What is Deliberate Practice?

Welcome to the deliberate practice project!

If you're unfamiliar with the "deliberate practice" method, I will spend some time explaining how it works and how it might be applicable to your own teaching and learning. You will probably recognize a lot of RiL teaching philosophy as you read. Deliberate practice has been around for a while, with generations of skilled musicians, athletes, speakers, and workers across many fields citing this style of learning. (Much of the information for this particular project comes from lectures by Dr. James Coady, former linguistics professor at Ohio University, and Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated).  

The goal of this project is to build my own familiarity with the deliberate practice method and to share insights and valuable aspects of it along the way. To start with a basic overview: deliberate practice is a learning process that focuses on targeted, repeated, monitored work.

Let's break down each of those areas:


This means that every time you sit down to practice, you are picking something specific to work on. Generally speaking, the more specific your target (or rather, the more focused your target), the more you can see measurable progress. The specific target often changes from week to week, depending on where you want to improve.


One of the biggest elements of deliberate practice is that it happens in small doses, but it happens all the time. It is meant to be a little bit, every day. This is the kind of concept that easily translates to any area of practice: we all know that studying across a week works better than cramming the night before. 


Practice requires metacognitive conversation—even if that conversation is with yourself. You don't know if you're getting better at something unless you monitor your progress. To monitor your own work, you have to be willing to critique your efforts and progress: what have I done well and what still needs work?

One of the clearest examples of “monitored” is assessment, which can be formal or informal. The best kinds of assessment are methods that measure what you have done against what your goals are. At RiL, we talk about self-assessment and teaching children to hold themselves accountable to their own skills and goals. Part of the “targeted” work that deliberate practice offers is setting clear goals so that the “monitoring” process becomes easier to manage: where am I on the journey toward my goal?

Geoff Colvin talks about 3 zones in his book: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone. Think about these like a dart board 

The comfort zone is where we feel safe. It’s filled with what we know and what we’re good at. 

On the opposite end, the panic zone is where we feel overwhelmed or even threatened. It comes with anxiety, stress, and fear of failure because it is full of what we are not good at and don’t understand.

Between those two zones is the learning zone. We have to step out of what we know in order to learn something new. But we can’t step too far or we start panicking and stop learning. 

Because deliberate practice is the combination of targeted, repeated, and monitored work, it is designed to help the learner stay in the learning zone and experience success. 

If you use RiL approaches, some of this should feel familiar—we advocate targeted, repeated practice through all our materials and classes, with different flavors of monitoring, depending on the goals. A good example is Intentional Copywork. The Intentional Copywork process uses some of this same idea: small, intentional, targeted practice over time to build up automatic skills. Growth comes from walking the line between success in a safe space (known skills) and success in the new space (unknown skills): this is the learning zone. 


So what am I doing with this?

My deliberate practice project is based on pronunciation.This may seem less relevant to you, unless you’re working on acquiring a language or working on mimicking an accent, but it’s actually part of the literacy process, too! Sound processing is part of acquiring fluent, reliable reading and writing skills, and we have to monitor sound by what we feel and hear. Helping kids attend to sounds and their features is a multisensory and multimodal process.

I am working on gaining language skill in Arabic. The pronunciation of that language is very different from what I am used to in English, so it is something that I have decided to work on specifically. My project goal is to memorize the Arabic alphabet. 

For this project, I am also following a guide of what to do in each week for specific pronunciation practice. I am adding my own writing practice, to build up my sound-to-letter connection for Arabic and help me memorize the alphabet more effectively. As an added bonus (or difficulty, depending on how you see it), Arabic has a very different writing system than English, in multiple ways. But I'll get into those later on!

Each week as I practice, write my reflections, and record my progress, I will also be making connections to RiL approaches. Sometimes greater understanding comes from unexpected places, which is why I am excited to take on this project.

At RiL, we believe in the power of learning. We become better teachers by continually challenging ourselves, expanding on what we know, deepening our understanding, and trying new things. Switching from a teacher mindset to a student mindset is sometimes a challenge all by itself. 

So I invite you to come along with me on my journey—even if you just want to see me struggle with Arabic! 


~ Claire


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