It’s a commonly held belief that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to master any given skill, but this oversimplification leaves many variables unconsidered. Take for example the ability to read fluently. For students learning to read, practice is essential to developing fluency, but the number of hours needed, as well as the quality and type of practice, may vary greatly depending on the student’s individual needs. In this year’s Spotlight on Dyslexia literacy experts, Jennifer Ferlito, Sheryl Ferlito, and Nancy Chapel Eberhardt, discussed their research with the Learning Ally community, and taught us how to perform more meaningful reading practice.
“We want to broaden our idea of what reading practice looks like,” Nancy Eberhardt began her session. At the heart of their research is reimagining what reading practice is – one that sets it apart from instruction time, and apart from infamous ‘drill-and-kill’ strategies. She says, “It isn’t necessarily going through flashcards. It is trying to present new or known information in novel situations to build those transfer bridges.”
Reading with Automaticity
Their research identifies the unique ability that practice has to contextualize learned information. Jennifer Ferlito explains, “Practice makes learning stick. We move from what we’ve learned from short-term memory (where we have to constantly think about it), to long- term memory (where we can actually use it).” This ‘stickiness’ allows students to access learned information as their own knowledge, even when facing new and challenging situations. The more a new idea is reinforced with practice, the more easily our brain can perform that task unconsciously. The researchers call this “Automaticity.”
If something is automatic, it clears up brain space for other thoughts and functions. Furthermore, automaticity is important for performing a mental task as complicated as reading. “As we move from pre-alphabetic to consolidated, there’s something new and different that has to become automatic for us,” shares Sheryl Ferlito. In order to truly develop reading fluency, students need the brain space to decode, understand, and analyze a text all at once.
Space Reading Practice Throughout the Class or Day
So what can you do to improve the effectiveness of your reading class practice time? Spacing practice time out is important,” shares Sheryl Ferlito. “Practice has to be cumulative.” The researchers also emphasize the importance of integrating reading practice with a cumulative scope and sequence. For example, systematic phonics practice can be easily divided and organized based on the use of the most commonly used sounds.
Scope and Sequence - Connecting Patterns in our Brains
Jennifer Ferlito says, “Scope and sequence contributes to well distributed practice. It can be parsed out into small amounts of content. “These small doses make it possible [for students] to reach mastery before we add another dose [of instruction]. Our brains are pattern connectors. Having kids sort with patterns and meanings helps to bring automatic, semantic understanding.”
During the session, Jennifer Ferlito demonstrated sorting games using morphological meanings such as ‘singular vs. plural’ and ‘plural vs. possessive’, and games using computer-assisted instruction: a tool the researchers encouraged, noting how computer programs can increase the opportunity for student response and monitoring.
Dr. Maryanne Wolf says “Some of our children need not 10 exposures, but a hundred exposures. That’s not drill and that’s certainly not kill. That is supporting children who need that time.”
I Do, We Do, You Do
Using practice methods like computer-assisted learning which monitor students’ progress can be one of the best resources for determining just how much practice each individual reader needs. Ferlito, Ferlito, and Eberhardt are fighting the stigma that repetition has to be redundant. A great rule of thumb to help to guide your practice planning is “I do, we do, you do” a phrase coined by educational consultant Anita Archer. “If they don’t retain it,” says Archer, “We have not taught it”.
Learn more about Learning Ally’s Spotlight Series
Article by: Michael Manzi. Michael was a struggling reader. Now, he writes articles and blogs to promote research-backed literacy interventions for students across the education spectrum.