Designed Learning

Why is rote learning of knowledge and strategies important in literacy?

by Dr Gail Brown | October 8, 2021
Why is rote learning of knowledge and strategies important in literacy?

Rote learning, and the importance of practice for long term memory, is important for gaining both knowledge and for mastering strategies and complex, higher order tasks. This posts champions Dan Willingham's book (Why don't students like school?) as he outlines the importance of rote learning for all learners. Each chapter in his book concludes with suggestions for how teachers can use this in their classrooms.

This post extends an earlier post and supports rote learning of knowledge and strategies. Research has supported the importance of deliberate practice for rote learning for many years (Ericcson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Yet, many teachers don’t plan and program time for this – so their students struggle with many learning activities and classroom tasks.

The importance of rote learning, “continued practice” or “overlearning”, doesn’t seem to be worthwhile – because we think we already know? However, the benefits for overlearning are that “it offers protection against forgetting… ensuring we will know it later” (Willingham, 2021, page 131). As well, overlearning enables easy, fast and automatic access to both knowledge and strategies that enable higher order thinking. Unless we develop this automaticity, our working memories are overwhelmed and we struggle to complete tasks, and struggle even more to learn and improve.

In literacy, there is a considerable body of different types of knowledge and strategies that need to be overlearned. For example, early reading instruction should establish automatic letter sound and sightword (or high frequency words, meaning words readers do NOT decode) recall by young novice learners. Remember, reading is about getting meaning from texts we read and unless our oral reading, “decoding”, is automatic – then we have no space in our thinking for meaning.

Similarly, we need automatic recall of word meanings, which at times rely on context, or the text topic and words around that vocabulary term. Dan Willingham (2021) uses the example of the word “eye”, which we would normally, possibly, automatically, think of as the part of our body that we see with. Except in this context, “eye” is definitely not a part of our body: The wind howled as the eye of that hurricane approached the shore”. Skilled readers automatically understand that alternative meaning for “eye” based on a single sentence of text. Skilled readers automatically access multiple meanings of that one word from their long term memory (knowledge) and use context to automatically select the correct meaning for that sentence (strategy). 

Similarly, during writing tasks, knowledge of spelling, punctuation and grammar need to be automatically accessed and used during skilled writing of texts. If these subskills are not practised and overlearned for automaticity, then the quality and quantity of written text is likely to be poor.

As with numeracy, there are different types of knowledge and strategies that need to have considerable deliberate practice for automaticity. Without sufficient practice, students will struggle with higher order tasks of understanding texts (causal connections and inferences) and creating texts (writing persuasive, information and narrative texts). This type of deliberate practice should be varied,  sometimes included within these complex tasks and be part of a feedback process for improvement over time.

This blog post and an earlier post have touched on a couple of examples which can be extended further through reading research or in Dan Willingham’s chapter on rote learning. Dan both presents logical arguments founded in research and then outlines implications for classroom teachers.

This overlearning of knowledge and strategies is even more important in today’s world of technology and social media, especially in the context of understanding “fake news” and distinguishing this from valid, reliable information. Teachers who want their students to be informed citizens in a global world increasingly impacted by online media, need to ensure their students have the cognitive space to make sound decisions – overlearning enables this critical thinking. 

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