Precision teaching, Fluency, and Training the “Inspector”

A section of the rationale Katharine & I wrote for Oxford explaining what we wanted to do:

Fluent performance means we can perform a skill quickly, accurately, smoothly — and automatically, with a minimum of conscious effort.

Fluency is the hallmark of expertise in any realm, physical or cognitive. In an academic discipline or profession, fluency requires years to develop. But fluency in the more basic skills that underlie complex tasks — composing sentences, in the case of writing — can be acquired much more quickly. Fluency in sentence composition, for instance, can be reached in as little as twenty hours of practice.

Good writers are fluent in at least three essential skills:

  • Instantly identifying (or “discriminating,” as learning theorists would say) grammatical errors in their own or others’ writing, often “by ear”
  • Instantly identifying (or discriminating) many stylistic flaws in their own or others’ writing (dangling modifiers, long chains of prepositional phrases, unclear pronoun antecedents, etc.), often by ear
  • Instantly writing grammatically correct sentences. Copy editing and revision can consume many hours, but the process of simply getting a single grammatically correct sentence down on paper is automatic. Fluent writers never have to consciously ask themselves, for example, “Where does my dependent clause go in relation to the independent clause?”

It is often thought that students can learn to write simply by writing a lot and/or by reading a lot. In fact, this approach rarely works. The reason most students do not learn to write by writing is that they cannot ‘hear’ what they write (or what they read). Their ability to discriminate a good prose sentence from a bad one has not been trained.

Fluent discrimination is important because all performance depends upon our internal “inspection” of results. When we read words out loud, for instance, we are actually doing two things: reading out loud and listening to ourselves read out loud, inspecting our performance for error.

Of course, if we are uncertain what the words on the page sound like, we can’t function as effective monitors of our own performance. By the same token, students who have difficulty distinguishing a fragment from a complete sentence cannot inspect their writing for mistakes in grammar, style, or cohesion – at least not efficiently.

In particular, students who have had little exposure to academic prose (most students, it seems) can’t hear themselves as they write—nor can they tell whether readers will understand what they’ve said.

“Precision teaching” is a method that develops fluency and trains the inspector.
The Supplement gives students a sequence of exercises that develops the inspector and trains them to write sentences and paragraphs fluently. Once students reach fluency in sentence and paragraph composition, they will be prepared to move on to the next step: marshaling evidence and pursuing an argument throughout an entire college essay.

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