25 Mar Practicing Until it is “In Your Bones”
Everyone in my house loves to snowboard. My husband taught our two children when they were very young and now, at ages 17 and 14, they soar down the mountain with confidence. Downhill skiing doesn’t feel like that for me. (I’m not even going to try snowboarding J) Over the years I have taken several lessons but I am still not completely comfortable with the sport. As I ski down the mountain I find myself repeating my instructor’s words in my head as I navigate a steep part of the hill. “Remember to bend your knees, open up your body, and tap your pole as you are heading into a turn.” Sometimes when I focus on bending my knees I forget about my poles. Sometimes I even say to myself, “Now what did that teacher tell me to do?” For me, skiing isn’t automatic – or as I would say, “it isn’t in my bones yet.”
Right now I don’t need to learn any new skiing techniques. What I need is lots of practice applying what I have already learned – skiing again and again on different hills and on different weekends. I think for some of our students learning new reading strategies can feel the same way. They know what to do, but the strategy isn’t automatic. As they read and try to apply what they learned they still need to pay attention to when and how to use the strategy. It can be puzzling as a teacher because they seem to know how to do this work in one context or when we are sitting next to them, but when they are reading on their own they seem to forget what they have learned.
Last week, when a teacher and I met with a small group of boys who were having difficulty solving multisyllabic words, the importance of practicing became clear. In order to understand what the boys knew about solving words the teacher and I asked, “We know you have been learning about syllables in words and how to use syllables to read longer words. When you are reading and you come to one of those words, what do you do?” As they turned and talked to their partner we listened.
– “I break the word into syllables.”
– “Each time your mouth closes it is a syllable.”
– “ir”, “er” and “or” are a kind of syllable.”
– “Silent e is a syllable.”
Next we said, “Let us watch you use what you know about syllables to solve some words that are in your books and perhaps we can learn ways to make this a bit easier.” As we watched and took notes, we noticed that when the boys came to an unfamiliar word they looked at the first and last letters and inserted a word that began and ended the same way.
Listening to what these boys had to say and watching them in action gave us a window into their thinking process. Even though they knew a few things about syllable types, they didn’t know how to use this knowledge as they were reading.
“Let’s figure out as a group how to use what you know about syllables to help us solve words as we are reading. Using what we know about syllables and the meaning of the text can make solving long words a lot easier.”
The boys found multisyllabic words in their own books and we talked through how syllable types help us break words into parts. Over and over again, they read, solved words and reread to make sure that the word made sense in the context or the story. In the group they read quietly and continued practicing solving words while they were reading.
It is not that these readers haven’t been taught this strategy, they have. It is just that they needed to practice again and again in the midst of reading their books. They need to do the same thing in many books, over many days and weeks until these new skills become automatic. The new strategy “just isn’t in their bones yet.” These boys still need small group instruction but they don’t need to learn something new. They just need to keep practicing until the skill becomes automatic – “it becomes part of their bones.” Just like me, I need to put the skis on and ski down again and again.