Teachers for Teachers | Practicing Until it is “In Your Bones”
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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.





  • Kevin Hodgson
    Posted at 09:58h, 25 March Reply

    Your post reminded me of my years of learning the saxophone — hours spent with a piece of difficult music, trying to get it right and doing it over and over again. I had no idea that I had that kind of patience or perseverance, and wonder if many kids still find the time to dive in deep, struggle, grapple with the difficult. I think so, but I think they are being pulled away by other things, too.

    • Tammy and Clare
      Posted at 01:52h, 26 March Reply

      I know for me I expect things to come quickly and that is certainly not always the case. I think sometimes we are surprised by the amount of practice it takes to learn something well.


  • Henrietta
    Posted at 11:06h, 25 March Reply

    This is one of my favorites of your “Slice of Life” series – it applies to so many things that our children are learning – and for us adults too. A great reminder. Thanks

  • Fran
    Posted at 11:38h, 25 March Reply

    Great reminder that being able to “repeat back the strategy learning” does not mean that the student is yet able to USE it in practice or even independently. This is another reason why we must slow down and pay attention to what students ARE doing!

    • Tammy and Clare
      Posted at 01:54h, 26 March Reply

      Thanks Fran. I do find it interesting to compare what students say with what they can do. We learn so much from listening and watching.


  • Tara
    Posted at 22:51h, 25 March Reply

    Thank you for this, Tammy – so often we feel the need to rush to the next concept our curriculum dictates, before our kids have had enough time to practice, practice, practice – and gain confidence.

    • Tammy and Clare
      Posted at 01:55h, 26 March Reply

      Hi Tara,
      There is such a pressure to ‘keep up.” Yet, we know that sometimes we need to stay right where we are. This is such a hard balance in our profession.


  • Catherine
    Posted at 00:27h, 26 March Reply

    Such an important reminder! I thought about this today when I gave a student a book that I knew didn’t have too many challenges for him. But this was a conscious decision. I wanted him to have a chance pull his skills together, to practice them so they would “become part of his bones.”

    • Tammy and Clare
      Posted at 01:58h, 26 March Reply

      Thanks Catherine. I love the idea of giving students opportunities to “pull their skills together.” I want to remember that as i teach new strategies. We need to give time to incorporate what we have learned with what we already know.


  • Ramona
    Posted at 01:28h, 26 March Reply

    Lots of practice applying what is learned, until it becomes automatic – easy to forget this important step. I love the way you listened and watched the boys in action.

    • Tammy and Clare
      Posted at 02:00h, 26 March Reply

      Thanks Ramona. I think it is easy to forget because we already know how to do what we are teaching. Skiing has taught me a lot about what it means to learn something unfamiliar.


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