I fondly recall my efforts as an elementary school student to master the accordion and later the trumpet.  I was a little better at the latter, but eventually turned my attention to running instead of the high school band.  Learning to play a musical instrument may have changed in the modern world, but the tried and true method when I took lessons looked a bit like the following.  I took a regularly scheduled half-hour lesson once a week and was expected to practice daily between my lessons.  The teacher gave me particular skills to work on between sessions.  For the beginners, the practice time was fairly brief, about 15 minutes a day.  As you moved closer to mastery of the instrument, the expectation for practice went up considerably, to as much as an hour or more per day.  "Practice Makes Perfect."

But what if piano teachers, for example, had the benefit of modern pedagogical techniques in the teaching of reading available to them.  Here's how it might look.  Johnny's parents employ a piano teacher to give their 2nd grader some lessons.  Johnny really doesn't like the piano as much as his Play Station and manages to avoid all but the most minimal of practice between lessons.  Armed with modern learning theory, based on cognitive research, the teacher advises Johnny's parents that what he really needs is daily lessons, to which they readily agree.  After all, this is based on the latest research.  So, now Johnny has nothing but daily half-hour lessons.  His parents are encouraged at first, as Johnny does seem to progress in his ability to play the piano.  His piano teacher demonstrates the new techniques he is employing with Johnny for his parents.  Johnny plays a couple of measures and the teacher asks him to stop.  He then asks him how those notes make him feel?  He next asks where Johnny thinks the piece of music is headed.  Johnny doesn't have a clue.  The teacher then demonstrates what he calls a "play along."  Johnny sits next to the teacher as the teacher plays a bit of music and shares how it makes him feel.  He plays steadily more difficult pieces for Johnny, culminating with an etude by Chopin.  Johnny is dazzled and really motivated to play the piano now, but his own playing is halting and filled with mistakes.

So, this is an absurd example.  But what if we turned it around?  What if the reading teacher borrowed the tried and true method of teaching a musical instrument.  There is certainly much in  common between learning to play a musical instrument and learning to read.  Both are very difficult at first, except for the truly gifted.  Neither activity becomes especially pleasurable until a certain level of automaticity is achieved.  Once the activity begins to become automatic, the brain becomes freed to think about and enjoy the music one plays and also to begin to understand what the author has written.

Piano teachers know the value of automaticity.  They also know that even after the activity becomes automatic, the skill level rises only with hundreds of hours of practice.  They also know that the skill a player brings to the instrument, and the enjoyment he derives from it, increase over the course of a lifetime.  The more you play the instrument the better you get at it and the more you like the activity.  

Most reading teachers inadvertently work against automaticity. They spend an inordinate amount of time on oral reading.  Only silent reading promotes automaticity.  When students do not understand what they read, teachers slow them down, pause the reading, ask comprehension questions, and require students to guess where a text is going?  


When a student says, "I just read a paragraph, or a page, and I have no idea what I just read," this is a time to celebrate.  This student is demonstrating the first signs of becoming an automatic reader.  Can you calculate what an incredible cognitive challenge it is for anyone to truly read a passage while their mind is thinking about something else?  We have all done it, to our great frustration, and it only demonstrates the automatic level we have achieved in our own reading.  Students should be encouraged to practice, practice, practice, to increase their fluency by endless hours of practice.  Once automaticity has been achieved and the mind freed to think, it can be turned back toward the text and focused on comprehension.  Automaticity precedes comprehension.  Piano teachers have always known this.

The Common Core Standards envision a student at the end of this process, one who can read silently and independently ever increasingly complex text, to the point where he is ready for college and career.
6/24/2012

Interesting information on this blog, thanks

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