The Literacy Institute Newsletter:
We're in the Business of Building Good Habits
January 2016
Penny
Penny Moldofsky, Director of 
The Literacy Institute
Dear Woodlynde Families, Friends, and Colleagues,
Whether we are teaching students to replace "glancing and guessing" with tapping sounds in words or guiding them to work through the steps of essay writing, the bottom line is that we are in the business of building habits. New Year's resolutions encourage us to commit to healthy habits, but this year, I learned more about the process of building good habits by reflecting on what I teach prospective Wilson Reading System teachers and how I can apply these concepts in the much broader universe of instruction beyond reading and literacy.
Less is More
Most of you have read the research that says it takes 21 days to build a habit, but my students and I must be outliers, because we require varying numbers of repetitions depending on the complexity of the skill, our own learning style, and environmental factors that impact motivation. As a parent or teacher, you may wonder why a student hasn't developed the habit you just modeled with three different examples over several days. What I have observed is that we are almost always trying to teach too many habits without taking the time to break them down into manageable units that can be reinforced over a long enough period of time so that the student can do it automatically. I tell students that when I can wake them up at 3 a.m., show them a nonsense word, and they begin to tap out the sounds without thinking, then I know they have mastered this habit.

Teachers who train with me to be Certified Wilson Reading System Instructors are eager for their practicum students to get to multi-syllabic words and achieve the higher steps in the program. If, however, you don't focus on your student building the foundation habits consistently in the first two steps, you are adding roadblocks that will make it more difficult to achieve the goal. 

In real-life terms, plan on covering less, focusing on the habits that give the most bang for the buck, and mentally plan for much more time than you anticipated to build the habit.
Make Connections
Many students build good habits by making connections that are cross-curricular or cross-modality. Most of my students are light years more adept at sports than I, so I can connect their stronger areas to their weaker areas to help them build a habit in a more challenging area. They remember that they had to practice shooting hoops each day for a few more times to improve their basketball scores, and they connect this image to locating one more clue in a text each day to strengthen the habit of taking notes.
Show, Don't Tell
As teachers and parents, we rely on verbal directions, but many students don't process verbal directions in a manner that leads to the formation of good habits. In addition, most students may be able to develop a skill with one type of text or activity but have difficulty transferring the skill to a different text, activity, or situation.

Take this into account by breaking down the habit into steps that you can show. Use examples that are as close to the task as possible, and very gradually use examples that are from different materials. If I want a student to get into the habit of highlighting the relevant clues, I use the exact text and read it aloud as I show them how I decided a clue was relevant and how I read other information and decided not to highlight it. If I want a student to organize her binder, I have materials for tabs and folders ready, and I show the student how to sort the papers or files into folders. I then follow up by having the student do each step while verbalizing what she is doing. 

This type of show and tell sounds time consuming, and it is; however, think about how much time and energy is consumed by having to repeat directions because the student hasn't developed the habit.
Small but Crucial
As explorer Alastair Humphreys advises, set lofty goals but work on micro steps. For example, the goal of working through the training in Wilson Reading System is to be an accomplished and astute teacher who can guide each student to independence in reading with comprehension and fluency. The first micro step in achieving this goal is getting students to master short vowel sounds and clue words.

An interesting study from UCLA underscores this dual-focus. Participants who could visualize themselves working through the next step or process toward a goal were more likely to stay on target consistently in building the habits needed to achieve the larger goal. In addition, the ability to visualize the small step tended to reduce anxiety about achieving the goal.

Along with visualizing the small steps, we can guide students to use "If-then" language as part of the habit-building process: "If it is the last five minutes of class, then I will save my document in my English trimester 2 folder." 

If you eliminate goals that are no longer necessary in the 21st century (like memorizing the state capitals or the names of elements on the periodic table), you are more likely to have the time to practice the small steps that lead to useful habits toward meaningful goals.
Avoid Abandoning Ship
Minor setbacks often lead to students giving up on a practice before the habit is well-established. If we guide students to act like detectives and analyze exactly when and why the process when off course, it is often just a small change that can get them back on track. It may be that changing the time of day for practice is crucial, or having a double-set of notes (one at home/one at school) increases accessibility. Most important, however, is focusing on the number of days you've done the habit rather than the few times you've messed up.

Fewer, simpler habits that are practiced consistently yield the best results. Too many options lead to de-motivation. The next time you despair that your student will never develop a good habit, narrow your focus, figure out the steps leading to the goal, show rather than tell, and provide for ten times more trials than you anticipated. Count the micro-successes so you and your student don't abandon ship.
Penny
Penny Moldofsky, M.S.
Director of The Literacy Institute at Woodlynde School
moldofsky@woodlynde.org
610.293.6628
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