Improving Automaticity When Reading

Automaticity acting or done spontaneously or unconsciously (1)

Proficient readers are able to read effortlessly, devoting the majority of their attention to comprehending what they are reading. Scholarly reading with unfamiliar academic vocabulary would provide some challenge to a proficient reader, but everyday reading would require minimal effort. The goal of freeing up a reader’s attention should be kept in mind as we work with our own students. Supporting students with becoming fast and flexible with what they know helps them to focus more on comprehending and allows them to devote their energy toward anything novel in the text.

Our brain seeks to put forth the least amount of effort. If students need to constantly work on recognizing letters, recalling sounds and word parts, and remembering high frequency words they will start to show some undesired reading behaviors such as:

  • over relying on one source of information (often visual)
  • reading at the word level (rather than the story level)
  • passivity
  • appealing
  • giving up

Dedicating time throughout a child’s daily literacy experiences to work with letters, words, and concepts about print, to make this knowledge more automatic for students, will increase their ability to be successful when reading and writing. 

Letter work

Give young students many opportunities to work with letters. Students that are taking more time to learn their letters benefit from daily letter work even after they know most or all of their letters. The process of “overlearning” helps students to commit item knowledge to their long-term memory.

With any letters that are confusing to a student it is important to take action to sort out the confusions right away. Teaching students the “verbal path” of a letter is a successful way of untangling letter confusions. For example, when working with the letter b we can teach the student to say, “pull down, up, around” as they make the letter.  This will temporarily slow the student down, but once the student is able to write and recognize the letter b with little effort the verbal path can be scaffolded out and the learning can be sped back up.

Avoid working on any similar looking or sounding letters one right after another. For example, if I spend several weeks emphasizing the direction for b, I’m not going to want to work with d, p, q next because this could easily cause the child to be confused and tangled up once again. 

Involve the different senses when teaching and practicing letters. Students can do the following activities:

  • Sort magnetic letters that match
  • Sort magnetic letters by features
  • Make letters with Play-Doh or Wikki Stix
  • Read letter books
  • Read ABC picture linking chart
  • Use a variety of fun tactile materials to practice letter writing (sand paper, sand/salt, boogie board, etc.)

Don’t underestimate how challenging it is for a student to learn all of the uppercase and lowercase letters as well as the sounds associated with them. When you find that something worked well to help a child learn a letter stick with it for learning other letters.  

Word work

Much of what was described for letter work can be applied to word work as well. The strategies of overlearning and echoing are effective ways to support students with committing letters and words to memory.

For our earliest readers, it is helpful to make a small core group of words very well known rather than to move quickly from word to word in an attempt to increase the quantity of known words. While it is important for students to increase their known words in reading, if we don’t pay attention to how well our students know the words we might start to notice some undesirable after effects:

  • high frequency word confusions (ex. reading “he” for “here”, reading “can” for “and”)
  • slow reading or appeals for “known” high frequency words
  • Many self-corrections on high-frequency words that the child “knows”

If our early readers learn a small core group of words very well in detail, these words can serve as anchors to the text enabling the student to self-monitor their reading. Also, when words are very well known, they can be a useful tool for teaching new words in the future. 

When teaching a new word, try to have the student write the word without a copy when they are ready. Here is an example of the process I might go through with my kindergarten students when teaching a new important word that we came across in our small group reading lesson. 

  1. Show the students the word on a whiteboard.
  2. Read the word to the students, while running your finger under the word left to right.
  3. Sometimes I ask the students what they notice about the word as I say it and run my finger under the word. When studying the word “like” they might notice that the “e” doesn’t make a sound.
  4. Give the students magnetic letters to make the word 2-3 times. Each time the student makes the word they run their finger under the word while they read and check it with the word written on the whiteboard.
  5. Have the students write the word on the table with their finger 2-3 times, reading it each time with their finger. 
  6. Ask students if they are ready to write the word without seeing what it looks like. If students are ready they put away their magnetic letters, if they are not they keep their magnetic letters out. 
  7. Have students open their books to a page with the practiced word and then have them read the page.

We move through these steps quickly so that it only takes 2-3 minutes of our reading group lesson time.

Did you notice how we brought the word that we worked on back to the text at the end? Keep the letter/word work that is done in isolation to a minimum. Always bring your letter/word work back to the text. 

It is also important to echo our letter/word work throughout different contexts in the school day. This will help students to be flexible with their knowledge.


Consider how challenging reading would be for a child if every time they turned the page they were confused about where to look. You have probably seen students whose eyes bounce around the page before arbitrarily settling somewhere. We have to help these students to understand the rules of written language as quick as possible. It is helpful to echo work with directionality throughout our reading lesson and throughout our day in different contexts so that when our students turn the page they automatically know where to look. Directionality can reinforced during:

  • Shared reading
  • Interactive/Shared Writing
  • 1:1 Reading/Writing Conferences
  • Small reading groups

Supports for a particular student who struggles with directionality could be 

  • A green line along the left side of the page
  • A pencil dot to show where to start reading

Just remember to carefully scaffold out any supports as soon as the child is ready. 

In Summary

It is important for teachers to give thought to how they can help their students become more automatic with letters, words, and directionality so as to not over-tax the reader. The progress of readers that view reading as too much work often slows down or plateaus. Helping students who need more support by using strategies such as overlearning, echoing, and hands-on materials can help make our students become fast and flexible with what they know. When teachers make reading feel “easy” students are much more likely to enjoy reading.  



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