What is Precision Teaching: A Guide for Primary School Teachers in the UK

development literacy numeracy precision teaching reading school support sen teachers Apr 07, 2023
Ladder reaching target symbolising precision teaching

Introduction

Precision Teaching is an engaging, individualised pedagogical technique that offers a practical approach to boosting literacy, numeracy and a range of other discrete learning. It’s strengths and benefits are well reflected by its popularity and the fact that it has been a cornerstone of many schools SEN provision for several decades. The methods and approaches have been refined over time to improve not just learning outcomes, but also build children’s engagement, motivation and self-efficacy.

 

What Is Precision Teaching?

Precision Teaching is an instructional approach that utilises direct and frequent measurement of a child’s performance in a specific skill to chart and visualise the learner's progress and inform the teacher's instructional decisions (Kubina & Yurich, 2012). This provides highly specific learning targets which are then effectively memorised (i.e. stick in long-term memory) using a quick and engaging rote repetition approach. In practice this often means that, for learning a target (e.g. recognising 5 more sight words), a teacher, TA and/or parents engages with the child in Precision Teaching for 1 x 7-10 minutes a day.

 

precision teaching infographic

 

The 'Pinpoint' and the 'Learning Channel'

The first step in Precision Teaching is to ‘pinpoint’ the skill that you want to improve. This pinpoint should be a well-defined skill that can be observed and counted. For example, instead of broadly targeting "can read CVC words", we would focus on "can read 20 high frequency words in under a minute".

Then comes the 'learning channel'—this specifies how the child will demonstrate the pinpointed skill. For example, "seeing the text and saying the words" could be the learning channel for the pinpointed skill of reading fluency.

 

The Importance of Frequency

A key element in Precision Teaching is frequency, which is usually captured as 'responses per minute.' The purpose is not to make the child work faster, necessarily, but to develop fluency in a skill, as this often leads to better retention and application (Johnson & Layng, 1992). The importance of this is because emerging learning fades from long-term memory relatively quickly over time (e.g. I can’t recall most of my primary school history or geography), whereas fluent and mastered learning sticks (e.g. I can still ride a bike even though I haven’t been on one for years, I can still complete long division even though I have used a calculator for this since I can remember).

 

Anecdote: A Success Story

Last year, a Year 2 teacher, Emily, was struggling to help her children grasp the concept of number bonds. With the support of her class TA, Holly, they decided to give Precision Teaching a go. They pinpointed the skill as "identifying number bonds to 10" and chose "seeing numbers and saying pairs" as the learning channel. Holly took 25 minutes three times a day to work with 6 children (individually, 3-5 minutes each). She did a daily 1-minute timing and plotted these on each child’s chart, and spent the majority of her time using flashcards as the stimulus to rote learn these number bonds. With each session only lasting a few minutes, the children seeing their progress over the course of a day and week, they were energised and grew so much in confidence. Within three weeks, Emily and Holly had noticed a significant improvement for all the children. While Holly reflected that it was a little tricky to organise and get set up in that first week, she also talked about now wanting to use the same approach for learning phase 2 and 3 phonics with some children, and Emily was keen to adapt the approach for the whole class to learn common exception words.

 

The Downsides to Precision Teaching

Like any teaching method, Precision Teaching is not without its critics and understandable concerns.

 

Precision Teaching vs Phonics

It is also important to note that Precision Teaching doesn’t teach a generalisable ‘method’ like phonics does. So, when coming across a new word in the future, without phonics, the children wouldn’t have the skills to read this. On the other side, we often see children who struggle with reading lack confidence, and have an emotional barrier to engaging with phonics. What we’ve found is that Precision Teaching and phonics complement each other well; Precision Teaching gives a boost in ability and confidence, and also lays the foundations for being able to deconstruct words they already know, thereby leading to more engagement and progress within phonics as a result.

 

Reading Fluency vs Reading Comprehension?

Some argue that focusing on frequency and fluency undermines the importance of developing comprehension skills. While true that Precision Teaching doesn’t focus on this, we also know that reading fluency is one of the biggest barriers to developing reading comprehension (i.e. if you’re so focused on decoding the words, there’s little capacity to think and process the meaning of those words). In practice, what we see is that there’s a tiny step back from comprehension, before a leap forward.

 

Stresses Of The Time Constraints

The fast paced nature of Precision Teaching can, for some, cause anxiety in children who are sensitive to time constraints (Binder, 1996). While this is a legitimate concern, we’ve found that there’s three important considerations. The first is that presenting Precision Teaching as fun and exciting is important, since this focuses attention and is part of the reason why it works so well. We can be really playful when engaging in this too. Children who may initially appear apprehensive often quickly engage more and more since they can actively see the progress they are able to make within a day, let alone a week. For some children however, we may still feel that the fast paced nature is too much, and we can adapt by removing the timer. For instance, we can just focus on them achieving a certain number of correct answers; if they get it right, it’s a ‘yay!’ and goes into a ‘success box’. If they get it wrong, we say the word / answer, they repeat it, and it goes to the back of the pile.

 

Thought-Provoking Questions for Reflection

- Could Precision Teaching fit into your current teaching methods?
- What skills do you think certain children would benefit most from being 'pinpointed' in your classroom?
- Do you foresee any challenges in implementing this approach with your specific group of children?

 

How It Looks in the Classroom

Implementing Precision Teaching in your classroom could be as simple as starting with one child, and one pinpointed skill and its corresponding learning channel. This takes a little planning and preparation to get set up, but can then run for 10 minutes a day with a child to accelerate their pace of learning in that areas. The key elements include:

  • Selecting the Pinpoint: Choose a skill that is both important and observable.
  • Measuring Frequency: Use a stopwatch and tally marks to count the number of correct and incorrect responses in a set period, typically one minute.
  • Charting the Data: Graph the data on a daily basis. There are excellent tools from Precision Teaching Plus which can help.
  • Teach: Create the stimuli and show the child the word, maths question, and ask them to try and give the answer. Each time they get it right, place it in a ‘Yay’ / ‘Success’ box. If they don’t get it right: Say the answer, ask them to repeat, and put the question at the back of your pile to practice again. Keep going until the timer runs out.
  • Adjusting Instruction: Use the data to make informed decisions about general classroom teaching approaches.


Conclusion

Precision Teaching offers a robust and dynamic approach to optimise learning for each child. While it requires an investment of time upfront for planning and data collection, the returns, both in terms of academic achievement and child well-being, are immeasurable.

The flexibility of this approach allows it to be implemented in a variety of classroom contexts. So, whether you teach a class of uniform ability or one with diverse educational needs (e.g. those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia), Precision Teaching can be a remarkably effective and practical tool in your teacher’s toolbox.

 

Precision Teaching Plus Online CPD

Precision Teaching Plus is a complete, straightforward and rapid online intervention program to boost children's learning. PT+ has 5 chapters of flexible online training, and dozens of resources to support you to accelerate children's learning rate.

Find out more about Precision Teaching Plus here.

 

References

- Johnson, K., & Layng, T. (1992). Breaking the structuralist barrier: Literacy and numeracy with fluency. *American Psychologist, 47*(11), 1475-1490.
- Kubina, R. M., & Yurich, K. K. (2012). The Precision Teaching book. Lemont, PA: Greatness Achieved Publishing Company.

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