How Long Does It Take for a Strategy to Give Way to a Skill?


In my last two posts I wrote about the difference between telling and teaching and the distinction between a skill and a strategy. I shared a story about how author Jennifer Serravallo learned to draw people by using the strategy of lightly drawing shapes and then adding the details of the person. This strategy gave way to skilled performance. We could take any skill we want to learn and break it down into step-by-step how-tos that lead to skilled performance.

Today’s question is:  how long does it take before a learner becomes skilled and no longer needs the strategy? (Remember—strategies are scaffolds that are meant to be removed eventually).  Well, in Serravallo’s story, she said it took months of practice before  she could draw people without the strategy.

I wonder how often we have unrealistic expectations about how long it should take our students to master a particular reading or writing skill.  How many times have we said or thought to ourselves, “I taught a minilesson on X yesterday.  Why are my students still not getting it?”

Several months ago I purchased my first Mac computer after many years of using only a PC.  I’m a pretty quick learner when it comes to technology, so I started using my new computer right away.  I signed up for One-to-One tutoring at the Apple Store to help me make the transition as quickly as possible.  I spent a lot of time practicing at home. Guess how long it took before I actually started using my new computer to present seminars?  Three full months!  Even though I was using my new computer exclusively at home, it took me that long to feel confident and fluent enough to present with it in front of large groups of people.  If I had been told that I needed to be immediately proficient, I would have been pretty stressed out!

My point here is that it is not enough to think only in terms of breaking skills down into strategies.  We must also give the learner ample time to practice.  That may mean lots of stops and starts.  It means allowing students to approximate for awhile.  I become very frustrated when I see teachers teach a minilesson, send students off for independent reading or writing, and then walk around with a checklist of skills, using conferring time to check in with students to see who has mastered that day’s teaching. Learning doesn’t work this way!  

So the next time you find yourself wondering why a student hasn’t mastered a skill you have taught, here are a few questions that might be helpful in thinking about next steps for this learner:

  • Has the learner had enough time to practice?
  • Is the skill within the learner’s zone of proximal development?
  • Is there a different skill that is “higher on the food chain” for this learner?
  • Does the learner need a strategy to help her move toward skilled performance?
  • Does the learner need a different strategy to help him move toward skilled performance?
  • Am I expecting all students to move lock-step through the curriculum and master skills in the same order and at the same rate or am I allowing for individual learning styles and rates? 

It’s not enough to think only in terms of
breaking skills down into strategies.
We must also give the learner ample time to practice.

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