Automaticity: A Key To Early Literacy Success

Automaticity: A Key To Early Literacy Success


Have you ever read a book to a child and realized halfway through that your mind was wandering? Perhaps you were thinking about what you need from the grocery store or running through the day’s to-do list. Some of us are guilty of this, both when reading aloud as a parent and for many, as a teacher. While losing track of a story mid-stream isn’t great, especially when you’re planning to talk about it with the child you’re reading to, your ability to do this is an indicator of an important reading skill: automaticity. When readers can read the words in a text automatically without having to expend mental energy to decode, they free up that mental energy. Ideally, readers will then spend that mental energy not on shopping lists, but on higher-level thinking work, like comprehending the text, making predictions and inferences, and drawing conclusions. 

Researcher and psychologist Linnea Ehri’s work on the phases of reading development helps to explain the importance of automaticity. According to Ehri, readers move through predictable phases as they learn to read, from reading words letter by letter to reading most words automatically. 

In Ehri’s model, phase one is pre-alphabetic, where readers are learning their letters and sounds and starting to understand that the marks in a text carry meaning. In phase two, partial alphabetic, readers know most of the letters and sounds and can recognize some letters in a text. The full alphabetic phase helps readers know most letters’ sounds and use this knowledge to attempt to read words, often slowly, letter by letter. In the consolidated alphabetic phase, readers understand that certain letter combinations make certain sounds, and read words in chunks, not letter by letter. In the final phase, automatic, reading is quick and effortless. Readers have a large bank of words they can read in a snap and inherent strategies for decoding unfamiliar words. Their mental energy can now be spent on other kinds of cognitive tasks, rather than on decoding. 

A key to sight word instruction is teaching high-frequency words or the words that show up most often in texts. Studies estimate that the one hundred most common words make up about 50% of the words in printed texts, and the twenty-five most common words make up about 35% of the words in beginner books. If readers can learn to read just twenty-five words automatically, then they can read a good portion of their books. Having that bank of sight words is a game-changer for beginning readers, especially for those who are below the benchmark in reading. 

Sight word instruction is an integral component in the Littera literacy tutoring program. One of the key principles in our instruction is that we don’t only focus on rote memorization, but also on studying their phonics elements. Many of the most common words defy conventional phonics principles, such as the word “said,” where the letter combination -ai makes a short e sound, rather than the long a sound it makes in other words like “aim” and “bait.” Studying these words helps readers add them to their long-term memories, and also helps build their arsenals of phonics concepts so they can approach the features like the -ai vowel team flexibly in other words. 

Another principle of our sight word learning instruction is using familiar routines. Each time we teach a reader a new word, we use the same steps, which include practices like saying the word in a sentence, segmenting the word into parts, writing the word, and studying the letters that make up the word. Perhaps most importantly, we encourage readers to use the words they are learning as they read and as they write. 

If you teach children to read, helping them build a bank of high-frequency sight words gives them the gift of being able to automatically read a large portion of the words they encounter. If you work with students who would benefit from targeted, individualized instruction in word acquisition or in any other foundational reading skills, Littera’s literacy tutoring program is here to help.

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