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Making a Case for Practice

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you decide to learn a new skill. Let’s use bread-baking as an example, but it could easily be a foreign language, golf, piano, etc. You sign up for a class and after the first session you can practically smell the loaves of fresh bread coming out of the oven. But then you discover some of your loaves are hard as rocks; others are still raw in the middle; yet others taste like salt. Yuck. It’s then you realize what’s missing: practice. And sure enough, as you practice you become more comfortable and fluent in the language of bread.

We know that practice is absolutely essential for developing skills of all sorts, yet we may forget this principle when it comes to learning to read. We think if a child just shows up in the classroom, they will learn the necessary skills “automatically.” Indeed, that may be true for some children, but for those who struggle with reading, consistent, structured practice is essential to produce the “muscle memory” of language fluency.

For decades, research has provided strong evidence for the benefits of structured literacy.

Explicit, systematic, and diagnostic, structured literacy includes all the components needed for struggling readers with decoding and spelling difficulties: phonology, phonics, syllables, word parts, vocabulary, and sentences.

But wait. This list is missing an essential piece: practice. Struggling readers need structured practice to improve outcomes and make skills automatic. In fact, struggling readers may need 10 times more practice than typical readers; what a typical reader may achieve in two practice opportunities is likely to take a struggling reader 20 practice opportunities.

Neuroscientist Stan Dahaene (2020) lists daily rehearsal as one of his 4 Pillars of Learning, along with focused attention, active engagement, and error feedback. But this is not new science. This principle of frequent practice has been established for more than a century. In 1880, Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, measuring how much we forget over time. He discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten – roughly 66 percent after just one day!

So if we accept that frequent practice is essential to reading success, how do we achieve it? Compliance is certainly a challenge. Almost every struggling reader can – at least initially – think of many things they’d rather be doing than practicing their literacy skills!

Here are some ways to encourage daily practice:

  • Keep it focused and brief
  • Make it engaging
  • Report practice compliance to the parent and teacher 
  • Provide error reports to parents and teachers for focused coaching and progress monitoring 
  • Incentivize practice compliance
  • Incentivize correct responses
  • Provide special privileges, prizes, certificates, and awards

At Lexercise, we have found that drawing in the student with engaging graphics, offering meaningful feedback, and tracking progress add up to eager participants. For example, have a look at one of our practice games, Pickatron.

Designed to provide daily practice with concepts taught in regular lessons, these review and  practice games integrate Dehaene’s 4 Pillars of Learning. We stress to parents and teachers the importance of completing the 15 minutes a day of practice at least four days a week. Students who practice four or more days a week get two-and-a-half times more practice opportunities than students who practice one or two days a week; the two additional days of practice each week improved spelling accuracy an average of 6%. This could mean covering the curriculum twice as fast since students with 80% accuracy would likely be moved to the next lesson rather than repeating the same lesson the following week.

Practice makes a lot of sense, whatever the skill. We’d be happy to talk with you about your child’s learning needs and practice habits. We can almost smell the fresh bread!

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Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine…for Now. Viking.

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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.