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Literacy Across Cultures Spring/Summer 2000 4/1

Automaticity Theory and EFL in Japan

With Some Specific Applications for Reading

Fumiko Yoshimura
Kyushu Institute of Information Sciences


Currently the overall emphasis of much language instruction has been shifting from knowledge acquisition to that of communicative usage. One of the most typical dilemmas that EFL instructors in Japan (and elsewhere) face, however, is that even if we give our students a significant amount of time in the classroom to use English in communicative activities, they still do not acquire the proficiency levels we might expect to justify such activities. What might be missing in the process of our instruction and practice activities? In trying to answer this question, in this article, I will introduce the concept of Automaticity Theory (AT) and explain how we can apply the theory to the actual EFL curriculum. This application, I contend, can help to ensure that our language learners become able to coordinate individual skills in more complex tasks leading to independence in communicative ability.

Automaticity Theory

Automaticity Theory (AT) attempts to explain how people acquire skills as a function of the automaticity of operating processes. Schneider and Fisk (1983) explain the mechanisms of skill acquisition in terms of contrasting automatic and controlled types of cognitive and memory processing:
Automatic processing is a fast, parallel, fairly effortless process which is not limited by short-term memory capacity, is not under direct subject control and performs well-developed skilled behaviors. Automatic processing typically develops when subjects deal with the stimulus consistently over many trials....Controlled rocessing is characterized as a slow, generally serial, effortful, capacity limited, subject controlled processing mode that must be used to deal with novel or inconsistent information. (p.120)
Schneider and Fisk (1983) also show how practice changes controlled processing into automatic processing. According to them, automatic productions are modular and will develop when the component processes are consistent. This modular processing system can be hierarchical, with the same module being one part of many different skills. The assumption is that there is an upper limit to human attention span. Practice, however, can make automatic productions relatively free of limited memory resources; thus there is no necessary limit to the number of automatic processes which can be active at the same time. Moreover, practice makes productions autonomous, reducing direct conscious control of the subject. This is a crucial stage on which it can be said that good and poor learners divide. Automaticity which has been acquired through effective, repeated practice makes it possible to process different stimuli at different stages simultaneously, as in something like a psychological and pyscho-motor version of a complex production line. Schneider and Fisk (1983) illustrate this change of behavior in practicing a motor skill by describing the change in learning how to play the piano. At the novice level, performance is very slow, serial, and capacity limited. Controlled processing is in effect at this stage and the learner must allot much of finite attention capacity to each motor task. After substantial practice, however, the learner builds up a vocabulary of playable notes by consistently repeating each note in a given phrase thousands of times. As the automatic productions develop, the performer can speed up the responses, incorporate more complicated rhythm information, and begin to have sufficient capacity freed up and made available to attend to the patterns of notes, familiar scales and chords, and then finally onto entire sections in the music. Figure 1 shows the continuum of automatization adapted from Whitaker (1983, p.199):

Yoshimura, Figure 1

According to Whitaker (1983), the stages of behavior acquisition are best expressed as a continuum, not a dichotomy. Starting from the left end of this continuum, we gradually acquire the automaticity of a behavior with repeated practice. In learning a musical instrument, people start from the novel (or novice) stage; with sufficient practice and improvement, they acquire the skills necessary to play a piece of music beautifully and fluently.

By way of comparison and contrast, Anderson (1995) perceives the development of skill acquisition as the development of problem-solving operators. He divides the processes into three stages; the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage. He describes the general characteristics of each stage as follows: In the cognitive stage, learners commit to memory a set of facts relevant to the skill. Typically they rehearse these facts as they first perform the skill. The process is slow. The information they have learned amounts to a set of problem-solving operators for the skill. In the associative stage, the connections among the various elements required for successful performance are strengthened. Errors are detected and eliminated as well. Learners, by this time, have converted the verbal knowledge once memorized into procedural knowledge. In the autonomous stage, the procedure becomes more skilled, more automated, and more rapid. In becoming so, it requires fewer and fewer attentional resources. Learners also develop more complex skills in the direction of becoming more automated and requiring fewer processing resources. Anderson says, "it is the procedural, not the declarative, knowledge that governs the skilled performance" (p.274).

