Structured vs. Random Practice—Are Flashcards the Right Strategy?

Structured vs. Random Practice—Are Flashcards the Right Strategy?

Is your child having difficulty learning letter names, numbers, or sight words? The teacher is likely to send home a packet of flashcards for practice. But is this an effective strategy for your child?

It is true that the fluent reader will automatically call up common words from memory. There is no need to stop and think about them or sound them out. The same goes for such things as letter names and sounds, math facts etc. To be a successful learner such information ultimately needs to become part of what we call automatic language.

Knowing this, teachers tend to focus on this desired end result from early on. To help students with difficulty memorizing labels and facts, well-meaning teachers send home a set of flashcards for added practice.

Random Nature of Flashcards

In the usual flashcard procedure the cards are shown to the child one at a time in random order. The goal is to show them quickly so that the card is “flashed” in front of the child, thus the name “flashcard.”  The child is to provide the label (word or letter name) or fact as fast as possible. When the child fails to provide the accurate label, that card is set aside for additional practice.

This procedure might work well for the average child.  The child who is already able to accurately name all the cards may even enjoy the challenge of trying to do it faster. But for some children the flashcard procedure is likely to be counterproductive. In fact, these might be the very children for whom the teacher recommended the cards.

The child with significant word retrieval difficulties has trouble quickly and accurately calling up individual words and isolated facts. The pressure to come up letter names, sight words etc. fast can actually aggravate the problem and cause frustration.

But this is not the biggest problem. After all, you could adapt the procedure and give your child more time, until proficiency is reached.

The real problem for these children is the random nature of the practice. These children tend to confuse related concepts. When faced with the letters of the alphabet out of order, they can’t keep track of which one is which. They misname the letters in ways that are unpredictable from one session to the next. The child might miss approximately the same number of letters each time, but not the same ones.

The child will now feel out of control and may loose confidence in his or her ability to learn the material.  It is not uncommon that a child in this situation will resort to inappropriate coping strategies such as random guessing. Some children will even purposely choose a single response, knowing that sooner or later it will be the correct one.

Structured Practice

Flashcard procedures have their place as a method to rehearse and solidify a skill. They are not appropriate as a teaching method, especially for children with word retrieval difficulties. The child first needs to practice to proficiency within a clear, consistent structure.

As an example, when learning to name letters the child first practices the entire alphabet by using an alphabet chart. The child learns to name the letters while pointing to each one in order. With this procedure, we are likely to see a gradual progression toward proficiency. There is not the frustration caused by random errors, and the child gains confidence.

Finding ways to provide structured practice for sight words is more difficult. There are no sequences and no charts that can be used. However, there are ways to provide cues to support practice. I hope to address this in a future Tools post.

Teaching the letter-sounds in a structured manner is also more difficult.  I have for many years used a system for doing this that has been highly successful. It allows children with word retrieval difficulties to develop confidence in their ability and eventually become good readers. This approach requires instructions and materials that cannot be easily shared in a post. I hope to eventually be able to share it in an e-book with homeschooling parents in mind.

Creating Memory Support Systems

Being able to name the letters or numbers in order on the chart does not mean that the child will automatically is able to name them randomly. However, the chart now provides an appropriate “crutch” to be used as needed, much like adults use notes. The chart also provides a tool for the child to self-check. Your child no longer needs to watch for your approval or correction.

Eventually, your child will no longer need to see the chart at all. Because the full sequence has been practiced consistently, it has become over-learned and thereby committed to “automatic memory.” The child now only needs to remember the first label to call up all the rest in order. The associations between the visual images (symbols) and their labels have also been firmed up in the child’s mind.

You now can use the flash cards. If the child can’t immediately come up with the needed label, he or she can “find” it by “counting up” to it. Children with word retrieval difficulties need such tools to fall back on when the needed label slips out of mind.

Word retrieval difficulties are not consistent. What the child can come up with easily one day might seem forgotten the next day. For this reason, the random practice with flashcards is likely to frustrate both you and your child. To help your child be successful, you first need to provide structured practice. When your child has reached proficiency within the given structure, you then teach your child appropriate memory support systems to retrieve words and facts that slip out of mind.

For detailed, step-by-step procedures for teaching letters and numbers through structured practice, see my Tools post Alphabet Chart for Learning Letter Names.

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