Decoding Versus Cognitive Ability

By Terrie Noland, Vice-President, Educator Initiatives at Learning Ally

maryann wolff slide

Understanding the "automaticity" of executing lower-level reading processes to master higher-level comprehension.

Automaticity is necessary in everything we do to move to higher order thinking skills and perform tasks flawlessly.

When we first learn to drive a car, we expend our brainpower on technical skills such as speed, turn signals, and road signs. We use both hands on the wheel. It takes significant cognitive capacity to remember to look in the mirrors to change lanes. At this stage of our learning process, we have not mastered the “automaticity” of the skills needed to drive a car, but with practice and confidence, our lower level processing becomes automatic.

This is true in the classroom too. If we cannot easily perform lower-level reading processes such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding with “automaticity,” we will find it more difficult to free up our mental capacity to concentrate on the task. When our cognitive load becomes too intense to comprehend, there is enhanced likelihood that gaps in our learning process will exist – thus affecting reading achievement and feelings of failure. This scenario happens for many learners in lower socio-economic status, struggling readers and students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia.

Multi-Faceted Reading Definitions – ‘Reading for Meaning’

Research suggests that the act of reading is multi-faceted:

1) An explicit skill building activity necessary to access print.

2) An ability to comprehend text that comes from accurate word decoding.

While researchers debate the definition of finite reading skills such as fluency (Rasinski et al., 2011), there is a consensus that reading does involve understanding written text and constructing meaning from that text (Afflerbach et al., 2011).

What happens if teachers only pay attention to one reading definition? Let’s test this.

Reading Test

Read the following excerpt from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a popular series for ages 7-13, and with a Lexile level of 950:

Today is the first day of school, and right now we’re just waiting around for the teacher to hurry up and finish the seating chart. So I figured I might as well write in this book to pass the time. By the way, let me give you some good advice. On the first day of school, you got to be real careful where you sit. You walk into the classroom and just plunk your stuff down on any old desk and the next thing you know the teacher is saying – ‘I hope you all like where you’re sitting, because these are your permanent seats’ (Kinney, 2007).

If you mastered the skills of decoding and fluency, pulling words from the page by attaching sounds to letters and reading with correct rate, (automaticity and prosody,) then you are likely to make sense of the text. Your brain met the automaticity of the lower level processes. (Kendou, 2014).

Now, read the following excerpt from a medical journal about developmental dyslexia:

Two female subjects showed multiple instances of focal myelinated conical infraction, with neuronal loss, gliosis, and myelination of the scars affecting perisylvian and cerebral arterial border-zone territories. The presence of myelin in the scars suggested that the injury preceded the second or third year of postnatal life. One of the males showed, in addition to microdysgenesis, a small number of these myelinated scars. The brain of the twenty-year-old female had no scars in the cortex but did have a small number of ectopias distributed equally between the hemispheres. Other abnormalities included a bilobar hippocampal oligondendraglioma and a frontal arteriovenous anomaly in one female case; one male and another female case also showed arteriovenous anomalies and a male showed arthitectonic abnormalities in the lateralis posterior and medial geniculate nuclei of the thalamus” (Galaburda et al., 1985, p. 223)

Did you exhaust brainpower to decode all the technical words in this text? Did it slow you down? Did you try context clues or isolating root words and affixes to decipher the vocabulary? Did you feel less smart when you read the second passage as the first?

Cognitive Load Theory

This is an example of cognitive load theory, suggesting that our working memory can only handle two or three pieces of information at a time. The limitations of working memory overloads the finite skills of full comprehension. (Rueda, 2011 & Foorman et al., 2011).

Cunningham et al., (2011) stated, “…when word recognition is not yet automatized, the reader experiences significant cognitive demands while decoding text. As a reader matures, and the demands of conceptually more difficult texts require the use of complex thinking strategies, a reduction in conscious attention is necessary at the word recognition level to free up cognitive energy required for comprehension” (p. 260). 

In the time it took to read the first passage to the second, your intelligence did not change. What changed was your ability to decode content and understand what you read. In the second passage, our brainpower had to drive into overload to use our lower level processes. 

Bridge the “Automaticity” Reading Gap - Fluency


Reading fluency helps to reduce the cognitive demand and thus makes text comprehension easier for the reader” (Rueda, 2011).

Dr. Maryanne Wolf (2008), in her book Proust and the Squid, builds a visual story of what reading is about by uncovering the precepts of reading as defined by Marcel Proust, “Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual sanctuary, where human beings have access to thousands of realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise” (p. 6).

For struggling readers and those with learning disabilities, we need to help them find a bridge to content, while being taught the lower level processes of reading. Many educators use an evidence-based structured literacy program, but this approach takes time, maybe one or two years. Just as any young child can comprehend above their ability to read, so can a student that is struggling to read. They require a tool to help them automatize the decoding process and to provide reinforcement of skill building in the lower level processes of reading. Access to human-read audiobooks can serve as a reliable tool to keep both processes going simultaneously -- comprehension and cognition.

Holistic Reading Approach

If we only allow students to rely on the explicit skills taught, their ability to catch up to grade level will be farther out of reach. As a community of researchers and education professionals, consider three questions:

(1) Are the cognitive capacities and abilities of students, not just learning disabled students, on par with grade level content when the lower level processes of reading are not automatized?

(2) What are the tools and resources that teachers use to create a holistic environment and culture of reading and literacy when time and pacing of curriculum do not allow adequate time spent on explicit instruction?

(3) Are classrooms that take a more holistic approach to reading instruction more effective? 

With further investigation into these questions and applying recommended tools such as human-read audiobooks, we can have hope that the achievement gap will lessen over a shorter period of time, and students who struggle with the finite processes of reading can keep pace with peers.

If reading automaticity is an issue for your struggling reader, Learning Ally provides access to curriculum in human-read audiobook format can bridge the gap between lower level reading processes and reading for thorough comprehension and content mastery.


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