Automaticity and Your Child's Learning Style

Automaticity is the concept of being so familiar with something that it feels like you don’t have to think about it in order to do it or use it.  For example….  Have you ever been driving in the car and felt that you didn’t even need to think about the directions to get to your destination?  That’s automaticity.  In our children’s learning lives, there are four concepts for which automaticity is a must: phonics, or the sounds of letters; and then certain math functions — specifically, addition, subtraction, and multiplication.  

In the 1980s and 1990s, we had the “Reading Wars” - a long dispute about the best way to teach children to read.  On one side were proponents of traditional methods, including phonics.  With phonics, children learn phonemes - the letter sounds - to the point that they are so ingrained in the child’s mind that the association between letter and sound becomes automatic.  The idea is that children will be able to focus on sounding out new words if they already know the letter sounds.

On the other side of the Reading Wars were supporters of the “Whole Language” movement. Whole Language emphasized “lexical reading,” or recognizing entire words and phrases, rather than using phonics to sound component parts of words.  Like phonics, though, there was a level of automaticity to Whole Language - children still had to memorize pieces to understand a whole.  

In math, automaticity has to do with having the math facts memorized and the answers automatically available when a math problem is given.  Memorizing these math facts allows them to be stored in long-term memory, thus leaving room for the child’s working memory to focus on the process of solving a math problem.  

Just like with reading, a split in opinion formed about whether memorization is the “best” learning method.  In the 1960s and 1970s, this split was most clearly seen with the rise (and quick fall) of “New Math,” then in the 1980s with the “Reform Mathematics.”  More lately, we’ve seen it in the Common Core.  These movements emphasize understanding math functions in a holistic sense, rather than by memorization of procedure and algorithms.

These splits of opinion have never truly resolved.  No one has yet found the best way for all children to learn.

The truth is: There is no “best” way for “all” children.  Each child learns differently.  Some children need to explore language and math in a more creative way.  Others are much more comfortable with practice and repetition.  Both approaches require careful guidance so that the child can develop his or her own insights in a way that is natural, comfortable, and supportive of the child.  

At Karin Diskin we spend time watching your child work with posed problems - whether it’s solving a math problem, reading a passage of literature, or building a tower with Legos.  We observe how your child approaches the issue at hand.  We offer some guidance, but - most importantly - we listen to how your child describes his or her own approach.  By doing this, we are able to hear what your child emphasizes for their own learning process.  We can then build a program that is in harmony with your child’s process, rather than forcing your child into a “one size fits all” approach.  This allows your child to flourish and to feel proud of their efforts.  

No matter which way your child learns best, we want to identify, build, and repeat a successful learning process.  The more we can do that, the more naturally your child will learn - so that their success will be automatic.