Using Deliberate Practice to Increase Proficiency

If you want all of your students to become proficient or advanced readers, it will take hard work and a new understanding of what is effective in the classroom. In fact, it will take something called “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice, says Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, a Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, is what experts in every field engage in to arrive at mastery: golf experts, chess experts, track stars, musicians, and so on. Deliberate practice is intelligent, challenging work that is inherently not enjoyable.

Helping your students get good at reading is about pushing their practice beyond the comfort zone. For Riggs teachers, this does not mean having them read the same phonograms over and over again; it means showing your students how to practice scientifcally so they can accomplish something in particular during each practice session (like using a series of one-minute timed writing and reading sessions while practicing  phonograms, working hard to improve daily speed scores).

Let’s face it, students can work on phonics and word-identification skills day after day, but if they aren’t intensely focused on doing specific things better each time, they probably won't improve much.

If you want your students to become proficient and advanced readers, you need to expand their abilities by putting their bodies and brains through something that resembles an ongoing literacy boot camp.

Only by practicing with purpose and (a little) pain will your students learn to read and write proficiently.

Deliberate practice means practicing with purpose. It’s a phrase that was coined by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who did landmark research on how humans attain mastery in a variety of pursuits. What he found was that all masters become masters by doing real work that requires them to engage in challenging activities that are designed to improve their performance and provide them with useful feedback.

According to Ericsson, the bottom-line finding from 30 years of scientific research into great performance in every field supports this thesis, and every top performer arrives at excellence through such deliberate practice.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no reading gene. All children come into the world with the same inborn ability to become proficient or advanced readers. Those who are currently behind in reading do not need an earlier head start, wealthier parents, English speaking parents, more literate homes, or more innate talent before they can excel. What they need is more hours of deliberate practice. But what is deliberate practice, and how does it look? Here are some basic principles.

Deliberate Practice Should be Personalized

Only you know what each child needs to work on in each given area. Can Johnny read all 71 of the Riggs Institute’s phonograms quickly and accurately? If not, have him practice doing that--daily--until he can read them automatically and at a proficient pace. Can Julie write her letters easily and with excellence, touching agreed upon checkpoints in a minimum amount of time? If not, set aside a daily period for such practice. Why? Because studies have repeatedly shown that practice that aims at remedying weaknesses is a great predictor of future expertise. Can Joaquin spell all of the words on the upcoming test? If not, have him practice writing and saying these words (using Riggs’ multi-sensory practice techniques) daily until they’ve been mastered. Deliberate practice means finding the specific areas in which each child needs to improve, then helping children focus on those drills which will help them to improve.

Deliberate Practice Should Push Students Just Beyond Their Abilities

If your students know their basic phonograms and understand that words are made of sounds, that doesn’t mean they should start reading from books. Attempting to do that will only cause frustration. Teach them to spell and read commonly-used words first, and have them practice spelling and reading them until fluency levels have been reached. As soon they can easily write and read the words, have them start working on sentences. Asking students (of any skill) to work just beyond their abilities will keep them growing, but having them work far beyond them may not. Make every task challenging yet achievable.

Deliberate Practice Must be Repeated at High Volume

Having students write and read isolated phonograms a few times per day is not deliberate practice. The best performers in every area repeat their practice until the skill has become automatic (i.e., fluent). How have you been doing with this one? Are you having your students work on timed readings and writings to established fluent behavior rates?

Deliberate Practice Requires Sound Feedback

Your students can’t improve unless they know how they are doing. Providing them with opportunities to receive continual, specific feedback about their daily practice will help them correct mistakes (which they may not even realize they are making). Without it, they may not improve.

Are you collecting daily spelling tests immediately along with each student's Spelling Notebook? Are you putting a check mark next to every missed word in the Spelling Notebook and returning it to your students so they can see what has not yet been mastered? (See page 141 in the Level I Riggs text.)

Are your students deliberately practicing their penmanship skills on a daily basis? (If not, they should be.) If so, are you having them “cancel” (draw a line through) any letter which do not touch the established checkpoints. (See pages 75-91 in The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading Thinking for detailed instructions on teaching and assessing basic penmanship skills with the use of objectively identifiable reference points.) Teach students how to give themselves feedback so they can practice more deliberately.

Having students go through the hard mental work of fixing their weaknesses will help them improve much more quickly than will simply focusing on their strengths. For students who have been struggling for years, it is extremely liberating to discover that hard, smart practice will lead to huge improvements.

To learn more about deliberate practice, see the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking by Myrna McCulloch. It contains 160 lessons for putting deliberate practice into practice for beginning and remedial readers.

By Stephanie Ruston

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