Every night our brain consolidates what it has learned during the day. This is one of the most important neuroscience discoveries of the last thirty years: sleep is not just a period of inactivity or a garbage collection of waste products that the brain accumulated while we were awake.
Consider a first grader who successfully deployed the three pillars of learning and quickly learned to read. He actively engaged in reading with curiosity and enthusiasm. He learned to pay attention to every letter of every word, from left to right. And, over the months, as his errors receded, he began to accurately decipher the correspondence between letters and sounds and to store the spellings of irregular words. However, he is not a fluid reader yet, and reads slowly and with effort. What’s missing? He still has to deploy the fourth pillar of learning: consolidation. His reading, which, at this stage, mobilizes all his attention, has to become automatic and unconscious.
The analysis of his reading times is revealing: the longer a word is, the longer it takes him to decipher it. The function is linear: response time increases by a fixed amount of about one-fifth of a second for each additional letter…. After two or three years of intensive practice, the effect of word length will flat out disappear. Dear reader, at this very moment, as your expert brain deciphers my words, you take the same exact amount of time to read any word between three and eight letters long. It takes, on average, about three years of training for visual word recognition to move from sequential to parallel. Ultimately, our visual word form area processes all the letters of a word simultaneously rather than serially. Being aware of this visual process is critical.
Why is automatization so important? Because it frees up the cortex’s resources. Remember that the parietal and prefrontal executive cortices operate as a generic executive control network that imposes a cognitive bottleneck: it cannot multitask.
Research has confirmed that we cannot multitask. The exception is when a unified task has components that become so automatic that they do not require working memory. Learning to drive a car is an example as is efficient reading. But while it takes hundreds of hours for normal driving to become automatic, reading develops over many years. Most of us read better as adults than we did the day that we graduated from high school.
Everyone who works with children’s reading should be aware of the how reading emerges and all of the components that must become automatic and coordinate to allow comprehension to emerge. Problems in any of these areas will interfere and must be identified to be treated. Are they beginning to see whole words? Do they still need to hear the word to know what it means? Do they know the meanings of the words? Can they keep their place? Does the page appear to be too crowded and confuse them? Do their eyes automatically work together and focus clearly and can this be sustained for extended periods of time?