Applying AT to a FL Curriculum

The models of skill acquisition described above show how people develop automaticity with practice, and they break down a complex process over time into understandable stages. In learning a foreign language, just as with other skill acquisition processes, we must start from an absolute beginning stage at which we have no language and must progress over time until we have acquired language proficiency. Ultimately, we hope to attain the stage where we can exert control over language well enough to allocate our attention to understanding and responding to the content of the messages — to actual communication. In real mainstream classroom instruction, however, it is hard to see how the process of acquiring functional proficiency levels over stages is actually acknowledged and dealt with. In terms of input and what is the object of study, discourse is typically broken down into smaller, discrete items for analysis and manipulation. The items are typically grammar points, key vocabulary, typical expressions, and the language associated with communicative situations and functions, etc. For each isolated item, explanation and opportunities for practice activities are often given.

Instructors assume that it is the learners' responsibility to practice what has been covered in class until they have acquired the target proficiency. On the other hand, many learners seem to think they have practiced enough after only a few times, even if the learners remain well short of being fluent and proficient in the objective of study. Keeping in mind what instructors and learners think about the matter, if we compare it to the Schneider and Fisk (1983) model, we can see that these learners typically stay at the faltering, controlled processing stage. In terms of the Anderson (1995) model, it might be said that in much instruction the associative stage is neglected; but it is at this stage where learners come to coordinate many individual elements as a bridge to the autonomy stage. Too many of our language learners never develop skills to the point where they can perform more integrative and complex tasks of language use, communication, and literacy.

They need to free up their cognitive and memory resources by becoming fluent, automatic, and efficient at certain elements of processing in order to devote their mental resources to more involved, complex tasks of real communication and interaction. In short, they need to stick it out with some practice tasks until stages of automaticity have been reached. After practicing distinct skills until a fluency with them has been reached, learners then need to practice them in more integrative, less framed tasks. In so doing, they will also learn how to balance their attention span; their cognitive and memory resources can be more efficiently shared out to the various integrated parts of increasingly complex tasks. Taking this into consideration, we need to restructure the whole curriculum to incorporate language training adapted to the associative stage of Anderson's (1995) model. Figure 2 demonstrates a model which could be applied to the structuring of the formal language curriculum around the concepts of AT.

Yoshimura, Figure 2

In creating a curriculum, first the goals of our instruction need to be defined. This means that we need to define the characteristics of true communication which is at the autonomous stage of language acquisition. Secondly, what is involved in a true communicative situation needs to be analyzed and broken into distinct elements so that teachers can incorporate them into their syllabus. Each element should be taught so that learners can understand it and have opportunities to practice it until they can use it without allotting too much conscious effort. Employing communicative games and activities are good because they are fun and create situations where meaning is negotiated and exchanged.

The true challenge for language instructors, however, is how to orchestrate the needs at different levels and come up with a curriculum which helps learners to develop automaticity gradually and systematically. This includes filling the discrepancy between the overall goal of a language course and the goals of individual lessons. In developing a motor skill such as driving or playing sports, the most emphasized stage is not during but after individual items or activities are practiced. After learning basic skills, practice is given for larger units composed of the smaller isolated skills already learned. The units of practice get larger and larger until learners attain the goal of proficiency. In language learning, incorporating integrative tasks is important because it gives learners opportunities to use distinct skills in less framed, more complex tasks. Making explicit clear goals is important as well in order to motivate learners to practice the same underlying skills over and over.

