Practice makes perfect only if you practice beyond the point of perfection. And I love that because that's the title of a wonderful article I saw by my favorite cognitive scientist, Daniel T. Willingham. Willingham says, practice makes perfect, but only if you practice beyond the point of perfection. How will your children know the four foundational tables that will set them up for arithmetic and quantitative reasoning? The answer is practice beyond the point of perfection.
That sounds really tough, doesn't it? I hear parents say, "Oh, you know, they work so hard. And there's so much homework, you know." Let me talk about why it's so important to know the tables with automaticity or automatically. And then I'll talk about how you get there. Okay. Why is it so important for children to know their tables with this type of automaticity? Why is it so important by the end of third grade for them to know their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables without blinking? Because when children are learning to do problems in math, or thinking mathematically, they can't do two things at one time: they can't struggle with arithmetic and reasoning at the same time. Their minds need to be freed up to reason, but that is only possible if they already know arithmetical operations unconsciously.
Let's put it this way: If your children are reading a sentence, and they're trying to sound out the words or trying to figure out what the words mean, or they're trying to pronounce the words, how effective do you think that reading comprehension is going to be? Not effective because instead of trying to understand what the text is saying, they're still trying to figure out how to say the words and what the words mean. And so that lack of fluency, of phonetic fluency of knowing how words should sound becomes a barrier to comprehension because you can't read a sentence and understand it if you're still struggling with how to pronounce the words and what the words mean. So your brain is trying to do too many things at one time. This is why our children struggle with math and reading.
Reading comprehension is the key to everything. And sentence comprehension is the key to reading comprehension. To understand and respond to an entire text, students must first comprehend the words and sentences that convey its meaning. And in order to understand complex words and sentences, students must understand the parts of words and the parts of sentences. To comprehend the whole, you must first understand its parts. Schools have abandoned the systematic teaching of word and sentence structures. The result is tragic: a generation of children who can neither read nor respond to the simplest of texts.
Decoding Sentence Complexity
Every word or group of words that answers the question: “who or what?” before the verb is either a noun or pronoun. Any word or group of words that answers the question “who or what?” after the verb is either a noun, pronoun, or adjective. The questions are, “who or what verb?” and “verb who or what?”
This is crucial for understanding sentence structure because students are going to see that groups of words can function as subject nouns or as completers—words that complete the sentence after the verb.
Creating Sentence Complexity
Students should practice using the word “that” after a noun or pronoun and before a noun or pronoun. This use of the term “that” is extremely significant in English sentence structure. They will see that any construction or any group of words in a sentence which begins with the word “that” before or after a noun or pronoun is answering the question: “who or what?” “That” should also be placed immediately after adjectives to create explanatory clauses.
Students should practice explanatory or descriptive structures such as adverbs and appositives. In effect, they should discover that there are several ways to add more information about verbs or nouns in a sentence. They will see that some words describe nouns and verbs as well as answer questions about them.
Students should also practice using the words “which” or “who” directly after a noun and directly in front of a verb. When students place the words “who” or “which” directly after a noun, they must necessarily create a group of words that has a verb right after the “who” or “which” word that they have used. This is a great way for students to create complex sentences with adjectival clauses, which begin with relative pronouns.
Students should also practice beginning sentences with demonstrative pronouns and indefinite pronouns. Words such as “these” or “this” or “anyone” or “everyone” help students to create a variety of sentences especially when a noun is placed directly after any of those words.
Students should also practice combining several ideas into one sentence in order to show how close those ideas are and what the relationship between those ideas are. This is where it is crucial for them to learn how connectors such as conjunctions, and punctuation symbols such as commas, colons, and dashes allow them to embed several statements into one.
Rev. Vieira is a former high school master teacher, and the founder and president of ScholarSkills Learning Center.