Methodology, Principles of Learning
Comments 9

Why We Can’t Remember How We Learned

One of the major problems with teaching reading (and training teachers to teach reading) is that of the Universal Expert: “I read, therefore I can teach reading.” As we have argued elsewhere, the knowledge base for teaching reading is “extensive, hidden and complex”. The truth is that teachers often underestimate the difficulty of the process  – at least for some learners – because we do not take a sufficiently systematic approach. In other words, we cannot remember how we ourselves started ‘at the bottom’ and worked our way up.

This is not surprising. Some readers intuit the code much more quickly than others. Some of us come from homes where print was everywhere, where talking about books and stories was common, where reading aloud and sharing books was part of normal, everyday life.

There is, however, a significant proportion of students who do not intuit the code, or who only receive regular exposure to print once they get to school (and even then, not enough). These students must be taught the knowledge and skills they need through a systematic approach. And such an approach needs to take account of how we develop to different levels of mastery as we progress.


The work of precision teaching researchers in identifying the different stages in the learning process is as fundamental to understanding the learning process as atomic theory is to physics. It is also a good example of how the education professions choose to ignore the well-argued in favour of the well-intentioned: the taint of ‘behavioural’ methods is sufficient for many teachers to reject such an approach as heartless and impersonal, and the transparency of such methods makes some teachers far too accountable for comfort. Nevertheless, when we train teachers, they are consistently amazed that they were able to progress through their initial training without ever learning about what Precision Teachers call ‘Stages of Learning.’

Writers such as White and Haring (1980) and Cooper, Heron and Heward (1986) propose that there are hierarchical stages of learning through which all learners progress.  The definitions of these vary slightly, but can be summarised as:

  • Acquisition – successive attempts to approximate the skill
  • Accuracy – attempts are accurate to a mastery criterion
  • Fluency – accurate performance is rapid and relatively effortless
  • Retention – the skill can be recalled and performed quickly at a later time
  • Generalisation – the skill is transferred appropriately to new situations
  • Adaptation – the skill is used creatively in new applications

The recent discussion on Harry Webb’s post on Phonics Skepticism reminded me of all this in the context of a systematic synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading. [I recommend that you read all the comments at the end of this PDF of Harry’s (no longer published) post, to get a sense of the range of opinions.] Some contributors argued that good readers ‘read whole words’, with the implication that if good readers do this, others should be taught to do so, and then they will be good readers too. But this is an attempt to  ‘reverse engineer’ the process: the reason that good readers can recognise whole words automatically is because they have reached fluency. Automaticity is an outcome of practice, not a strategy for acquisition.

If we think in terms of developing skills through acquisition, accuracy, fluency, retention (and later on to generalisation and adaptation), then building on a strong base of synthetic phonics is a necessary and powerful start to students developing fluent reading skills. The key is mastery of each stage of the process.

Teaching the building blocks of letter-sound correspondences (acquisition) gives students the tools to ‘read through’ and decode a word. It is important that enough practice opportunities are given, with materials that require students to make both discriminations and generalisations of component skills, to develop accuracy. As with any skill, responses will be slow and laboured at the beginning but as we become more accurate we also become quicker at applying that skill.

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I like the analogy of learning to drive a car. Those laboured first attempts to synchronise engaging the clutch and putting the car into gear without the accompanying sound effects – certainly the ‘acquisition’ stage! Then we become accurate in our attempts, albeit still slow as we ‘think through’ and possibly talk aloud each step of the process. Those of us who are proficient drivers don’t think twice about the skills that we have now developed to automaticity – both fluent and accurate – as we jump in the car and drive around.


As able readers, I think we also tend to forget how we got to this stage. Mastery of each of those stages was critical. We can read fast – both accurately and fluently – because we have mastered each stage of learning of those earlier component skills ie the ability to synthesise (or blend) phonemes. This is the bedrock of learning to read, as the mountain of evidence attests. Any builder will tell you the importance of a good strong foundation.

And we know what happened to the man who built his house on the sand.

Visit our website

You may also be interested in:

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

A Matter of Sensitivity

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap


Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007.

White, O. R., & Haring, N. G. (1980). Exceptional Teaching, 2nd ed. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

You can read more about stages of learning and Precision Teaching via the links on our Professional Reading pages.


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