Rationale for Applying AT to EFL Instruction in Japan

AT is particularly applicable to EFL instruction in Japan and elsewhere because of the following two reasons: (1) the age of the language learners and (2) the lack of input and incidental learning in the total FL learning environment. It is plausible to say that many L1 development and cognition researchers (e.g. Fodor, 1985; Jackendoff, 1996) contend that there is a special faculty for language acquisition, and therefore language acquisition should be treated as something significantly if not totally different from other skills acquisition. But it is questionable if the contention is applicable to FL learning, which often only starts to take place after puberty. One explanation of this is that the Critical Period Hypothesis suggests that there is a time in human development when the brain is predisposed for success in language learning. Developmental change in the brain, it is argued, changes the nature of second language acquisition. According to this view, language learning which occurs after the end of the critical period may not be based on the innate structures believed to contribute to first language or second language acquisition in early childhood. Rather, older learners depend on more general learning abilities — the same ones they might use to learn other kinds of skills or information (Lightbown and Spada, 1997, p.42).

However, the development of such general skills is often described, accounted for and explained in terms of AT (e.g. Bloom, 1986; Schneider and Fisk, 1983; Anderson, 1995). Many elements of literacy in a language, too, also can be said to be a general type of learning, though language development obviously interacts and limits it.

Compared with many L2 learners in SL situations, FL learners are even more disadvantaged in terms of an environment to reinforce FL learning, with both input and output often being limited to formal classroom settings. L2 (such as ESL) and FL (such as EFL) learners are often categorized into the same group. However, they represent two distinct groups, as Swaffer and Bacon (1993) point out, "L2 learners operate in the culture of the language they are learning and can access input outside the classroom with relative ease, whereas FL students cannot" (p.125). Thus, it is very difficult to expect and wrong to assume that incidental learning will automatically occur in the FL setting. To achieve a target proficiency in FL learning, a systematic and efficient learning environment should be created intentionally in the language classrooms. AT can suggest ways for teachers to achieve such an environment. Therefore, from the combined perspectives of the learners' age and the learning environment, the application of automaticity theory is justified in EFL instruction in environments such as Japan.

Applying AT to EFL Reading Instruction in Japan: An Analysis of the Situation

Using many of the insights gained from actual application of AT to a JSL program at the university level in the US (see Yoshimura, 1999), I would like to address here the theory's possible use for EFL reading in Japan. Concentrating on EFL reading is particularly relevant here because written texts are often the major source of input for students living in a country where the target language is neither a significant native nor second one. The failure of developing learners' reading proficiencies in most Japanese EFL classes can be attributed to the lack of emphasis on the training at what has been called the associative stage. In this section, what is involved in EFL reading will be analyzed and skills which require systematic training toward automaticity will be pointed out. Then, the following section demonstrates how we can apply automaticity theory to the actual EFL reading instruction and evaluation in Japan.

According to Bernhardt (1996), in L2 reading both text-driven operations (e.g. word recognition, phonemic/graphemic decoding, and syntactic feature recognition) and knowledge-driven operations (e.g. intratextual perception, metacognition, and prior knowledge) work simultaneously with varying degrees of success. Bernhardt cites Johnston's (1983) comments on the risks involved in this simultaneous operation: "The qualitative mismatch between text and reader may pose a far more insidious problem — quite subtly causing the reader to build a completely inappropriate model of the text meaning without becoming aware of the problem. It is not that inferences would not be made, but that inappropriate ones would be made" (p.31). And the success of creating an appropriate model of text meaning in L2 and FL reading depends on the accuracy and efficiency of text-driven operations, which are subskills for L2 and FL reading comprehension.

Researchers agree that reading skills can be automated with repeated practice (e.g. Schneider and Fisk, 1983; Bloom, 1986; Samuels and Flor, 1997). However, as Samuels and Flor (1997) warn, not all skills or knowledge bases can be so automatized. According to them, "In general, tasks with a high

degree of regularity and sameness, such as word recognition, learning to use a typewriter, or memorizing multiplication tables, can be automatized, whereas tasks that are constantly changing, such as text comprehension, continue to require attention and effort" (p.112).

Therefore, to talk about automaticity in L2 or FL reading, we need to divide elements involved in the reading act into what can be automated and what cannot. Knowledge-driven operations such as intratextual perception, metacognition, and prior knowledge may work mainly as individual differences in learners' general reading skills developed in their L1. More importantly, these operations cannot be automated because they are constantly changing depending on the context and continue to require attention and effort. However, automaticity in text-driven skills may well free up memory and cognition for the type of fluent reading that requires constant attention and effort, and breakdowns in such skills can prove to be the "weakest link" in the entire reading process.

