3 ways to help your child learn to read better in less time
by Lydia Cockburn and Laura Gordon || 27 Nov 2018
On average, children spend 7475 hours in the classroom throughout their primary and lower secondary education, and much of that time is spent on reading. In our experience, most children can crack reading in about 15 hours with the right instruction method.
Reading is one of the most valuable and crucial skills to learn in your childhood years, but with long sessions at school and at home, an awful lot of time is put in, which may not actually be necessary for achieving good outcomes.
When helping your child learn to read at home, you can reduce the time spent on reading practice, while actually improving outcomes — and making it more fun.
1. Keep it short: the brain can only focus intensively for a short burst of time
Have you ever sat through an hour-long lecture and come out feeling completely dumbfounded, with no idea what you just learnt? Alternately, have you ever spent an afternoon working on a particularly draining task, only to discover that you’re too tired to think about even simple things later in the day?
You’re not alone!
What is more, this is actually a completely natural response. Our attention is a finite resource. There is a limit to the amount of attention we can devote to any single task. When we push ourselves to focus for too long, the result can diminish our ability to learn. It can also leave us feeling braindead and exhausted.
In children, attention spans are even shorter. It is commonly acknowledged that children can attend to a cognitively demanding task for about 10-15 minutes. Short learning sessions make the most of a child’s limited attention span, ensuring that no time is wasted.
It’s also, quite simply, a lot more enjoyable for the learner! As a result, the child remains motivated to come back the next day for more.
Another advantage of this approach is a practical one: people find it much easier to set aside, say, 10 minutes per day, than half an hour.
2. Space it out: we learn better over days and weeks
One phenomenon that has frequently been observed in studies on how adults and children learn is that spreading sessions out over time enhances learning. This is known as the spacing effect.
As Alan Baddely explains in Human Memory: Theory and Practice, we learn skills better when we practice them for short periods of time, spread across many days. Baddeley first discovered this “spacing effect” in 1978, when he did a study on post officers who were learning to type. While some post officers completed 15-minute typing sessions over a period of weeks and months, others crammed in longer lessons over a much shorter period of time. Although both groups completed the same amount of practice time in the end, the post officers who did the shorter lessons saw bigger gains and they also sustained their gains for longer periods of time.
There’s evidence that this principle holds true for reading education, too. When Jonathan Solity and his peers designed the 6-year, Early Reading Research project, they chose to test whether Baddely’s spacing effect applied to literacy. Instead of the traditional hour-long reading intervention, they chose a 15-minute program that happened at least 3 or 4 times a week.
Although the program they designed seemed too short to make a difference, it actually outperformed the traditional intervention. The project’s success underscores the benefits of spreading reading practice out in short, regular lessons.
Short, daily reading lessons are an excellent way to help children achieve the spacing effect because what you might usually treat as, say, a weekly one-hour session can easily be split into four smaller parts and spread throughout the week.
With reading practice, we find that daily sessions produce the best results. Children who do less tend to see slower progress, while children who do more can become bored or resistant to the lesson routine.
3. Mix it up: variety is the spice of life (and also an effective learning strategy)
If you’ve ever done the same yoga workout or dance routine for a month, then you know that even the best exercise can become boring if you don’t change it up from time to time. The same thing is true for reading practice. The best way to keep reading practice fun and exciting is by mixing it up and offering plenty of variety.
However, variety does more than just make lessons fun. It can also significantly improve learning outcomes. The secret is to make sure that each lesson challenges a child to work on a variety of different skills, or at least on different aspects of one skill. In the education world, this practice of weaving different skills together in a lesson is called “interleaving”.
In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel explain how interleaving leads to much better long-term retention than simply repeating the same skill over again. The finding is backed up by a number of fascinating studies.
For instance, one of the earliest and silliest studies on interleaving compared two groups of 8-year-olds who were tasked with throwing beanbags into a bucket. One group of children consistently threw their beanbags into a bucket 3-feet away. The other group switched between two buckets – one was two feet away and one was four feet away. After several weeks of doing this, they were all tested on their performance at throwing the beanbag into a bucket at the three-foot distance. Those who had been switching between two-foot and four-foot distances performed much better, even though they had never tried the distance on which they were tested.
Brown and colleagues argue that this type of interleaving is broadly applicable across a wide range of subjects, from on-the-job learning to college football tactics. When we take on different challenges during our practice, we make bigger gains.
So what do interleaving skills look like in reading education?
In the case of phonetic lessons, it means that you should avoid focusing on a single sound combination for long periods of time. Instead, present a child with a variety of graphemes or vowel combinations to practice, such as /ea/, /ie/, and /ou/. The mix of different sounds will speed up their mastery of phonetic patterns.
You can also use interleaving to work on different aspects of literacy at home. You might start with some phonemic awareness games, then move onto some individual word decoding or nonsense words, followed by some book reading. Lots of variety not only boosts learning, but it also makes the session more enjoyable for the child, increasing their willingness to engage in future practice.
So – good news! You can keep reading sessions short, you can spread them out, and you can keep them varied, all guilt-free. It actually gets the fastest progress.
Laura Gordon was a lecturer in English literature at the University of Maryland and editor for Public Health. She is a mother of two children and is now an Easyread System Manager for David Morgan Education, supporting children and their parents on the journey to confident reading and writing.