Analyzing Three Conceptualizations of Automaticity through the Lens of Neural Anatomy
by Chase Young
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I have presented this idea at the National Reading Conference, and once for a Reading Cognition class. The presentation typically takes about 20 minutes, but I have never actually tried to write it down. So, here goes nothing (or a lot, I’m not sure).

Automaticity might be described as fast, accurate, effortless word identification. So, what does this mean for teachers? How should it effect instruction? It is magic?

I suppose the first question that should be addressed is whether word recognition can become truly automatic? I will explore this issue through three different perspectives of automaticity through a lens of neural anatomy using the research of Carr (1992) as a foundation.

The first perspective is a behavioral/computational perspective based on the research by Nuemann  (1984) that I have come to call the conditions for automaticity. A reader must eliminate interference, intentionality, and awareness. The reader shuns multiple stimuli, eliminates intentional strategy use, and does so unconsciously. Essentially, when a reader acquires these skills, they are considered automatic according to this perspective.

The next perspective is might be understood an inversion from the first. Treisman, Vieira, and Hayes (1992) believe that the conditions are actually byproducts of automaticity. I have come to call this the extended practice perspective. Instead of elimination of interference, reduction of intentionality, and unawareness being prerequisites for automaticity, they are actually side effects of becoming automatic. It is like the chicken or the egg debate. So, these researchers believe that extended practice will produce the three characteristics of an automatic reader.

I believe a recapitulation of the previous two perspectives is warranted. While Neuman’s list of characteristics indicates some sort of biological preparedness, Treisman, Vieira, and Hayes believes the characteristics can be developed through practice. Both perspectives fall into the computational model.

The third perspective discussed in this blog leaves the behavioral model and deals with theoretical mechanisms. The theoretical mechanisms include identification of word parts and memory retrieval (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Logan, 1988). These mechanisms are foundational for automaticity. Automatic readers employ larger chunks of words (or words themselves). This is a memory tool our brain utilizes quite often. For example, when we recall phone numbers, they are typically remembered in the chunks between dashes. The other memory tool used is mainly episodic. For example, when you recall a birthday, the episode is readily available for retrieval. These memories are connected in the brain. When we recall, certain neural networks combine to produce the full memory. So, in essence, the researchers believe that recalling a word reverts back to a previous experience of reading it.

All of these perspectives have research for against them. In an effort to find where I stand on the issue, a neuroscientific lens will be employed. The theoretical mechanisms and computational/behavioral perspectives seek to identify which processes are present in automaticity, whereas a neuroscience approach seeks to indentify which attention systems are not involved. If a system thought to be important in the reading process and eventually goes dormant, then perhaps these are the systems that become automatic as readers move towards proficiency. So, those systems should be developed in a young reader.

The tools used to assess the specific attention systems I will focus on are the PET and ERPs. The PET utilizes a radioactive tracer to measure cerebral blood flow. The ERPs measure electrical activity in the brain.
The first attention system thought to be involved in the reading process is the Posterior Attention System (PAS). The PAS is a spatial based perceptual input selection system. This system aids in processing sensory stimuli from a particular location while ignoring others. Part of this attention system is responsible for the “engage, disengage, move” function. The PAS is found in the Superior Colliculus which is closely related to eye movement. It decides to move or lock on to information for information acquisition. The culminating function of this system is object recognition. It is also known as the “where” pathway.

The next is called the Anterior Attention System (AAS). This system is heavily involved in lexical semantics. However, it is active in many perceptual and productive tasks. The system is also thought to serve in executive control and working memory. The AAS is located in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the anterior cingulate gyrus. This area is the supposed speech area and is linked to lexical semantics. The anterior cingulated gyrus is connected to the hippocampus, thus giving it access to short term memory and processes involved in storing long term memory.

Now, I will focus on making the connection between orthography and the PAS. Random strings of letters require a great deal of activity from the PAS. However, when objects are represented in unitized lexical units, PAS activity decreases. Therefore, the units, or chunks, are processed similar to familiar objects. So, perhaps it is not completely automatic, but scans reveal the process requiring far less attention.

So, now we can make another connection. We will connect the AAS and semantic encoding. As semantic encoding tasks are practiced, the AAS is reduced. For example, subjects were asked to read a list of nouns. No AAS activity was apparent. Then, the subjects were asked to place the nouns in taxonomical categories. The researchers observed an increase in AAS activity. Next, the subjects were asked to generate verbs for each noun. Again, the AAS activity increased. However, after practicing these semantic encoding tasks, researchers observed a decrease in AAS activity. In summary, as semantic encoding tasks are practiced, the need for AAS decreases. Practice makes “better.”

Let’s now look back at the Conditions for Automaticity perspective proposed by Nuemann (1984). Attention research agrees there are conditions for automaticity. The PAS is responsible for eliminating interference when focusing on the words. Further, the PAS begins to differentiate among letter strings, and unitized lexical representations. The neurological research supports this perspective in regards to the PAS and interference.
As we revisit the extended practice perspective (Treisman, Vieira, & Hayes, 1992), we notice that an aspect of automatic reading is supported by attention research. Because neuroscience reveals intentionality is reduced after practice, this perspective fits well with the AAS research.

Finally, I will discuss some connections between attention systems and the theoretical mechanisms perspective (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Logan 1988). Attention research supports this perspective in that less attention is required to recognize unitized lexical chunks, a function of the PAS. The AAS research also supports this perspective. Novel tasks reveal increased AAS activity, and less for practiced tasks. This includes complex tasks and might indicate episodic memories (of the reading process) move readers towards automaticity.

Let me try to summarize this process. The PAS differentiates letter strings from lexical units. Readers exert effort to semantically encode using the AAS. Words are then recognized as objects which simultaneously reduce intentionality and PAS. At this time, a reader might be called automatic. After this, the AAS is reduced with the elimination of interference. As reading tasks get more difficult, a reader enters the cycle again. Finally, as automaticity increases, awareness decreases.

What does this mean for teachers? 1) Teach attention. Have students recall steps, hold numbers or words in working memory. For example, as a bonus after a spelling test, say four words in a row, and see if they can recall them. 2) Develop Rapid Processing.  Computer Aided Instruction programs can help with this, as well as repeated readings, and other practice based strategies (i.e. Neurological Impress Method).

The variation of word sorts can be matched to stimulate both the PAS and AAS. A word sort that requires students to sort based on chunks or lexical units (i.e. word families) would stimulate the PAS. Alternatively, a means for exercising the AAS would require students to sort for meaning and follow up with a generative task.

The biggest “aha” I experienced when researching this topic was the idea of teaching attention. Before students learn to read, they must learn to pay attention. It seems like a no-brainer now, but I had never thought of it. Teaching someone to read is a difficult task. Simply acknowledging the complexity of the task is a step in the right direction.
© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.