20 hours to fluency

Until I re-read our rationale for the writing curriculum, I had completely forgotten that fluency in sentence composition can be reached in as little as twenty hours.

I’m pretty sure I got that figure from Kent Johnson’s Response to Intervention and Precision Teaching: Creating Synergy in the Classroom, but since we’ve moved and all of my books are still packed, I’m not going to be fact-checking myself any time soon.

I need my books!

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.

Precision teaching and writing

A few summers back, I attended Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute, which pretty much changed my life. A slight exaggeration, but still.

Morningside is the only school I’m aware of that guarantees its work:

The school promises that your child will make two years’ progress in one year’s time, in his or her most challenging subject, or tuition is refunded.

Their guarantee covers reading (and writing) as well as math, which brings up one of life’s mysteries: why aren’t charter schools, which tend to produce better results in math than reading,1 beating a path to Morningside’s door?

Why isn’t anyone beating a path to Morningside’s door, for that matter?

If you were ever inclined to think that success breeds imitation in the education sector, Morningside is proof that it doesn’t.

It’s worse than that, actually: successful techniques like sentence combining and sentence-level rhetorics have gone missing.

Our writing curriculum was inspired, in part, by the precision teaching I watched and practiced during my two weeks at Morningside. I want to stress the word “inspired“; the lessons aren’t a proper precision teaching curriculum complete with slices, fluency aims, and celeration charts. But the philosophy of teaching a component skill — sentence writing — to fluency is key.

Here’s how we explained our project to Oxford.

1. [I don’t know whether this situation has changed with the publication of Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered and the headway Core Knowledge has made in convincing at least some charters that knowledge is key to reading comprehension.]

How can you tell when a student has mastered a skill?

How can you tell whether someone has truly mastered a skill? What is the measurable indicator that a person really knows how to do something? These questions should be at the heart of every teaching decision . . . and every evaluation we make about the success of an educational program. Yet for many educators, and certainly for most parents, answers to these questions are anything but clear. Most of us have grown up in a “percentage correct world” where 100% correct is the best anyone can do. But is perfect accuracy the definition of mastery? . . . In fact, we see many children and adults who can perform skills and demonstrate knowledge accurately enough – given unlimited time to do so. But the real difference that we see in expert performers is that they behave fluently – both accurately and quickly, without hesitation.

We all know fluency when we see it in a foreign language speaker. . . . It’s not just about saying the correct words. It’s also about achieving a useful pace or speed of performance. We have little difficulty recognizing a masterful athletic or musical performance. [Great athletes and musicians] have at least one thing in common: performances that are undeniably fluent. They all make the right moves without hesitation. . . . Even in people who are less well known . . . , we recognize fluency as the hallmark of competence. Skilled computer users, mental mathematicians, or expressive readers share that combination of getting it right with ease and fluidity that characterizes all genuinely accomplished people.

Fluency goes beyond mere accuracy to include the pace, or speed of performance. On a continuum from a total lack of measurable performance to mastery, 100% correct is only part of the way there.

Can you demonstrate how it looks to perform at 75% correct? Can you visualize a 90% correct performance? The answer is “No.”. That is because with a percentage correct score, we . . . can’t tell how much time was required to complete the work (was it 10 seconds, 1 minute, 10 minutes?). Therefore, we cannot possibly demonstrate or imitate the performance because a percentage correct score lacks the time-based information that would allow us to duplicate it.

This lack of essential information built into percentage correct evaluation is at the heart of many educational failures. Since most educational assessment uses accuracy-only, it cannot show any difference between accurate but struggling performance, and fluent performance.

Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process by Carl Binder, Elizabeth Houghton, and Barbara Bateman 2002 

Mastery means fluency.