Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School
Types of Practice
“While children vary dramatically in what they know, they still share the same learning algorithms. Thus, the pedagogical tricks that work best with all children are also those that tend to be the most efficient for children with learning disabilities – they must be applied only with greater focus, patience, systematicity, and tolerance to error.”
Stanislas Dehaene (2020)
At Lifelong Literacy, we are realistic. We only get to see our students for about an hour a week. That’s one 168th of their lives. Every second in the session counts.
What also counts is what they do during the other 167 hours that they don’t see us. This is why we have to be well-informed about the concept of practice as it relates to learning.
In a school setting, practice is just as important, but from teacher feedback, my impression is that the science surrounding practice isn’t making it into teacher training. There is a whole field called the science of learning, a bit like the science of reading, where the findings of various scientific disciplines have converged on key points. It is not the purpose of this course to shed light on the entire field. I couldn’t if I wanted to, as I’m not a cognitive scientist. However, my job as an educator is to keep refining my techniques and to keep communicating about what works to the educators who come to me for training.
Let us then, look at types of practice that work and compare them to types of practice that don’t work. It starts with a definition: practice that works is practice that results in changes in long term memory. Changes in long term memory are also known as learning.
I can make short-term changes if I cram for an exam, memorise words for a spelling test on Friday, or repeat items on my shopping list until I’ve got them in my basket. But very little, if any, learning has taken place.
Whenever a new concept is developed (ideally by using Explicit Direct Instruction), educators can ensure that it is properly learned by having students practice in a variety of ways. Quality of practice determines quality of learning. We are going to look at three different types of practice that all enhance learning. Those are:
- Retrieval practice
- Interleaved practice
- Spaced practice
Definition: Bringing learned information to mind from long term memory
In a tutoring session we begin with a five-word mini-quiz of words previously taught or practised. The act of retrieval, even if the words are only partially memorised, strengthens connections associated with that word. Should any errors occur, those words are then used in writing practice during that session. This gives multiple bites of that so-called apple, and is an example of the next practice concept: interleaved practice.
Definition: Switching between ideas or problem types while studying
If students are:
- learning to spell the irregular past tense pattern <ough>,
- focusing on improving their letter formation and
- learning to use subordinating conjunctions,
a 45 minute lesson plan could look like this:
Block 1 – Introduce A, B, C
Block 2 – Practise B, A, C individually (changing order of revision is important)
Block 3 – Incorporate A, B, C in a dictation/composition exercise.
Each element was introduced, then practised in a different order, then put together.
Definition: “Having multiple opportunities to study or practise something at two distinct time points.” (Weinstein 2019)
This is a deliberate act of organising and sticking to times for practice of new concepts.
I see Ruby on a Monday afternoon. During our session, I introduce the spelling of could, would and should using the 4-step process. I then write in her notes the day and form her practice will take until I see her again. It goes something like this:
Tuesday – Watch the Nessy video on could would should.
Wednesday – Use could in a statement and write it down.
Thursday – Use would in a question and write it down.
Friday – Use should in an imperative sentence and write it down.
Saturday – Write this sentence from dictation and edit: “If my dog could find his bone, he would, but should he?”
Sunday – Do NO practice. I want to see how much of it you have learned when we meet on Monday.
So I get Ruby to space out her revision of these words in manageable chunks. I didn’t know about this for a long time. I used to accept it when children did their homework in the car on the way to my lessons. Not anymore!
The chart below is an example of a practice chart for homework. A blank one follows with room for several concepts. Upload it and write one out for one of your students (or one of your classes), keeping in mind the principles of practice, then share it.
In the video below, superstar Bentleigh West teacher, David Morkunas, demonstrates interleaved practice. Enjoy!