Spaced Out Practice, Not Spaced-Out Kids!

Spaced Out LearningYou’ve probably heard this advice about studying for an exam:

Don’t cram. Study a little every day. And get enough sleep!  

But reading and spelling skills are not like math, science or history facts—or are they? What does memory research have to say about how we can best help children improve reading, spelling and writing skills?

Spaced out practice, the opposite of cramming,  supports memory, so it applies to any skill, including playing a musical instrument or mastering a sport.  This is why piano teachers give their students practice to do everyday and why soccer practice is not scheduled for just once a week.


In his guest post, Spacing in Teaching Practice, Jonathan Firth, a psychologist and teacher, reviews the history and research that dates from the 1800s, when early psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus first tested how people remember information. His research on how well people  remember nonsense syllables showed a “spacing effect”.

Today, after thousands of studies on human memory, we know much more about how practice helps us transfer information into long term memory and how to design practice that is as effective as possible. We know that sleep is important for memory transfer and that the way we use our digital devices and media can disrupt the type of sleep that supports memory. (Read this article to find out more about how sleep supports memory.)

Decoding and spelling can put high demands on memory, especially for students who have not yet mastered these skills to an automatic, effortless level.  It’s no wonder that parents tell us that their struggling student is exhausted after school!  Developing readers and spellers must juggle a lot of complex information, like:

  • letters names and what sounds they can represent (For example, the letter -a- can represent a number of sounds, as in bat, bar, bail, bay, about…)
  • how to write each letter correctly (for example, -d- versus -b-)
  • how neighboring sounds and letters relate to spelling and pronunciation (For example, -ck- is used only following a vowel)
  • how syllable patterns relate to pronouncing and spelling words (For example, the 2nd vowel sound in rabbit is spelled -i- but sounds like “uh”)
  • how to spell when adding a suffix (for example, bat→ batting)
  • how to read and spell common, old words that have unexpected patterns (for example,  said)
  • when to spell with capital letters and when not to
  • when and how to use punctuation      

And, of course, all this (and much more!) must be done fluently and automatically so there is memory capacity left over to process the meaning of words, sentences and paragraphs!

Practice is absolutely essential to developing expertise, but 2 hours of concentrated practice may be exhausting and not work as well as 15 -30 minutes a day of well-designed, “spaced out” practice.  In other words, to keep from spacing out the child, space out the practice!

Lexercise Structured Literacy Teletherapy is designed with a little practice everyday. Here is a Lexercise blog series with information about how well-designed practice supports memory and learning.

You can learn more about Lexercise Structured Literacy Teletherapy and even schedule a free 15-minute consultation with a Lexercise dyslexia therapist here.

Sight Word Practice Tips for Parents


Lots of the top 100 most frequently used words in English have at least one irregular spelling element.  These words are not only common words today but they are often words that have been around a long, long time. Words that are not perfectly phonetic (spelled the way they sound) are sometimes called “irregular” or “sight words”.  Even so, most irregular words also have some regular spelling patterns. While the irregular element(s) must be learned “by heart”,  the rest of the word can be sounded out as usual.

Ask your child to draw a heart around the letter(s) that make up the irregular spelling element.  said-sight-word

For example, in the word <said>, the <s> and the <d> can be sounded out but the <ai> vowel can not be. So, draw a heart around the <ai> and discuss that spelling element with your student. In the word <said> the “irregular” element is the vowel, and it sounds like a short <e>, but it is spelled <ai> !

To remember irregular spelling patterns it can help to create a mental image of the word. Use your mind’s whiteboard! Then connect that mental image to the word’s pronunciation and the printed word on the page.

Knowing a little about the word’s history can help, too. Many words that are phonetically irregular today are words that have been in English for centuries and that have changed over time.

history-998337_1280For example, the way we pronounce the vowel in the word <said> today is related to the way it was spelled before the year 900!  Back then this word was spelled with an <e>:  <seyen> or <seggen>. (I’m just saying…. the spelling of this word has changed over the centuries but the pronunciation of the vowel has not.) is a good source of information about word history. It has a section on the origin in every word entry. Here is the entry for <said>.

If you notice your child is having difficulty reading or remembering sight words it may you can screen them for dyslexia in 10-15 minutes for free here. 

Learning and Memory- What Works?: Practice Opportunities

What Works- #3 (4)

So far in this series about methods for improving learning and memory, I have covered two facts from consensus research:

  1. No one method works for all types of learning and memory. The best method depends on what needs to be learned and remembered.
  2. The most effective methods involve making some errors. Practice provides an opportunity to forget and remember again, strengthening memory.

