The Need for Speed

Girl on a rollercoaster moving at high speed

You can also listen to this blog here:

Lexonik's Senior Regional Trainer Ian Jones talks about automaticity, its role in building reading fluency and rollercoasters! In this blog he explains why learners need to practise at speed to fully develop their literacy skillset.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach, peak season. The afternoon sky is heatwave blue and Liam and I are strapped into twin seats on The Big One. When it first opened in 1994, this was the tallest and steepest rollercoaster in the world. Even today, almost 30 years on, it’s still, well, pretty impressive.

Rollercoasting For Beginners - Top Tip: If at all possible, find a fellow human to sit next to. You get the camaraderie. You get the moral support. And, most importantly, you get another body to hold you in check. No-one wants to go solo-rattling around the loop-the-loop like a sack of old spuds.

Everything in order, we begin our ascent. Onwards and upwards, ticking off the signage as we go. 50 feet. This is nothing. I’ve been on higher stairlifts. 100 feet. The only way is up, baby! 200 feet. 200 feet? Hang on - have I missed one???

But it’s too late to check, because here we are, approaching tipping point, 235 feet above sea level! And now, a few seconds later, here we are plunging headlong into the South Shore surf at an incline angle of 65 degrees, and a speed of 75 miles per hour! This is when the screaming starts.

My relationship with rollercoasters has always been a bit, um, up and down. My parents weren’t fans, and it rubbed off. “You wouldn’t enjoy them,” they’d say. “You’d be sick. Have a candy floss instead.” Yet now, several years and a mouthful of fillings later, I’m hanging on in there as I’m thrown around with the best of them.

When it first opened in 1896, Blackpool Pleasure Beach set out “to make adults feel like children again”, and it’s been succeeding in this ambition ever since. The oldest operating ride dates back to 1904, and there’s a real sense of history to much of the park, particularly the collection of wooden roller coasters, or “woodies”, as they’re affectionately known.

There’s human history too, unearthed as classic attractions are dismantled to make way for new. When the log flume lake was dredged, they found a pretty random selection of items, including a bra, a glass eye (hopefully lost on a separate ride), 35 keys,13 pairs of glasses, a wig and an earring belonging to Marlene Dietrich. I’m surprised they didn’t find a George Foreman grill down there. Or, being Blackpool, a George Formby grill, which would also clean your windows. Thank you, boomers - I’m here all week!

But whatever your ride of choice, or preference for being flung upwards, downwards or around in circles, speed is a recurrent constant. And, fast forward to my first Lexonik training event of the new term a couple of weeks later, and an hour down the road in Liverpool, it’s surprising the role that pace plays in many of our activities too.

I’m delivering our SEND/EAL intervention, Lexonik Leap, and, amongst other things, the morning will involve reading and writing graphemes at speed, closely followed by reading and writing words at speed. We will play a game entitled “As Fast as You Can”, and, after lunch, we’ll focus on rapid recall of vowel and split vowel digraphs.

Our sister programme, Lexonik Advance, picks up where Leap leaves off. Syllables at speed. Prefixes at speed. More challenging words at speed. You name it, we’ll put a timer to it, and encourage our students to improve their automaticity every time.

But why the rush? Well, as discussed in a recent episode of our ‘Vocabulary Detectives’ podcast, we’re in the business of creating fluent readers. And speed, alongside accuracy and expression, is a key component in this skill. The faster, and more effortlessly, students are able to read a text, the more capacity they have to apply their inference, deduction and wider comprehension skills, all of which give it its fullest meaning.

In the words of Dr Tim Rasinski, “In its fullest and most authentic sense, fluency is reading with and for meaning, and any instruction that focuses primarily on speed with minimal regard for reading is wrong.”

So, although each lesson might have its own unique high adrenaline moments, there’ll also be time to explore etymology, to make vocabulary connections and develop metacognitive skills. Our students are in for the ride of their lives. True, they won’t get a photo at the end, but they may well be rewarded with a certificate. And they don't have to scream if they want to go faster!