What can be automatized are tasks such as word recognition, phonemic/graphemic decoding, and syntactic feature recognition. These "tasks with a high degree of regularity and sameness" are the very tasks in which systematic training should be given to learners. What task should be central in a particular reading instruction depends on the reader's proficiency level. Bernhardt (1996) illustrates the distribution of reading errors which appear along with second language literacy development (p.169). According to the illustration, word recognition errors and the phonemic/graphemic confusions appear in early stages of proficiency. Syntactic errors have a normal-curve shape in account of their development: they develop as a function of greater exposure and growth in the language and then decline gradually. Two of the higher order aspects of reading, background knowledge usage and intratextual perceptions, are described by exponential curves, indicating that a reader begins to rely more on the language and less on what he/she thinks the language contains as his/her proficiency develops. As a reader's proficiency develops, the central errors and the most important reading factors change as well. Therefore, the focus of each period of instruction should be modified depending on the learner's proficiency.

Taking into Account Language Background Differences

On top of the factors which influence general L2 and FL reading, language-specific factors need to be examined. The following is a brief comparison and contrast of the linguistic features and differences across Japanese (L1) and English (FL).

These two unrelated languages differ considerably in various aspects. While written Japanese mainly uses a combination of hiragana, katakana (both syllabic symbols), and kanji (symbols which represent Japanese at the morpheme and word-level of meaning), written English utilizes a roman alphabet of 26 letters. While the basic Japanese sentence structure is SOV with postpositions signalling many of the grammatical relationships, the predominant English word order is SVO with particles functioning as prepositions. While the Japanese language largely depends on its post-positional particles to indicate the parts of speech, English depends much on the word order for the same function. Because particles are largely responsible for indicating the relations among words in Japanese, Japanese word order is relatively more flexible. On the other hand, because English mainly relies on word order to indicate the intended relations among words, the overall sentence structures are more regular. However, mature, written English is characterized by some complexity in embedding and subordination.

All English sentences can be categorized into the following five types: SV, SVC, SVO, SVOO, SVOC. There is only one predicate verb (V) in each sentence except in a compound sentence. If we can find the predicate verb in each sentence, we can find the subject (S), which is always placed before the verb, and the object (O) or the complement (C), which is always placed after the verb. The parts of speech can be expressed in a word, a phrase, or a clause. Because of this regularity, internalizing English word order could be automated with repeated practice. Systematic practice should be given to Japanese EFL learners, whose L1 utilizes totally different ways of signaling the intended relations among words. Synthesizing all the above, systematic training should be given to text-driven operations such as word recognition, phonemic/graphemic decoding, and syntactic feature recognition. The selection of the central skills in each class should be made in light of the learners' reading proficiencies and the learning contexts, including the linguistic differences between the L1 and the target language.

Recommendations for Actual EFL Reading Instruction

In this section, a curriculum to develop learners' EFL reading proficiencies will be recommended with the above analysis in mind. To avoid inappropriate knowledge-driven operations, text-driven operations should be practiced repeatedly until students gain automaticity. At the initial stage, the focus of practice should be smaller units such as a letter or a word. Learners should be given enough training to recognize English letters and words. Because the number of letters in an alphabet is limited, each encounter with words may give the learners practice in letter recognition. To enhance word recognition, on the other hand, conscious efforts should be made on the part of instructors to make this aspect a part of regular vocabulary instruction. Many L2 learners may complain that memorizing words are boring and that they will soon forget words even though they memorize them once. Recycling the same words learned before in numerous different contexts may reduce their study load and will also help them recognize words in future reading encounters.

