As Fast As You Can, As Slowly As You Must

When clinicians are being trained in a Structured Literacy methodology they often ask how much they should try to cover in one session or how many concepts their clients should master in month. They are typically advised by their supervisor:  “Teach as fast as you can and as slowly as you must.”

in the zoneAt first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of an answer. It means that the clinician has to know when the pace is too fast or too slow versus “just right”.  A “just right” pace has been called the “sweet spot” or the “zone”.

What is the right pace of any student depends partly on their working memory or the amount of information they are able to hold in their mind as they respond to any specific task. Students with dyslexia typically have working memory problems that trip them up as they are learning to read and write.

Several decades ago, educators thought of these differences in terms of learning styles and suggested, for example, that some students were auditory learners while others were visual learners and that struggling students needed “hands on” tasks to help them remember words (e.g. tracing letters on sandpaper or in shaving cream). These days, however, reading experts doubt that learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) really exist. Instead, scientists have found that what really matters is how many bits of information the learner can keep in mind while they are completing a task. The information that must be held in mind while completing a task is called the cognitive load.  For example, to read the word exit the reader must recognize that the first syllable is a closed so the -e- will probably have its “short” sound.  Then the reader has to know how to pronounce short -e-. If they struggle to recall that, by the time they get to the -x- they may be ready to give up or just guess at the word.

So, the skilled clinician must be a cognitive load expert. They must closely observe the learner for signs that the cognitive load needs adjusting. When the load is not adjusted for the learner the result is often confusion and frustration. Their attention may be easily disrupted. They may start making “simple” mistakes, such as reversing letters, skipping or  adding letters or misreading little words. In writing, their handwriting may become illegible or they may misspell simple words.

Then the skilled clinician must know how to use cognitive load theory to make learning easier by:

  • slowing the pace;
  • breaking complicated ideas into small pieces;
  • teaching terms and concepts in a memorable way, using cues that make them “stick”;
  • eliminating any unnecessary or distracting information;
  • focusing only on what the learner needs to know at the moment;
  • providing lots of opportunities for practice with feedback.

Likewise, the skilled clinician must know what to do when tasks are too easy for the student. They must know how to use cognitive load theory to make learning more interesting and challenging by:

  • introducing new concepts or facts;
  • linking concepts to each other;
  • asking the learner to show what they know by:
    • completing a brief, focused task (e.g., reading a set of words, circling the suffixes in a set of words, spelling words, etc.);
    • answering questions about the process or procedure they used to respond (e.g., “Why do you say that?” “How do you know?, etc.)
  • using new skills for some purpose (e.g., a school assignment)

One of the most important benefits of therapy led by a skilled clinician is that the parent and the student learn how to adjust tasks to move as fast as they can and as slowly as they must.  That’s a skill that goes way beyond reading and writing skills and that truly lasts a lifetime.

If you would like to learn more about getting your child the right help at the rate pace, please see how our services work and consider partnering with one of our skilled clinicians.


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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.