Drill and Practice? Yes! But Teach the Skill First!

In a previous post, I’ve emphasized the importance of drill and practice games to solidify a skill.  However, while watching my youngest granddaughter at a tennis lesson last week, I realized I needed to back up.  After a warm-up and a few hits each, they started into a 30 minute ‘game’ situation with 7 – 8 kids on the court all going after one ball.   This led to more standing around than hitting for most children.    At 5 years old, Blair swings and misses more often than not so when the ball finally got to her she missed and was ‘out’.  When the same thing happened to the next child, Blair returned to the game, only to repeat the same scenario and was ‘out’ again.   She was soon reduced to tears!

As I sat there watching, I realized that there was absolutely no value in doing a drill and practice game when the skill had not yet been taught AND  internalized by the child.   Blair needed someone feeding her tennis balls so she could develop the eye-hand coordination necessary to make contact with the ball.  Putting her into a ‘game’ situation before this was established has only served to frustrate her.

The same situation can happen in reading if children are not taught the skills.  Barbara Wilson of the Wilson Language Training Institute had identified the 4 levels necessary to develop reading comprehension:

1.  Accuracy involves the direct teach of sound-symbol relationships, blending and segmenting, syllable structure, word parts and irregular words

2.  Automaticity relates to accurate and speedy word recognition, developed through repeated practice using controlled and non-controlled decodable text

3.  Fluency is reading connected text with expression, with more emphasis on non-controlled decodable text and enriched text

4.  Comprehension is the resulting skill of reading for understanding, acquisition of information and enjoyment

(adapted from:  How to Develop Automaticity, Fluency and Comprehension:  Three Keys to a Student’s Success – a presentation at the 2003 International Dyslexia Association by Barbara Wilson)

Whether we are teaching tennis or reading, it is imperative that the skills be taught (Accuracy) before we start practicing them.  On the tennis court, steps 1 and 2 had been brushed over, with children expected to understand some of the dynamics of court play, as well as how to hit the ball without adequate teaching.  In the classroom, teachers usually teach the skills (Accuracy) well, but because of the curriculum expectations, step 2 is often overlooked due to time constraints and children are immediately taken to text when they still need practice at the word level to become automatic.    This is especially problematic for our at-risk students who typically take longer than usual to internalize a skill.

I can hear your question – how am I going to manage that in a classroom with so many divergent needs?  In my school, I organized and ran a volunteer reading program.  Many of my volunteers were seniors – a win-win for everyone!  Our volunteers worked with individual students using the Itchy’s Alphabet Accuracy and Automaticity Drills.  Each day, they would review difficult words from the previous day, do a 1-minute timed drill and record progress on the student graph sheet.  They might also do a sight word drill page as well to ensure those important skills were being developed as well.  My classroom teachers valued this program – the students were only gone from the class for a short time and they were able to focus on the specific skills each child needed (eg one student might be doing the short vowel pages while another would be working on the magic-e rule).  The students loved seeing themselves progress.

If a volunteer program isn’t workable at your school there are other ways to utilize the drill sheets.  My Grade 1 teacher used to put them up on the overhead projector (now the SMARTBoard) and do the sheets as a group drill.  She would position herself near the at-risk students to monitor their progress.

These materials are great to photocopy and send home for parents.  I found parents enjoyed using the drill sheets as they were very quick to do and they could see their child’s progress using the graph chart.  There are detailed instructions in the packages and training is quick and easy.

Another option is to train capable older students.  Some high school students may be interested if they have a community service component in their program.

Hopefully one of these options will work for you and your students can develop the automaticity skills they need to become proficient readers.

Now, to get out my tennis racquet and do automaticity tennis drills with Blair!

Link to Accuracy and Automaticity Drills:  https://www.itchysalphabet.com/blackline_sets.php  Scroll down to Sets 8, 9 and 10