After the initial stage, the most important task may be to help students internalize and schematize the most typical English sentence structures and to use them to analyze the intended relations among words. Though the unit of processing may expand into a paragraph or the whole text later on, at or below the intermediate level where most Japanese EFL learners belong, understanding the meanings of each sentence will remain important. In order to internalize the basic English structures, instructors may want to provide explicit explanation of the typical English sentence structures and give enough training in using them to read English texts. The material should be short and simple using typical structures. Gradually the material may become difficult and complicated with the addition of more grammatical elements and the combination of various structures.

In each stage of proficiency, the learners should be given sufficient training to reach a stage where they can read the material rapidly and accurately. The content of the material should be easy and concrete at first, gradually becoming more difficult and abstract. In general, reading material that uses typical, mature written English may contain more complicated sentence structures when compared with spoken material. Exposing students with graded, spoken materials in the early stage may give them opportunities to listen to texts with the basic sentence structures and help them to internalize and schematize the basic English sentence structures. Though the ultimate goal of most FL reading practices may be to comprehend the text, syntactic feature recognition should be emphasized particularly to the L2 or FL readers whose native language structures are very different from those of the target language. Otherwise, learners may depend too much on their background knowledge and so not pay enough attention to what is actually written in a text.

This over-dependence on top-down comprehension—though natural enough— may lead them to run the risk of creating inappropriate models of text meanings. Instructors can ask learners to find the subject and the predicate verb of each sentence which appear regularly. For example, instructors can keep asking learners "Who?" and "Did what?" in reading sentences. Because what follows each verb can be predicted from the nature of the verb, the questions can be created on the spot, if necessary. Soon the learners will internalize the questions and use them to analyze encountered sentences. Even if they encounter complex sentences, they can keep using the same questions to analyze the sentence structures and also to find which chunk of words serves what part of speech. Though this kind of practice may seem boring, enough emphasis and practice should be given to learners until they have acquired the sort of automaticity that frees up the working memory required to read mature prose fluently .

The Value of Evaluation

Evaluation is another factor which plays a crucial role in ensuring that learners have internalized the important subskills for L2 and FL reading comprehension. Therefore, evaluation needs to incorporate the concept of automaticity as well. Most reading tests measure the learners' comprehension, which is the ultimate goal of most standard reading practice. The assumption is that if learners can answer the questions asking their text comprehension, they can use in a coordinated manner the sets of subskills necessary

for text comprehension. However, this assumption does not always hold true. Poor L2 or FL learners may construct and continually depend on their incomplete and possibly erroneous background knowledge and create inappropriate models of text meanings. Even worse, they may not be aware of their problems. Evaluation should play a role of diagnosing the cause of the learners' mistakes and provide feedback to the learners. This is the reason the usage of these subskills in reading should be measured separately. The following paragraphs demonstrate how to measure these subskills.

Word Recognition Automaticity

Samuels and Flor (1997) suggest a way of assessing automatic performance in word recognition. According to their suggestion, readers can be asked to perform two tasks. First, they could be asked to listen to the instructor reading a passage and later they would be asked to tell everything they remember about the passage. Second, they could be asked to read a passage out loud and later they would be asked to tell everything they remember about the passage. For students who have attained automatic word recognition for reading, the listening and oral reading scores should be comparable. For students who are not automatic, the listening score should be better because the oral reading test demands a level of simultaneous visual decoding and comprehension not yet attained (pp. 113-114). The proper way to apply such a method to EFL students still needs to be explored and worked into a recommended procedure. Students who are automatic at visual decoding of words can generally auditorally attend to the oral texts with accuracy, speed, and expression, and do so with good comprehension. However, there would seem to be possible complications with direct application to EFL students. For example, the reading task would have to be strictly timed so as not to make it any easier than the listening task; in other words the time requirements of the reading task would have to duplicate the real time limitations of real listening.

Practicing word recognition is a task that clearly belongs within the context of direct instruction in the EFL reading classroom, where the teacher has to focus on both reading and language development and practice. It is beyond the scope of this paper to cover in details tasks for practicing word recognition for automaticity, but it should be pointed out and emphasized that real reading tasks at linguistic levels appropriate to the learner might ultimately prove the single best way to develop word recognition skills. However, those instructors wishing to isolate the practice for some types of limited practice, there are exercises that can be constructed for this purpose (see Paran, 1996).

