How learning to read is like a nun riding a bicycle (O is for "overlearning")

Let’s look at overlearning. Let’s look at overlearning. Let’s look at OVERLEARNING!

(Yes, that was intentional)

Think back to when you learnt to ride a bicycle (or another amazingly wonderful childhood feat). When learning to ride a bike did you have instant success, or did you have to first learn to pedal and steer on a tricycle or foot cycle for a couple years?

Did you instantly ride off into the sunset with perfect two-wheel steering control, or were you a little wobbly at first?

Could you “pop-a-wheelie” with instant control on the first day, or did you crash violently onto the pavement like I did at the tender age of 5?

Let’s face it. None of us were instantly ready for Le Tour de France. Heck, we’d just been toilet trained. And that was OK because we had to practice regularly and gain small successes and failures (learning experiences) along the way. Fortunately, we had many more successes and grew in our confidence on a bicycle. We practiced the same skills, with repetition, and eventually grew into successful cyclists.

Learning to read is no different (except we don’t get to do wheelies while reading; it just wouldn’t be safe). That word “repetition” is crucial, especially for kids with reading difficulties. We need to make sure we do not move students on before they have mastered certain skills which lay foundations for future skills can be developed. Trying to pop-a-wheelie while remaining upright on a non-moving bicycle is quite challenging (darn near impossible for most of us). These skills have to be learnt in sequence and you have to be moving (have momentum) for this to happen without ending up flat on your face.

I often see how, due to the demands of a national curriculum and constantly having to show evidence of student progress, we mistake us moving a student on to a more difficult skill with the student being ready for a more difficult skill. In doing this, our students can often progress through the school system before we eventually realise they struggle with some basic, foundational skills (i.e. adding, subtracting, reading accuracy, sounding out words, basic spelling, and the list goes on…).

Yes, our kids need to be challenged, they need to learn new ways of doing things, they need to figure out the world so learning goes deep, but they need to be taught how to do so! And this often takes the patience of a saint... or a nun (it was a loose association, I know... but the title hooked you, right?).

Our students with learning difficulties are sometimes cycling in a different race altogether, and it is important to recognise this as teachers, parents, school leaders, and as a society.

Until next time.