Even if the right type of practice is provided, there must be enough of it. Whether preparing for a piano recital or a soccer match, a player would need to not only choose the right type of practice but also spend enough time with it. Could it be the difference in practice opportunities that makes one-on-one intervention so much more effective than group instruction? (Bloom, 1984)

What is enough practice and how can that be measured? We can use time to measure the amount of practice (for example 30 minutes of piano practice orYoung_boy_reading_manga soccer drills). But what if the player sits on the piano bench daydreaming and only plays a few notes? What if the soccer player hangs back during drills and rarely touches the ball? What if in a 30-minute reading intervention group a student daydreams, hangs back, and gets only a few practice opportunities?

A practice opportunity is really a chain of three elements:

  • the challenge (or question)
  • the response (or answer)
  • the feedback (right, wrong, or an invitation to think more about the challenge and response)

Reading intervention is typically set up based on seat time, not practice opportunities. While we know from research that the number of practice opportunities matters a lot for learning and memory, we don’t have good data regarding how many practice opportunities individual students typically get during reading intervention.

So here’s a challenge: Count your students’ practice opportunities. How many independent response challenges does he or she get per day (or per week) as part of their reading intervention? We’d love to hear what you find, please comment below!

How to Encourage Reading Practice!

Practice Makes Perfect

We’ve all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”, and in life we’ve all seen it’s truth. Neuroscience confirms that regular practice is a crucial component in learning a new skill. Lexercise uses online daily games and table-top activities to reinforce and master skills taught by a child’s clinical educator during their weekly 1 to 1 sessions.

By the time the majority of our students have started working with Lexercise they have experienced great obstacles and frustration in learning how to read. This can lead children to believe that their efforts are hopeless or that they aren’t smart, since their prior work did not give them the results they wanted. Lexercise Clinicians work with parents to re-motivate their child using our unique approach to practice, a critical components in learning how to read and write. Here are a few tips we’ve found in making ongoing practice more successful:

Explain to your child why practice is important

Look at this as brain training, NOT Lex_prescribed-practice_child-solo_illustrationhomework! First, the Lexercise program looks and feels different. We are not telling your child to read more, longer, faster…. this won’t work for a child with a language-based learning disability. The Structured Literacy method we use emphasizes mastery of skills where lessons AND practice are delivered systemically and intensively. This approach has been tested by the National Institutes for Health and is proven to work. What we are doing through our explicit instruction and practice is making connections in our brain’s language and literacy centers that were not as activated before. To “rewire” the brain, it takes a lot of deliberate practice, approximately 100 response challenges per day. Our customized online games and table-top activities give a child more than 100 response challenges a day.

Set a goal for daily/weekly practice- Plan for smaller more frequent practice!

Working with your child to set clear goals and expectations for practice help get their “buy in” since they are involved in the process. growthBy setting goals you and your child can work as a team to accomplish the goal, while modeling a very important skill, having a growth mindset. Working towards a jointly-set goal shifts the child’s thinking to a growth mindset where s/he thinks “I am going to practice so I can reach my practice goal which will help me become a stronger reader and writer,” instead of “Someone is making me do this.” Tracking practice using an incentive chart can help the child see his/her progress towards their goal. Plan for shorter, more frequent sessions (minimum of 4 times per week), versus longer sessions. This helps a child maintain attention, and get in the optimal “learning zone” (70%-90% accuracy).

Create a set time and space for practice to occur

Having a routine helps practice become a habit! Decide what time during the week works best for your child and family. Communicate this to everyone in the family so they are aware and can be supportive. It is important that there be a dedicated space for practice that is conducive to learning (quiet and distraction-free). Also, by having others know this set time, they can help give gentle reminders that it’s practice time when needed. It is also a good idea to figure out a system for table-top activities the parent leads. When will this occur? Who in the family will do the activities? Planning in advance for practice helps to make sure that it becomes a habit.

Immediately following practice, let the child do a preferred activity

Having a child complete practice first –before a preferred activity– gives a natural incentive. This could be before something that is regular occurrence such as: a meal, playing outside with friends, etc. Using a “first-then” statement can be helpful when communicating this. For example: “First complete your Lexercise games and 5 minutes of Whiteboard Spelling, then you can go outside and play with your friends.” It is important that immediately after the “first” task is completed they earn their preferred “then” activity. For younger students having a visual and setting a time can help to communicate these expectations.

