Recently, I was traveling to a friend’s house who had just moved to a beautiful home in a newly developed area. I was excited to see her, and despite having been there once before, I plugged the address into Waze because of my directional deficits. Perhaps due to my excitement, I failed to remember that the GPS directions were incorrect, as sometimes happens in areas of new construction. The rerouting took me on an additional 15-minute scenic detour. UGH! I was so frustrated with myself. I did this last time! How did I not learn from my mistake? After I calmed down and got back on the correct road, I started thinking about mistakes in general and specifically those that occur with our students with dyslexia during academic therapy.
We learn from our mistakes. Practice makes perfect. Making mistakes means you’re learning faster. But…what if…we didn’t learn from our mistakes, only perfect practice makes perfect, and making mistakes is only slowing you down?
Down the rabbit hole I plunged.
As trained Academic Language Therapists, we have heard the term ‘errorless learning’ in reference to working with our students. We are always striving to build new neural pathways, but we often see repeated errors even after explicit instruction. Those tricky articles— a, an, the—often get skipped or changed. Suffixes are ignored, whole words are changed with the exception of the first and last letter. The reasons for these errors are certainly complex and difficult to correct, but understanding what is happening in the brain when making errors can help us be more successful in remediation.
When a student is reading out loud to me, I will often see a slight pause or hesitation when approaching an unfamiliar word. If the student takes the time to decode the word using the tools they have been given, they will correctly read the word and move on to the next word. That slight hesitation or pause is the really important activity I want my student to attend to, recognize and take action. The 1970s psychologist Patrick Rabbitt of the University of Manchester in England conducted a study in which he observed that typing mis-strikes (think old school typewriter)—the typer used slightly less keyboard pressure than when typing the correct strokes. It was concluded that the typer, at the last second, recognized there might be an error and attempted to hold back. I feel this when I’m typing quickly. I can feel the mistake before I see the mistake. The process appears to be regulated by the medial frontal cortex. According to imaging studies, there is an observed elevation in neural activity within this region, particularly preceding a slowing down following an action error.
We can almost attribute some reading errors to a type of confirmation bias. As Professor Pragya Agarwal discusses in her book, "Sway: Unraveling Unconscious Bias," it takes a lot of cognitive effort to change the mistakes that are scripted in our brains. As we see so often with the compensatory strategies our students develop, these shortcuts are deeply embedded and difficult to unravel. But I’m jumping ahead by discussing what to do while reading. Let’s focus on what to do before reading.
The term ‘errorless learning’ used to make me really nervous, break out in hives, nervous. I was certain, with the best of intentions, I was going to screw up some poor kid for life if I let them make an error while trying to remediate their reading. I mean, the suffix less means WITHOUT. In fact, all error correction, in general, made me nervous at first. (Read through the lines as a whole-language trained teacher.) As I gained more experience, I started to realize that the explicit teaching I was using, combined with the techniques employed in a therapy level intervention, was preparing my student for errorless learning. The scaffolding I was taught, the coding of words by the student bringing attention to the letters, especially vowels, and pacing, combined with the controlled text of Sounds In Syllables, was requiring my student to slow down and respond correctly. I really started to see neurons that fire together wire together. Making sure the correct neurons are firing together is a big part of our job.
After working with a student for a short while, I could start to predict when errors would occur. They would often happen when the student dropped coding too soon, which was a pretty easy fix. I also saw a huge amount of errors when my student was fatigued. This can be a tricky one because we’re humans, not robots. Each session, each day, is pretty unique. So we look for patterns. My student seems to have a lot of trouble on Tuesday mornings. Monday nights are late nights for this student with baseball practice. Am I going to ask this student’s parents to give up baseball? No, I am going to adjust my instruction to fit my student’s needs. We move more on Tuesdays, I try to avoid introducing new information, I pay close attention to the time in each section of the lesson, and most importantly, if my student starts to error while reading, we stop reading. I want to avoid opening up error pathways to the best of my ability.
I also look for patterns within the lesson. A new linkage is pretty taxing on the student. After a new linkage, we take a quick break. Simply standing up and stretching is good for some; others may need a longer brain break. You have to know your student. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be diagnostic and prescriptive in everything you do, even with breaks. When your student is handwriting, they will need to be seated and practicing proper handwriting position. When they are reading single words on syllable cards, let them stand up if they need to move. The power of whole-body movement should not be underestimated. With some students, you may have to be a bit stealthy in getting them to move.
“Hey! Do you think you could give this treat to my dog after handwriting?”
“After you read this sentence, I want you to step OVER the box, AROUND the chair, BEHIND the bean bag, etc.”
“I’m going to pick out a sentence and act it out for you to guess; then you will act one out and I will guess.”
“Show me what it looks like to be a SAD LAD.”
Honestly, the possibilities and creativity are really endless here. We are using structured remediation, but we should never be rigid and inflexible when working with anyone, but especially children. Plan and design your lesson with the individual student in mind.
As we navigate the complexities of reading remediation, the integration of errorless learning, multimodal techniques, and movement emerges as a potent combination. By recognizing and addressing diverse learning styles through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic approaches, therapists can create a rich learning environment that fosters errorless learning while minimizing the impact of fatigue. As we embrace the era of varied learning modalities, this holistic approach ensures that reading intervention is not only effective but also inclusive and adaptable to the unique needs of each learner.