Deliberate Practice with Feedback: The Secret Sauce of Teaching Students with Dyslexia

By Sharon Vaughn, PhD

Professor, The University of Texas at Austin and the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and the Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk


How is it that a successful golfer’s swing can appear so effortless, smooth, and consistent?  Is it because the individual is just “gifted” in golf?  It is convenient for us to think that whoever performs well, whether it be musically, in sports, or preparing a gourmet meal with ease are individuals who have a proclivity for success in these areas.  However, this way of thinking is wrong. The best explanation for most success is practice.  Deliberate, structured, and sustained practice is the “magic” that provides opportunity for success in almost any field. But here’s the unfortunate truth, we like to practice least the things that we do poorly.


Let’s take learning to read as an example. If your child or a student you teach has a difficult time reading, what is the likelihood that they will practice reading difficult words in their free time?  That is very unlikely. Unfortunately, the very things that we have the most difficult time doing and are reluctant to practice are the things that require extensive practice. Deliberate practice reading is a highly influential lever for improving outcomes for youngsters with reading difficulties.

The Practice Gap in Reading

The practice gap in reading, weaker readers read considerably fewer words than proficient readers, explains many of the reading challenges students with reading difficulties experience.  Figuring out how to close the practice gap will provide a valuable pathway to improved outcomes. For many youngsters, automatic word reading is a bottleneck to successful reading because slow and labored word reading impairs their understanding of text. The hallmark of students with significant word reading difficulties is that they do not read for pleasure – reducing considerably their access to print and thus reducing practice.  To illustrate the negative effects of not reading extensively, fifth-graders who are very proficient readers – read more in a few days than poor readers do in a year.  This gap in practice is very profound and contributes to many significant problems, including low fluency, inadequate vocabulary development, and the opportunity to build background knowledge – an essential feature of improved comprehension.

How Practice Works

How does practice work?  Practice serves to promote chunking which is the cognitive process by which familiar parts are put together in efficient and more easily remembered ways.  For example, common letters and their sounds /aight/ as in “straight” can be chunked so that the unit /aight/ serves as one chunk to remember rather than all of the individual letters.  This type of chunking can occur inferentially with practice paired with explicit instruction.  In chess for example, this type of chunking process permits master chess players to store in long-term memory chess pieces and their position on squares relieving the cognitive load of thinking about each move independently and allowing chess players to think in more efficient units of decision-making.  Interestingly, a chess master’s chunking units is about 50,000 which is similar to the number of vocabulary words needed to learn a new language (Wall, 2015).

Deliberate Practice

Ericsson (2008) describes expert performance as resulting from active engagement in deliberate practice with teachers or coaches monitoring the structured, organized practice.  Critical to understanding expert performance in reading requires applying the two constructs of active engagement and deliberate practice.  Active engagement means that the learner is motivated to succeed and is working to achieve well specified goals.  For example, in reading the student may be eager to master reading word lists of related words and to master reading these words increasingly automatically with an ultimate goal of 20 seconds or faster.  Deliberate practice is also a necessary component of expert performance and is different from what we might think of as typical practice.  Deliberate practice has specific goals with related tasks and activities and is conducted with feedback and additional practice.  There are four components to deliberate practice: (a) well defined goals, (b) interest in achieving specified goals, (c) feedback, and (d) opportunities for additional practice.  Goal setting can lead to goal monitoring (progress monitoring) which serves as a built-in feedback loop to keep students engaged and on track. See figure 1 for examples.

As we think about improving outcomes for youngsters with reading difficulties, consider opportunities to utilize deliberate practice to build the reading brain.  Deliberate practice includes setting goals, monitoring these goals, providing specific and well-defined reading tasks that are practiced with teacher feedback and support.  Deliberate practice targets students developing reading skills and also provides opportunities for reading extensively.

Provide Meaningful Feedback to Enhance the Effects of Practice

Provide feedback that is clear, focused, and directly related to the learning task and that guides the child to continue and/or adjust learning practices.

Scenario 1:  After a lesson on essay organization, meet with the youngster in an essay conference. Provide feedback on only organization and not the various grammatical errors throughout the essay. Review grammatical errors in another lesson.

Scenario 2: A teacher quickly creates a question and ask students to answer it on sticky notes to turn in before going to the next class. The teacher uses the information about students’ needs from the sticky notes to make adjustments to the next day’s lesson.

Scenario 3:  Instead of saying, “Check comprehension answer 3,” a teacher says, “Great work on answering question number 4. Skip to the challenge question on the next page. Remember to check your notes for vocabulary that are used in that comprehension question.”

Scenario 4:  During a fluency lesson, a teacher says, “I will start by reading this passage aloud. Then, we will read it aloud together. Finally, you will read it aloud on your own with a partner.” This sequence is known as “I do,” “We do,” “You do.”  Pause after each reading and reread sentences where there was a challenging word.

Scenario 5:  After introducing a new skill or concept, effective teachers guide students through participation and practice opportunities. Much of learning occurs through timely and specific feedback that leads to a change in understanding. Effective feedback may be immediate, especially for discrete tasks such as spelling or sounding out a word, to avoid any misunderstanding. Feedback may also occur after a short delay for more complex tasks, such as writing a paragraph, to allow students to think through the process. Timely feedback has three purposes: (1) to prevent inaccurate practice, (2) to increase the rate of student mastery, and (3) to ensure successful, efficient learning.

Source:  The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, 10 Key Documents,


­­­­­­­­­­­About Sharon Vaughn, PhD

Dr. Sharon Vaughn is a Professor at The University of Texas at Austin and the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and the Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, an organized research unit that she founded with a “make a wish” gift from the Meadows Foundation family. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the first woman in the history of The University of Texas to receive the Distinguished Faculty and Research Award, the CEC research award, the AERA SIG distinguished researcher award, and the Jeannette E. Fleischner Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of LD from CEC.

She is the author of more than 40 books and 350 research articles. Several of these research articles have won awards: one, the A.J. Harris International Literacy Association award for best article published and, another, the School Psychology award for best article. She is currently Principal Investigator on several Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education research grants. She works as a senior adviser to the National Center on Intensive Interventions and has more than six articles that have met the What Works Clearing House Criteria for their intervention reports. She has conducted technical assistance in literacy to more than 10 countries and 30 State Departments of Education and has worked as a literacy consultant to more than 50 technical assistance projects.