupils run function words and other words together:

Thedog / issleeping / ontherug

These pupils might also have difficulties pointing accurately to words as they read (due to difficulties in really recognising function words).

If you notice that function words are an issue, try to help pupils move the function words into long term storage by seeing them in and out of context, saying the words aloud, playing games with the words, breaking the words down and pulling them apart, spelling related activities, discussing the use of the function words, seeing what happens when you swap the function words. If you find lots of children in your class have issues with function words, you perhaps need to consider how you place more emphasis on them in day-to-day teaching.

Children who have difficulty with instant recall

Some children have difficulties with breaking down words and therefore fail to commit them to long term memory, making both reading and writing a more laborious process and impact on their levels of accuracy. As stated earlier, one reason can be weaknesses in phonological awareness - and addressing this can be the key to progress.

Any children with auditory processing issues and dyslexic pupils might find it difficult to grow their bank of instant recall words.

Children with auditory processing issues often have the following issues:

  • spelling (including omitting letters, adding additional letters to words, and not being able to hear the starting sound - which makes finding the word in a dictionary quite troublesome);

  • difficulties in learning phonics due to limitations in phonological awareness, phonics moving on too quickly, not enough opportunities to hear the word and say the word with feedback;

  • issues in saying aloud complex words and using them in oral sentences;

  • issues with the decoding some elements of unfamiliar words, particularly the middle of a word;

(Children with auditory processing difficulties do not have to be hard of hearing, although they may have had an ear issue in the past such as grommets, glue ear).

As someone who has auditory processing issues, I have found that phonological activities that require you to say the words backwards and activities involving print which require you to read backwards has been very helpful. It gives another strategy when struggling with left to write decoding. It gives pupils more than one way to look at the print and pay attention to the patterns and letter combinations - which we know helps to move those words to memory and become 'instant recall words'.

You might try these 'reading backwards activities' with children who are stuck.

Whilst my execution of this might not be brilliant, I hope you get the gist from the video.

Alphabet and letter knowledge

Knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds is required in order for pupils to be able to look at a word, break it down into a sequence and remember it. Orthographic mapping requires you to look at the individual letters. For any struggling pupils - old or young - check they have full and automatic knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds.

Vowel Diagraphs

Some researchers, such as Murray et al. 2019, found that young children who make use of vowel digraphs and silent-e signals (e.g. nice) in one syllable words were more successful in learning irregular words. Knowing more patterns allows the brain to focus on the odd elements and silent letters in irregular words, making it easier to remember them than for children who are attending to every letter from left to right. Sounding out and blending letters in sequence (e.g., f-a-s-t) does not prepare children to recognise nonsequential elements, whether digraphs and silent-e signals (e.g., in shime) or irregular letters (e.g., in cough).

It is interesting to consider how placing more emphasis on diagraphs as pupils continue though the school could aid automaticity in reading. It is also interesting to think of how many of the vowel digraphs cause older pupils to misspell words, even frequently used ones. Which ones are pupils most/least comfortable with? Are teachers in all year groups aware of how important 'patterns' are in learning to read efficiently?

However, not all vowel patterns hold true - their behaviour in words is complex and inconsistent. 5 vowel pairs that can be considered highly regular are ai, ay, oa, ee, ey, and also worthy of attention are aw, oy, oi and au.

In some pairs, the first vowel dominates as in

ai, ay, ea, ee, oa, ow

In some pairs, the vowels cooperate as in

au, aw, oi, oy, oo

In some pairs, a new sound is created as in

ei, ou, ey, ew

Vowels post the greatest difficulty for young readers (Calfee, 1998), and vowel generalisations may be the ones most needed (Johnston, 2011). Consonants on the other hand are mastered more easily. Vowel generalisations are much less regular and require more interpretation.

Links between orthographic mapping and listening to stories pre-school

Research, such as that carried out by Henbest and Apel in 2018, suggest that oral vocabulary size and hearing lots of stories supports later orthographic mapping. Further reasons why sharing books together, hearing adults read, listening to audio stories and talking about books in the first years of a child's life are important.

Some additional interesting (related) points

Cunningham and Stanovich (1990) found superior spelling outcomes among children who wrote words using pencil and paper (using the Simultaneous Oral Spelling technique), compared with typing them on a computer or manipulating letter tiles (experiment 1). - I have not read or researched enough on spelling to say if this is held up by other studies - but perhaps that is a blog for another day.

Reading, writing and spelling

Many different elements come together to create successful readers and writers. This is one of the difficulties in laying out a roadmap for success in teaching reading and writing. Orthographic mapping is another piece in the puzzle - a further illustration of the interconnected nature of reading skills, e.g. phonological awareness, phonics, knowledge of the alphabet, word and letter and sound patterns, quantity of reading, links between speaking and listening and reading aloud. You can see why quantity of reading and writing helps pupils to make progress in reading. Knowing about orthographic mapping can help teachers to unpick the root causes of problems children are experiencing in reading and can help us be more efficient in expanding vocabulary , including terms used across the curriculum, with other pupils.

References and further reading:

Bruce A. Murray , Mary Jane McIlwain, Chih-hsuan Wang, Geralyn Murray and Stacie

Finley, How do beginners learn to read irregular words as sight words? Journal of Reading Research, 2019.

Conrad, Nicole J, Harris, Nicholas, Williams, Jennifer, Individual differences in children’s literacy development: the contribution of orthographic knowledge, Reading and writing journal, 2012.

Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, K.E. (1990). Early spelling acquisition: Writing beats the computer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 159–162.

Henbest, Victoria S, and Apel, Kenn, Orthograohic Fast-Mapping Across Time in 5- and 6- year-old children, Journal of Speech, language and hearing research, 2018.

Johnston, FP, The utility of phonic generalizations; Let's take another look at Clymer's conclusions, Reading Teacher, 2001.

Kilpatrick, D et al., Reading development and difficulties, 2019. (Excellent book - but not cheap)

Shahar-Yames, Daphna and Share, David L, Spelling as a self-teaching mechanism in orthographic learning, Journal of Reading Research, 2008. (There are a variety of other papers by David Share that are very relevant, particularly his work in 2004.)

A variety of papers and articles by Linnea C. Ehri - a search of her work will produce a substantial number of articles on the issue of orthographic mapping.

Ehri, L. C. (1995). Phases of development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18, 116–125.

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9, 167–188.

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Willows, D. M., Schuster, B. V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., & Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence for the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250–287.

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