Motivate your child during practice

hand-writing-mdVerbal praise and specific error correction goes a long way! Motivating with the end goal in mind is always helpful; we want to get to the point where your child is able to read and write with proficiency. Giving specific praise and feedback, helps them understand what it takes to train their brain to get there! When you see your child using the strategies taught in the session let them know by being very specific about what you saw (e.g. “I noticed when you got to that longer word, you broke the word down by its syllable type which made it more manageable.”). This reinforces the fact that looking at the structure of the word is more reliable than guessing. When a mistake is made, it is also important to give specific error correction so that they understand exactly why something is incorrect. During your weekly sessions your clinician will teach you exactly how to do this. Remember, verbal praise and specific and immediate feedback goes a long way!

Motivate your child after practice

star2Make time to review and celebrate the progress your child makes! It is so very important to celebrate your child’s success however large or small it may seem. Each portion of the deliberate practice we assign is one more step towards the goal of becoming and independent lifelong reader and writer. During our sessions you’ll see your clinician give online high-fives, count points for sentence dictation, and more! Our online game practice also tracks progress, through point goals. Each time a child plays they are able to see that progress is being made by watching their points increase. This point system is a means of encouraging repeated practice, with an emphasis on having an increase in accuracy and response time. You also may want to build in a specific individual motivation for your child. It could be a sticker chart for practicing games, rewards for reaching a point goal, etc.

Lexercise clinicians strive to help make each child’s practice as productive as possible. The best incentive to practice is when a child sees the progress he or she is making. This most often occurs when a child feels confident with their newly developed skills to pick up a book and read (without being told to!). Moments like that show us that all of the hard work and practice really is worthwhile.

Other Helpful Articles:

Daily practice: Won’t it get boring?

How to Encourage Daily, Structured Practice

How long should a child practice each day?

Parents Need To Know: Practice Works Wonders!

Alex’s Story

A guest post by Kim Murphy, Ph.D. in Education and M.Sc. in Speech-Language Pathology.

Last summer a parent contacted me, eager to find help for her son, Alex*, who was in Grade 8 and had trouble reading, spelling, and writing. Alex had previously received support at school. But now that he was getting decent grades, no one seemed concerned—except his parents, who saw how much he struggled and knew how much support they had to provide at home. His parents were eager to get him on track before he entered high school.

Alex’s mom had been given my name by a teacher who was familiar with my work before I moved away five years earlier. Reading is my specialty and I have worked with many kids like Alex. The mom tracked me down, hoping that I could help somehow; perhaps I knew someone to refer them to. I did not. But I was going back home for a vacation a few weeks later and offered to see Alex for an informal evaluation. Also, I had begun to use a brand new web-based therapy tool called Lexercise so maybe, I thought, I could do some therapy with him via the internet. Hmm.

I was hesitant but really wanted to help Alex. So, after our meeting, I proposed a plan to set him up on Lexercise for daily practice with his mom, whom I would train to be his coach as we went along, and Alex would have therapy with me whenever necessary via Skype. Alex’s mom jumped at this offer; she desperately wanted to help her son in any way she could.

That was the end of August and it is now the beginning of February, five months later. Alex has made tremendous progress. I saw him for a couple more traditional face-to-face therapy sessions in December when I was home again, but other than that everything has been accomplished over the internet. With his mom’s incredible support and effort, and the benefit of the Lexercise tool for daily practice, Alex has improved well beyond my expectations. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him! And of his mom, who spent so much time working with him. She wrote me a note to express her gratitude; it had me in tears.

During my most recent Skype session with Alex, I asked if his teachers had made any comments on his improved reading and spelling skills. Had they noticed? He said no, the only feedback he received recently was that he was applying himself more to his work, trying harder and seemed more motivated. They felt that he had “matured.” I asked Alex why he thought they were seeing these differences. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I just understand everything better now.” Wow! How powerful that is.

Of course Alex was applying himself more to his work and appearing more motivated. He could now read the material he was expected to learn! His mom added that “he has finally realized that reading can be pleasurable when you have the tools to help you.” Alex, who usually wears a teenage boy’s emotionless look, was grinning ear-to-ear during the entire session. He just couldn’t help himself. He was so proud.

So what started as a vague idea of how to help a boy many miles away has been a huge success. I am now even more excited about Lexercise and I can’t wait to help more kids who do not have the services they need in their area. This is the stuff that passion and drive are made of. I will never forget Alex’s smile that day, nor the pride and gratitude beaming from his mom.


If you are interested in connecting with one of our expert therapists, fill out this form for a free phone consultation.

*Alex’s name and identifying traits have been changed to protect his privacy.