Sarah Singleton on precision teaching for accelerating learning.

Precision teaching is a research-based intervention often highly recommended by educational psychologists and specialist teachers to help young people learn basic skills to fluency. It is a form of retrieval practice. In particular, it is great for those struggling to read sight words, be they high frequency words or common exception words. 

It is particularly useful as it helps you to set achievable targets for learners who have been identified as having gaps in their learning or who need of a boost and, for example, for those children who have plateaued with phonics at the digraph stage: those who are fine with initial letter sound blending, but for whom noticing digraphs is more problematic.

In order to become a fluent reader or writer or mathematician, it is useful for young people to be able to retrieve phonemes (initial letters, digraphs), sight words and number facts with quick recall. This is termed ‘automaticity’—so quick we don’t have to think about it. However, this can be problematic for many neurodiverse learners with memory difficulties as part of their profile, both in the storage and retrieval of information. 

Stage one: precision teaching is rooted in the theoretical model of learning that is often represented as a pyramid, as the learner starts at the bottom, acquiring the skill or knowledge. This can be told, shown and modelled, and it doesn’t always take that long to learn.

Fluency stage: this is the ‘practice makes perfect’ stage, and may take longer. It’s where the learner may need to repeat the item many times until it is established in their long term memory. 

Maintenance stage: this is the ‘use it or lose it’ stage. For many learners, once content is in the long term memory, it will remain there. Maintenance of the skill or knowledge may drop out of long-term memory, requiring regular maintenance for it to remain there for quick retrieval. 

Generalising and adapting stage: without skills learnt to automaticity, it is much harder for them to generalise or adapt. That’s where precision teaching comes in. 

As an intervention, precision teaching is a highly effective use of resources, as the impact for the time spent on it is high; even a few minutes per day of timed practice can often eliminate significant learning problems. It can be used with a child at any stage, and it can support most curriculum areas. It is a daily intervention to be delivered individually, taking eight to ten minutes. There are three parts to a session. A baseline assessment of the child’s learning in the area selected is carried out. This identifies the items already known to automaticity (maintenance items), items known but not yet to automaticity, ones which may take longer to retrieve (fluency items) and the items not known (new items). 

There needs to be a mixture of these so that the child’s self esteem is raised by seeing familiar maintenance items. So, for example, two maintenance items and one fluency item. One new item is a good rule of thumb to start with, ensuring the child gets at least 50% correct. 

In part 1, the skill is taught. Games can be great for sight words, phoneme or grapheme correspondence or number facts as they engage the learner, who might be disengaged from learning. (3 to 4 minutes). 

In part 2, the learner reads the items on a probe sheet (this has been prepared in advance—it has the same items regularly repeated). The learner is given 1 minute to read as many items as they can. The adult makes a note of how many are correct and how many errors are made in the minute. 

In part 3, the adult, alongside the learner, plots the number of correct items and the number or errors on a record sheet (line graph). This enables the learner to see the progress they are making as we know immediate feedback helps build self-esteem. We are looking for the learner to see an upwards trajectory on the line graph for the correct items. 

The same items are taught each day, and the probe sheet is repeated each day until the child gets 90% or more correct over three consecutive days. Some suggest this should be 100%, but if 90% is used as a marker, the items not achieved can become ‘fluency’ words on the next probe sheet and the learner gets the sense of achievement that they are making progress. 

What is amazing about precision teaching is that the learner’s confidence begins to soar as they see evidence of the success they are having. Success builds success, and learning accelerates as a consequence. Anxiety is reduced and the learner is able to access cognition. 

Sarah Singleton

Sarah Singleton is a Level 7 (Dyslexia) Specialist Teacher with over 30 years of teaching experience. She was an advisory teacher in mainstream schools for 12 years and is now an independent consultant, Director of SEND Station Ltd and The EDucation Detective.


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