Intro Part 6: What does a PT approach look like?

Some key methodological characteristics of PT are: component/composite analysis, fluency training, time probes, tailoring practice materials to the progress of individual children based on learning pictures and the use of a standardised graphical display (referred to as the Standard Celeration Chart (SCC; Chiesa & Robertson, 2000).

PT measurements are taken by using short timed probes to take a ‘snap-shot’ of the child’s learning. This kind of information gives the potential for rapid gains in academic performance, as decisions can immediately be made, based on the data, on how best to improve learning for the individual child, and more importantly, rapidly be able to tell from future data whether the changes implemented had the planned effect on learning.

What does a PT approach look like?

Emphasis on Fluency and Outcomes

A fluent performance is one that can be demonstrated with both accuracy and speed (Binder, 1996) and appears to be an effortless, almost automatic process. Fluency has long been accepted as a required prerequisite for more advanced performances in the martial arts, music, and sports (Bloom, 1986), but has not been so readily adopted as a prerequisite of proficient academic performance (Lindsley, 1992). Yet this is exactly the type of performance required to enable learners to acquire a skill to a true mastery level of competent performance, which in turn affords them the ability to progress on to the next level, knowing that they have truly mastered the preceding one and therefore have a firm foundation on which to build. There was a time that all children rehearsed their multiplication tables until they could recall them by rote. This type of learning has ceased in most schools; criticisms about rote learning and drill and kill were the reasons for this withdrawal from the practise.

Practicing until fluent is essential; rote learning or drill and kill would only be unacceptable if the child is left to continue to practice important skills with which they have already reached a level of mastery. This situation represents an aspect of ineffective education because time is spent on mastered tasks that would be better spent on learning other novel skills. The extent to which this is the case in modern educational practice is not known because there are no definitive guidelines on what level of skill is considered mastery within basic skill domains. Fluency Based Instruction (FBI) in contrast, conducts brief practice timing periods that allow peak performance, and it builds fluent performance in composite skills before application to more complex curricula items. The main issue here is that it is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater—the practice was good, but the endless drill with no AIMS or real concrete information on whether fluency had been achieved was the factor that was rightly criticised—PT measurement systems retain the benefits of traditional practice but negate the negative aspects that drained motivation when skills were practiced beyond the point of mastery.

Achieving fluency has been demonstrated to be a significant contributory factor towards positive educational outcomes (Binder, 2003), and slower performance may be indicative of a child presenting difficulties solving mathematic problems (Geary & Brown, 1991; Jordan & Montani, 1997). The general importance of automatic retrieval of basic information, and regular practice, has been supported by previous research (Bloom, 1986; Sweeney, Sweeney, & Malanga, 2001; U. S. Department of Education, 2009; Willingham, 2009) with many different populations (Beverley, Hughes, & Hastings, 2009; Binder, Haughton, & Bateman, 2002; Binder, Haughton, & Van Eyk, 1995; Bloom, 1986; Hughes, Beverley, & Whitehead, 2007; Johnson & Layng, 1992, 1994, 1996; Kubina, Commons, & Heckard, 2009; Kubina & Morrison, 2000; Kubina, Morrison, & Lee, 2002).

Johnson and Layng (1994, 1996) purport that only when performance becomes automatic, effortless, and can be performed at an appropriate speed, do the benefits or rather outcomes of fluent performance emerge. These benefits are captured in the acronym RESA (Retention, Endurance, Stability, Application; see for example Binder, 1996) that describe the key outcomes of fluent performances, whatever the skill domain. Learners must be able to retain skills over time without practice, be able to carry out the skill for extended or functional time periods without displaying fatigue, be able to maintain fluent performance in the presence of distraction, and be able to apply the learnt skills to novel or ‘real-world’ situations (Haughton, 1972; Kubina, 2002; McDade, Brown, & Goggins, 1983; Mercer, Mercer, & Evans, 2000). These benefits (RESA) are very clearly based on earlier research that supports a four-level instructional hierarchy of acquisition, fluency building, generalization, and application or adaption (see Figure below, Haring & Eaton, 1978). It is also vital that students are fluent in composite skills of a component task to ensure that learners do not become cumulative dysfluent—a recognition that a learner will be hampered from performing component (Binder, 1996; Lindsley, 1995) tasks that rely on a previous fluent performance of prerequisite composite tasks. This may be likened to the relationship between procedures and concepts: where the building up of procedural fluency may contribute to greater understanding of or access to more advanced concepts (Briars & Siegler, 1984; Cowan et al., 2011; Gelman & Meck, 1983; Greeno, Riley, & Gelman, 1984; Rittle-Johnson & Siegler, 1998).


Level Emphasis Strategies
Acquisition Accuracy of response 1. Demonstration
2. Models
3. Cues
4. Routine drill
Fluency or Proficiency Speed 1. Repeated novel drills
2. Reinforcement
Generalization Novel stimulus 1. Discrimination training
2. Differentiation training
Adaption Adapted response 1. Problem solving
2. Simulations

Figure of the Learning Hierarchy. After Haring, N. G., Lovitt, T. C., Eaton, M. D., & Hansen, C. L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill.

Steps to PT

In order to implement an effective PT intervention, you need to

Pinpoint or describe the behavioural objective. In this are included the correct and incorrect performances, the AIM range for expected frequency, and the learning channel (how the task is presented and how the learner responds).

Count and teach – using any of the evidence based procedures that demonstrate effective education.

Measure and decide. If learning is happening, then we continue; if learning is not happening, we make a change and monitor the effectiveness of that change over the subsequent days.

Following this simple three-step cycle allows you to ascertain whether the teaching methods employed are producing the intended academic gains for each individual learner (Fuchs, 2004; Johnson & Street, 2004; Lindsley, 1995a, 1997; Potts, Eshleman, & Cooper, 1993; Raybould, 1984; Raybould & Solity, 1988; Roberts & Norwich, 2010). If these gains in learning are not forthcoming, different teaching approaches or changes in instruction can be introduced and their effect on the learner’s progress monitored.


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What does a PT approach look like? by Dr Mike Beverley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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