The Power of Invisible Practice

“Invisible spelling and sentence practice”

“I want it. I need it. So, I’ve got to do it.” Like a human Nike ad, my ten-year-old son voiced this new personal mantra to me on a recent car ride. He was describing why he works out in the basement every day. We’re talking planks, wall sits, pull ups–things most people do only when a coach or trainer is standing over them shouting, and, sometimes, shaming. But, Jack, chooses to do these things. Every day.  He even watches Youtube videos that help him learn new exercises and then he’s willing to try them even if he initially fails. He wants to get faster on the soccer field and in the pool. Just now I found him with ankle weights doing leg lifts before bed. I’m not advocating that all of our children or students should do calisthenics before bed. Jack finds joy in the process of this self-driven practice to get stronger and better at the things he likes to do. 

In our house, we call this kind of practice that no one else sees (except your family) “invisible practice”. Jack’s teammates and coaches don’t see this kind of practice. They only see the end result. It’s why we call it invisible. 

We learn nearly everything through practice. To play the piano. To throw a ball. To recognize that letters represent sounds. Or to form letters on the page so someone else can read them. But, in the beginning, practice is hard.  It can feel like the opposite of joy. And the only way we keep practicing is if we want to create change in ourselves or if we find the practice a form of play. 

Initiating an “invisible practice” routine can be hard. Assigning or requiring “invisible practice” can backfire. We see this with reading logs which can become anxiety producing and sometimes lead children to see reading as a chore. The truth is children often know the things they would like to get better at. 

Our youngest son told me this week, “Mom, I’m not a good writer.” He’s seven and already thinks writing isn’t for him. I thought to myself this is a boy who until recently used to carry a pocket notebook around so he could jot down little notes and create sketches. Holding his heart closely, I reminded him that being a writer is about having ideas that you want to share. It’s not about what your writing looks like. But right now, he is looking at everyone else’s paper and realizing his writing doesn’t quite look like everyone else’s. 

Learning to form letters was not automatic for him and has taken years of practice. Learning to conventionally spell has been challenging. Some phonics lessons have stuck. Others will come in time.  A lot of writing for him requires a lot of thinking in order for it to look conventional. But, as cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, reminds us “the brain is actually not very good at thinking.” When certain processes become automatic and memory kicks in, thinking becomes easier. 

We decided to try some “invisible practice”. Every morning after breakfast, we practice a few spelling words with the same phonogram pattern and a sentence or two. No more than five minutes. Every day. We’re working on “b” versus “d”. We’re practicing how to form letters. We’re working on capitalization and end punctuation. But the end result is a sentence that looks like something he is proud of and wants to get better at. 

This “invisible practice” is like the wall-sits of writing. We’re practicing the foundational skills that didn’t solidify for him through immersion.  It’s not the imaginative, narrative-driven writing of writer’s workshop. It’s practice designed to help with automaticity and sentence fluency so that the mechanics of writing feel less effortful and less uncertain. So he knows his stories are worthy of sharing. So he has the confidence to tell his stories through writing.  

At home and in classrooms, I emphasize the value of “invisible practice”. Learning is messy and thinking is hard. You can learn to embrace mistakes, have a growth mindset, and persevere, but practice is a part of learning. 

Here are some quick strategies for how to make “invisible practice” a part of your home or classroom:

  • Model and think-aloud about the kinds of “invisible practice” you do to learn new things or to get better at things that are hard for you
  • Use the term “invisible practice” and emphasize that it’s the practice we do out of choice that matters most in life
  • Create invitations to practice rather than requirements (invite children to make decisions about the kinds of invisible practice they might do based on their own goals)
  • Support a growth mindset before, during, and after practice by praising hard work and effort rather than mastery
  • Help children learn strategies towards independence like asking themselves questions and noticing patterns

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