What You Need to Know About Processing Speed and Reading

Child with an image of a brain behind him flexing his muscles with a smile.

Processing speed refers to the amount of time required for the brain to absorb, interpret, and respond to visual and/or auditory information.

  • The most important thing to understand is, slow processing speed has no correlation to a person’s intelligence.
  • Slow processing speed can be a lifelong challenge.
  • The degree of difficulty with processing speed can vary among individuals along a continuum.
  • Difficulty with processing speed manifests differently depending upon the age of the person.
  • Slow processing speed does not indicate that a person is lazy or unmotivated.

What does slow processing look like at different ages?

Here are a few examples of what slow processing can look like at various ages.

Preschool – the student may stare off into space during circle time and/or have difficulty following multi-step directions.

Elementary School – they may have difficulty responding to questions or following a conversation. The child may frequently reread parts of sentences in an effort to allow additional time to process.

Middle School – they may speak slowly and often use vague language such as ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’. Students can get overwhelmed if a lot of information is presented at once.

High School – The student may have difficulty keeping up with class lectures and taking notes. They may not join in on class discussions. Additionally, students may have trouble with homework completion, especially given the volume of reading that is expected.

At any age – those with slower processing speed may have difficulty picking up on social cues, keeping up with conversations, or misinterpret jokes/sarcasm/information.

Any or all of these issues can result in anxiety at any age.

Understood.org has compiled a more extensive list of such signs.

How does processing speed impact reading?

Students who have slow processing speed tend to read more slowly than others, so fluency rates tend to be lower. Age and appropriate intervention can help to improve fluency, but it is likely that reading rates for those with slow processing, will continue to lag.

One analogy that we find helpful in understanding the impact of processing speed is comparing the brain to the engine of a car. Not all car engines are the same. Some are built for speed. Others are not. Think race car versus the family van. Both cars are fine and can get you from here to there, but one will do it faster than the other. As a car owner, no matter what type of car you drive, you want the engine to be in tiptop shape so it can perform at its peak.

The same is true for the reading brain. It needs to be in excellent condition for peak performance.

How can I support my students with slow processing speed?

Let’s stick with the car analogy. No matter if you are driving a race car or a van, if the road is filled with roadblocks or detours, it’s going to slow down the car. The same is true for the reading brain. If there are roadblocks like difficulty with phonemic awareness or if phonics patterns have not been mastered, the reading brain is going to go slower. Removing these roadblocks by systematic, sequential, and cumulative teaching will help to improve the reading brain and the reading rate.

Image depicting building strong neuronal pathways through the use of applying phonetic patterns

If the reading brain encounters detours like guessing and checking, it’s going to take longer getting to the destination. The most efficient way to solve for unknown words is to use the code. (See image to right.)

No matter what type of engine you are driving, you want to make sure it is working at peak performance. This can be done by building strong neuronal pathways. Be sure to read our post about the 5 Problems With Using MSV where we discuss the importance of strong neuronal pathways,

What is overlearning and how can it help processing speed?

Overlearning is essentially, repeated practice. This strategy of practicing a specific skill over and over helps develop automaticity. The more automatic a skill is, the less time it takes to process. We love analogies, so here’s another example. When first learning to drive, the student driver has to carefully think about each step…

  • get in the car
  • adjust the seat
  • buckle the seatbelt
  • adjust the rearview mirror
  • adjust the side mirrors
  • step on the brake,
  • turn on the ignition
  • release the emergency brake,
  • check the surrounding area
  • release the brake pedal
  • step on the gas

That’s just to get out of park and start the car moving. Experienced drivers go through all those same steps, but because they have had many opportunities for repeated practice, they follow the steps automatically.

Repeated practice helps build stronger neuronal pathways. Think of these pathways as roads. When initially building a road, it’s bumpy and you have to drive slowly. As the road is compacted and gravel is added, you can drive a bit faster. Once the road is tarred and smoothed, you can drive even faster. That’s similar to what happens to pathways in the brain with repeated practice.

Overlearning helps the engine of the brain run at its peak performance and removes roadblocks for smooth neuronal pathways. Image of minivan and sports car with a brain above them.

What is an effective activity to reinforce overlearning?

We LOVE, LOVE, LOVE using fluency grids as a way to help students OVERLEARN.

Word level fluency grids help develop automatic recognition of words following the closed syllable pattern.

Let’s say you have a student who is currently learning to read and spell words with consonant blends up to four sounds. This student is accurate and fairly fluent in isolation. However, in connected text (a passage or book) they still tap out previously taught patterns as simple as CVC.

Enter fluency grids. In this case, we’d pull a CVC grid and, as a warmup to our intervention lesson, have the student practice ‘keeping their voice on’ to read the CVC words. For example, for the word, ‘mad’, students read the word as, /mmmmm/aaaaaa/d/ rather than /m/…/a/…/d/.

You could have the student practice with one row of the fluency grid or even with a “My turn, your turn” format (My turn-teacher models reading the row; Your turn-student tries to read at the same pace as modeled by the teacher).

Do this warmup daily. Eventually, the students will be able to read CVC words automatically and won’t need to rely on ‘keeping their voice on’. Once they are solid on CVC, move up to the next pattern on your scope and sequence and use that as your warmup. This is a simple, but effective way to promote overlearning.

What other strategy can I use to provide opportunities to overlearn a skill?

Another tool we use to help develop smooth neuronal pathways is decodable word lists and sentences.

Decodable word lists, phrases, and sentences are an effective tool for developing prosody.

Repeated readings with a focus on phrasing will help students improve prosody which is an essential part of fluency.

Students who have slower processing speed can and should read with prosody regardless of rate. Reading with prosody is necessary for reading comprehension.

Where can I learn more about processing speed?

We are big fans of the website understood.org. They have multiple articles on processing speed, including this interesting article about the connection between slow processing speed and executive function.

Another resource we found helpful was the book, “Reading for Life: High Quality Literacy Instruction for All’ by Lyn Stone.

Reading for Life: High Quality Literacy Instruction for All

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