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PowerPoint and Automaticity

By Terence Cavanaugh Ph.D.


Terence Cavanaugh is a visiting professor at the University of North Florida where he teaches educational technology.  Terry has taught educational technology to teachers in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and even Kuwait. His current book on electronic books in education is being published this summer by ISTE. Visit his website at http://www.drscavanaugh.org


It is important for us as teachers to be aware of options that we have concerning how we can use, adapt, or make accommodations with the tools that we have available in the classroom. In this article I’ll describe a strategy for using PowerPoint or other presentation software to be used as an automaticity measuring tool or practice tool with students.


Research on children has long demonstrated importance of automaticity in young developing readers. The reading process involves two separate but highly interrelated areas - word identification and comprehension. Research has shown that difficulties in automatic word recognition, automaticity have a significant affect on a reader's comprehension (Torgesen, Rashotte, and Alexander 2001). Even mild difficulties in word identification can cause distractions during reading, causing problems with meaning, reduce the reading speed, and may cause the student to have to reread selections for meaning. If a student does not have the ability recognize words with automaticity, they must spend additional time on decoding rather than meaning (FOR-PD 2005).


Automaticity is defined as fast, accurate and effortless word identification at the single word level (Hook and Jones 2002). Skilled readers on average will display very predictable and consistent responses. They should be able to recognize and process simple or common words in approximately 275 milliseconds, a bit more than a quarter of a second (Barber 2002). The speed and accuracy at which single words are identified is the best predictor of comprehension. While generally not available for conscious inspection, automaticity word and term recognition operations on a perceptual stimulus, which is fast, rapid and fluent. Skilled word recognizers have developed internal cognitive structures that are different from decoding skills. Students with poor reading fluency or lacking in automaticity are limited because they read less during an amount of time, which can end up reducing the amount of material read, which in turn have an impact on learning vocabulary and content. The goal of fluency instruction for students is to help them become more fluent readers so that more emphasis can be placed on comprehending content.


One example area where students need automaticity in reading is with the Dolch word list. The Dolch word list is a set of high frequency words that were first published by Edward William Dolch, in his 1948 book, Problems in Reading, The Garrard Press, 1948. The Dolch list of high frequency words comprises the 220 words, excluding nouns, that are considered to be common words These 220 words actually make up about 50 to 75% of all the words used in school and library books, newspapers, and magazines (Kidzone n.d.). The words are often known as “sight words” because they usually can’t be illustrated with simple pictures our sounded out, instead they must be learned and recognized “on sight.” The importance of learning the Dolch words is also very important for the beginner ESOL/EFL/ESL student. While most native speakers have been learning written forms of words that make up a large part of their oral/aural vocabulary, this is often not true for students with English as their second language.


The Automaticity PowerPoint

The Automaticity PowerPoint is set with for twenty words or phrases, which can be changed. The current words in the Automaticity PowerPoint come from twenty words from the third grade Dolch list. The design of the presentation is set to that when the presentation is started and the user presses the click to start button, a blank screen will display automatically for half a second, then automatically advance to the word screen, displaying it for a third of a second, then automatically advance to display a blank screen again for half a second, and after that pausing on a holding screen and waiting for input to advance to the next word or phrase. A student would watch the presentation on a screen, click the advance button, and then read the word as it flashes on the screen and then say the word aloud during the holding screen. With this design it takes 81 slides to make up the twenty word/phrase automaticity practice/assessment. You can download the Automaticity PowerPoint from the online version of this edition of the Florida Reading Quarterly section at the Florida Reads web site at http://www.flreads.org .


Figure 1. Timing within the presentation from the slide sorter view.


Using the Automaticity PowerPoint

Write out a list of the terms which are in the presentation to use to check the student. Start the Automaticity PowerPoint and then view the show. A teacher, aide, or other assistant can listen as the student reads the displayed words, checking for what the student can read with automaticity.


How to change the words

You are not limited to the one set of words that are on the PowerPoint for you to download, you can edit those words and change them to any words or phrases that you wish.

  1. With PowerPoint on and the file open so that you can edit it..
  2. In the normal view go to the slide that has an automaticity word or phrase on it.
  3. Double click on the word.
  4. Type in your new word or phrase.
  5. Advance to the next slide with a word or phrase and change it, repeat this process for the rest of the words or phrases that you wish to change.
  • You might want to save each set as a separate PowerPoint so you can have word list options without having to go and rewrite the words.