Automaticity in Syntactic Feature Recognition

To measure automatic performance in syntactic feature recognition in reading, how well learners can apply the internalized English structures to actual reading processes should be measured "on line" with real reading tasks. The following is a way of measuring the online syntactic feature recognition. Ask the learners to draw lines between meaningful chunks of words and to underline the predicate verb in each sentence while they read a text. This does not considerably alter the actual reading processes in use, but it does help make them more apparent to the instructor. Teachers can then confirm whether or not the learners draw lines at the appropriate divisions and if the predicate verbs are the correct ones. According to automaticity theory, practice "improves the chunking of information about the outputs, goal states, and inputs of the situation" (Schneider and Fisk, 1983, p. 122). In addition, teachers must try to use multiple measures of comprehension accuracy and reading speed as students engage real texts — accuracy in understanding and reading speed are important characteristics of automatic performance. It is not possible to have reading proficiency without automaticity; automaticity of certain features —word and syntactic recognition — are necessary (but not sufficient) to reading for meaning. Thus, in applying automaticity theory into the actual Japanese EFL reading instruction, much emphasis should be placed on the repeated practice of text-driven operations and the online evaluation.

Another technique and activity that would seem to have both usefulness as a procedure for assessment as well as practice is actually one that has been around for a while. This is called "read and look up" (West, 1960, in Bruder and Henderson, 1986). As Bruder and Henderson (1986) explain it, it is a technique where "the student looks at a sentence or part of a passage, says it silently, looks up from the page and says the sentence aloud. Unless the student understands the grammatical structure and the message of the sentence, it is impossible to remember the string long enough to repeat it back. We frequently use the technique at beginning and intermediate levels to check comprehension and short-term memory (p. 36)." The "read and look up" tasks does not deviate too much from what normal reading is, and so should prove useful in assessing what learners can do. While this is not a new technique, it is easy to see that it fits with many recent assertions about language learning and processing: students read a phrase, clause or sentence to themselves (and teachers might prepare a text with the chunks marked for students learning the procedure) — a CHUNK of meaning — and then look up from the text and say that chunk out loud. If the can do this with some fluency, then chances are they understand what they are reading. If they cannot put the chunks into working memory and repeat out loud what they are holding in immediate memory, then the language — the words, the structure — is too difficult. That is, even if somewhat known from previous study, there is insufficient automaticity in recognition of lexical and syntactical features for fluent reading. This is also an effective way to monitor comprehension without resorting to cross-linguistic translation.

Another way of measuring the online syntactic feature recognition is as follows: Ask the learners to draw lines between meaningful chunks of words and to underline the predicate verb in each sentence as they read a text. Teachers can then verify if the learners draw lines at the appropriate divisions and if the predicate verbs are the right ones. According to AT, "Practice improves chunking of information about the outputs, goal states, and inputs of the situation" (Schneider and Fisk, p. 122). In addition, teachers who do direct reading instruction need to measure comprehension accuracy along with reading speed when students read texts, which are the other characteristics of automatic performance. To measure all these aspects is important to get an accurate picture of the learners' reading proficiencies.


Automaticity theory (AT) and how to apply it to a FL curriculum have been introduced. AT is justified as an application to the Japanese EFL instruction because of the learners' age and the learning environment. A curriculum to develop the Japanese EFL learners' reading proficiencies has been recommended using the concepts and framework of AT. This general theory of learning emphasizes the importance of training at the associative stage, where learners come to coordinate individual skills in more varied, complex tasks which display automaticity and fewer breakdowns in mental processing and overloads of working memory. How to realize automaticity theory in actual classroom instruction is still in its tentative, exploratory stages and more research and insights from reflective practice need to be accumulated and shared with the rest of the field.


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Fumiko Yoshimura can be contacted Kyushu Institute of Information Sciences; e-mail

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Literacy Across Cultures
Spring/Summer 2000 4/1