One of the most important concepts in learning, in my view, is automaticity. As Donna Coch of Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth University points out in this article:
From my perspective, this concept of automaticity is key to learning to read. If you’re not automatic, you’re using a lot of effort to decode and understand individual words, meaning you have fewer resources for comprehension.
Automaticity in reading means being able to read rapidly and accurately, and is often thought of as fluency. Basically, our brains — like a tank of gas — only have so much energy. Often times researchers and learning specialists will refer to cognitive effort. Cognitively effortful tasks are the hard ones that use up a lot of gas. If your child is struggling mightily with automaticity in reading, e.g. sounding out words, recognizing them, and/ or stringing them together into sentences, your child is using up lots of gas. When it comes time to think about what was just read and actually comprehend and store information, the child is running on fumes.
Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language will probably relate to this concept of automaticity– commonly thought of as fluency in reading. You find yourself laboriously deciphering the meaning of each word, and by the time you get to the end of the passage you will likely not be having any fun because you can’t recall what you read at the beginning of the passage.
The interesting thing about automaticity — and I owe Dr. Stephen Peverly a credit for teaching me this– is that it exists across the domains of learning and academics. Automaticity is key in math, too, and is why children benefit from mastering their basic facts and concepts early on. It’s not news you need the fundamentals, but I think the concept of automaticity illuminates why a deficit in fundamentals, be it reading or math, is likely going to slow you down.
This concept extends to study skills too, in profound ways. The “simple” act of note taking could be a real gas-guzzler for a student who struggles with listening comprehension, working memory, and/ or the physical act of writing. Teachers and parents have surely observed the student who painstakingly takes notes but can’t tell you a thing about it.
The expenditure of emotional energy can be another potential tax on our cognitive gas tank. Anyone who has felt their mental clarity deteriorate when under stress will likely relate to this. Similarly, children who are flooded with emotions due to anxiety, trauma, or just general stress may struggle in school. Depending on how the child processes difficult emotions, she may expend much of her cognitive energy trying to cope emotionally, with little left in the tank to learn in the classroom.
Now, there are the outliers. I see them all the time and you probably have too. There are the kids who struggle with the decoding, or the note taking, and yet present as if they have comprehended everything. Here’s what I have to say about that.
At the elementary level, this pattern of performance, e.g. high comprehension and low decoding, is not terribly uncommon. Most reading comprehension tests at this level use fairly short passages and multiple choice questions. Students, especially those with strong verbal abilities, can often piece together enough meaning to actually do quite well and make parents, school psychologists and reading specialists look like they are just imagining all these referral problems.
It’s crucial, however, not to dismiss fluency/ automaticity difficulties at this age, just because comprehension appears intact. A deficit in fluency, e.g. reading automaticity, will unfortunately catch up with a child. As students get older, texts get longer and harder. When kids are younger, strong verbal abilities act like an extra emergency gas tank when reading, and a child can call upon them to compensate for the fluency deficit. But as the demands of texts increase, a child will need all the gas they can get. Eventually, that deficit in basic reading skills catches up to a child and becomes extraordinarily taxing and will impact comprehension.
A deficit in fluency, e.g. reading automaticity, will unfortunately catch up with a child.
A deficit in math automaticity is a little harder to disguise in testing. I’ve seen kids using their fingers or extraordinary tick marks to calculate basic facts, then do some impressive conceptual mental math acrobatics to arrive to an answer. Students may often have the conceptual piece down, particularly if they have strong perceptual and fluid reasoning, but if the basic facts are not easily accessible, and the student is doing the finger and tick-marking thing, he will likely arrive at an imprecise answer. And precision is sort of a big deal in math. So, in other words, deficits in math fluency very quickly impact a students’ performance as they work into high level math.
Have I exaggerated? Are the concepts of limited cognitive resources and automaticity really that important? Maybe not. But they offer one critical lens through which to understand struggling learners, and indeed key processes for all learners.
If you suspect your child’s automaticity in any academic domain is comprised, I advise discussing your concerns with respective teachers, as well as soliciting other professionals’ opinions. I also advise seeking a professional evaluation by a licensed psychologist who specializes in the assessment of learning disabilities. Here I have written a short primer on the assessment process and I am always available for questions and consultation.