Making Drill and Practice More Pleasant

Posted on March 3, 2016


Yes, I’m allowing myself 15 minutes to answer this part of the MOOC question.   (Then adding bits and pieces…)

When I started at The New Community School, I wasn’t a big fan of “repetition, repetition and drill, drill, drill.”    However, my ‘radicalization’ in that direction had already begun.  Teaching middle school LD kiddos in Virginia, I had realized that they’d gotten to seventh grade without knowing what “sounding out” a word meant, whatsoever.  They could tell me the initial letter’s sound, but … that was it.   Oh, and they couldn’t read well at all.

Now, I know the difference between correlation & cause/effect, so I read a few dozena rticles about whole language and phonics and decided it was worth trying to teach them some phonics.   I acquired SRA’s Corrective Reading.

Oh, my.   Utterly, completely scripted.   Miss Jones is not a scripted girl.   However, I also know the difference between using something as prescribed and pretending to, so I decided to try it exactly as presented.   The accuracy standards were really high, IMHO, but … I stuck with them.

I realized that it was strikingly similar to leading a chorus.   You make a mistake?  You correct it and practice it until the right way is automatic.

The stuff worked.   My kiddos who’d gotten to seventh grade reading at second & third grade levels pretty much all gained at least a full year.   No miracles – but hey, I was a brand new teacher, too.

So… back to TNCS.  Naw, back to the quesiton at hand.

First thing about making drill more pleasant is to make sure it’s the right drill for the student.  Persistent struggling readers are pretty uncommon — so a good psychoeducational evaluation is in order.

Check out this little comic:    If Riding a Bike Were Like Most Learning

Secondly, every bit as important:  Student needs to understand why they’re doing things.   Okay, don’t bore them to *death* with that, but building trust that there’s reason to believe that this will work (even for that student!) — *and*  respectful listening to your input all along the way — is critical.

It might be possible to design an intelligent listener to diagnose reading error types, but the persistent strugglers are almost certainly going to have negative associations with prepackaged things on computers that weren’t designed  with them in mind. I just doubt technology can be compassionate enough for this part.

The actual drill, now:

Are we talking lots of money for individualized help, or stuff an adult ed teacher trying to help a fellow human could afford?

Either way:
If it isn’t easy and really, really close to automatic, then it isn’t drill.

From my website ( ) :

“It took several years of experience, watching the progress of lots of kids, for me to realize just how deeply I had underestimated the benefit of frequent review and drill. For kids for whom language comes naturally, so much of what they’re asked to do *is* easy review. When a spelling list comes out, they know more than half the words already, so they’re getting review for those words. Your struggling student, on the other hand, never gets that review. It’s so easy to want to finish the unit that we don’t make time for review, and we don’t take the time for mastery. We “expose” the kid to the knowledge, have him show he understands and can do it right then, and move on. However, if you were talked through landing an airplane, would you expect to be able to hop on one and do it again six months later?”

This is what we set up our learners for.   No wonder they decide they’re stupid.

I also happened to be the number cruncher at The New Community School, tallying students’ test scores and progress from year to year.   To my surprise… every flipping year… the most “boring,” methodical, no, we always do all the drill no matter how smart the student is teachers… had the best results.

We can use technology to make it more manageable — speech recognition software can mean a student can do those flashcards without a 1:1 tutor, and note error patterns — but, again, if it’s not pretty much error-free, it’s not drill. It’s practice.

And, of course… the “repetition, repetition and drill, drill, drill” parts of learning lend themselves most to gamification.  Game design is a course in itself — but there are already some out there that incorporate making the sound-to-symbol connections.  Is Earobics still out there?   We could personalize that (and I don’t know if they still have an older-student version)  and bring it up to date and make it the next Candy Crush.

Our game could show specific kinds of progress, too, as well as the seductive Points and Levels.

Read, WRite and Type is another option for connecting motor skills to phonemic awareness — it teaches typing via sounds of letters.   It could be adapted so it was less dependent on those elusive fine motor skills that typing requires.

***However*** — the games have to be designed for the individual learner based on that psychoeducational stuff.   A human can create drill sets and activities that are based on individual needs, and individual interests.   One of my kiddos would make every single drawing example using vocabulary something that included police and doughnuts.   Every single one 😉

We can also get ‘way more creative with technology to find just where in the neurology the cognitive overload is kicking in.

These “persistent’ people will benefit from a variety of activities built around the structure of the language, but a consistent variety.   Figuring out the directions robs an awful lot of cognitive energy from the actual learning task.

Technology could help with giving a tutor instant searchable access to the examples that fit, precisely, the syllable pattern being learned.   (I made a pretty extensive binder of them with my Franklin Speller —  — it could be digitized…)  Drill is a lot more interesting if you use a variety of words.

Tech can go a *long* way towards removing barriers and honing in on the reading, too.   ADHD?   Include the “random monitoring” tech that whoever that was at the U. of Virginia designed.   Motor issues?   Use assistive tech for that.

Finally, most importantly, the repetition and drill part has to be connected with the rest of reading.   Our lessons included daily oral reading from student’s choice of materials, with other comprehension building activities (and that was my other mostest favoritest part of the job — learning that comprehension *can* be built, not just practiced).   Learning to read in phrases, practicing language generation using them (“Joice saw ____(what?)____ at the soccer game?  Can you fill in the blank with (appropriate for the student number) different phrases?  Stuck?   Close your eyes and visualize it… think of big things and small things…”        )   Students learned to organize words into logical groups, and separate category names from examples of that category (again, with content geared to the individual needs and interests).  I could imagine developing technology so that a tutor would have a huge data pool of possibilities, and

In my experience, students stopped finding drill and practice unpleasant when they could see that it was helping and that they were learning to read. Using a combination of human expertise and technology, we can make that happen more often.


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