Another option that a teacher could implement would be to change the words to images for a different kind of recognition exercise.


Figure 2 Normal view for editing a slide containing a word or phrase to be changed.


How to change the time

You may have students who cannot read with automaticity at the third of a second level. You can change the amount of time that the words are displayed on the screen, either increasing or decreasing the time the word or phrase is shown.

  1. With PowerPoint on and the file open so that you can edit it.
  2. In the normal view go to the slide that has an automaticity word or phrase on it
  3. Select Slide Show from the menus, and then select Slide Transition.
  4. A window or side bar should appear with the slide transition information. Here I am using PowerPoint 2003 and the transition information is displayed as a side bar.
  5. In the Advance time area the timing should be set to advance Automatically after 00:00.3, which means 1/3 of a second. Change the .3 to some other number to achieve a different tenth of a second, for example 00:00.5 for half a second. PowerPoint will not go to the hundredth of a second so don’t bother with numbers like 00:00.25.
  6. You will need to go to each slide that has an automaticity term and change the timing for that slide. Warning - do not select the Apply to All Slides button, as this will cause the PowerPoint presentation when being shown to never pause until it gets to the end of the slides.


Figure 3. Adjusting the slide transition timing.


Teachers can also make other changes, such as the font structure, size and/or color. For example a teacher may wish to change the slide backgrounds to a light yellow. A light yellow or blue background has been found to be helpful to many readers (Stein 2003), including students with reading disabilities such as dyslexia.


Because the reading demands on our students are high, students with poor reading fluency can fall behind, and it is important to provide and use tools, including technology, that can assist students in reading practice. Teachers can also use these tools in student assessment. PowerPoint is a common program found in most schools today, and while it is most often used as a presentation tool, it can also be used in other situations. Feel free to play with the Automaticity PowerPoint, adjust and experiment with it and your students.


Download the Automaticity PowerPoint from:




Barber, C. (2002). WISER Parent Reading for Success. WashingtonParent.com. Retrieved April 2005 from http://www.washingtonparent.com/articles/0207/reading.html

Dolch, E.W. 1948. Problems in reading. Champaign IL: Garrard Press.

FOR-PD (Florida Online Reading Professional Development). (2005). Developing and Assessing Fluency March 2005. Retrieved April 2004 from http://www.itrc.ucf.edu/forpd/strategies/ .

Hook, P. E. and Jones, S. D. (2002). The Importance of Automaticity and Fluency for Efficient Reading Comprehension. International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Winter, 2002, vol. 28, no. 1, pages 9-14.

Kidzone. (n.d.). Dolch Words. Retreived April 2005 from http://www.kidzone.ws/dolch/

Stein, J. (2003). Visual Motion Sensitivity and Reading. Neurospychologia V 41(2003) p. 1785-1793. Retrieved April 2005 from http://www.physiol.ox.ac.uk/~jfs/pdf/jfsnpsychologiamotion.pdf

Torgesen, J.K., Rashotte, C.A., and Alexander, A.W. (2001). Principles of fluency instruction in reading: Relationships with established empirical outcomes. In M. Wolf (Ed.), Dyslexia, fluency, and the brain. Pages 333-335. Timonium, MD: York Press.


DOLCH word lists

http://gemini.es.brevard.k12.fl.us/sheppard/reading/dolch.html PreK-3

 http://www.createdbyteachers.com/sightfreemain.html Teacher-2-Teacher Sight Words -- This section will have various free materials for Dolch sight words.

http://www.english-zone.com/reading/dolch.html  From English-zone.com the 220 Dolch Basic Sight Words

http://www.janbrett.com/games/jan_brett_dolch_word_list_main.htm Dolch Word Lists with art work. Click on a picture to download the full page artwork (PDF or HTML).

http://www.kidzone.ws/dolch/preschool.htm The Kidzone Dolch Word List - Preschool and Ideas for using Dolch words with flashcards:



Cite as: Cavanaugh, T. (2005) PowerPoint and Automaticity. Florida Reading Quarterly Volume 41, No. 4, Summer 2005. Pages 30-33. Available online at  http://www.flreads.org/Publications/quarterly/samples/PowerPoint_and_Automaticity.htm