Tennis & Reading: Lessons in Learning

blog sherry tennis

Tennis and Reading: Lessons in Learning

by Dr. Sherry Sanden,

Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Literacy, Illinois State University

During one of the hottest summers on record I decided to take the tennis lessons our town’s Recreation Department offered. Two evenings a week I met with two coaches and a handful of other participants in hopes of bringing some semblance of finesse to my messy tennis performance. While over the years I had developed the ability to at least get the ball back over the net, I had no identifiable form and I was frustrated with my inability to fully engage in an activity I so enjoyed. Therefore, I signed up for lessons, eager to improve my skills with the help of some experts.

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Of course, registration occurred during the cool days of late spring, before temperatures started to rise. I am not sports-oriented, I loathe the heat, and I knew that my abysmal playing would embarrass me in front of a group of strangers; but my motivation dragged me onto those heat-baked courts twice a week all summer long. And with my slow improvements in tennis came a growing appreciation for the ability of my coaches to prompt, cajole, and nudge me toward that learning. Every evening Alex and Riley watched my shots, provided persistent guidance, and patiently honed my unformed ability into a more polished performance. What I took away wasn’t just an improved backhand and a stronger serve. Though I suspect that these young men were not headed into education fields, from them I gained greater understanding about facilitating learning. As a literacy educator, I was especially struck with the implications of their lessons on the court for teachers of striving readers.

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Lesson #1: Exhibit patience and confidence as you say it and show it and say it again, demonstrating your certainty that the skills will come.

“Low to high. Low to high.” My coaches said it over and over as they worked to break my bad habit of just swinging my racket in hopes that any contact would send the ball back over the net. Ten years of repeating a bad habit was torturous to unlearn; sometimes the coaches repeated their reminder to me dozens of times a night. Occasionally their words were phrased differently and they were often accompanied by modeling of the skill. Astonishingly, however, the words were never conveyed with impatience or frustration at my seeming inability to follow their directions. I’m fairly certain that any indication of impatience from my coaches, combined with my own certainty that I would never get it right, would have caused me to give up. Instead, their demonstrations of confidence kept me in the game long enough for the new skills to become automatic.

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As teachers of striving readers, we teach skills and strategies that often require us to repeat ourselves over and over again. Rarely do our learners demonstrate proficiency after the first round of explanations; often they, too, will continue to swing at anything in hopes of hitting their mark. We issue reminders, find new ways to explain our lessons, and model what we mean until our students at long last begin to perform the actions of readers. And we may grow weary of repeating ourselves day after day, exasperated over our students’ seeming failure to heed our instruction. However, signs of impatience from us or indications that we lack confidence in their eventual growth might be just the push that causes them to throw in the towel. Sometimes we need to have enough confidence for both of us, patiently and consistently providing support and advice, sometimes over and over again, until our students hit their stride as readers.

Lesson #2: Yes, practice does make perfect. Or at least better.

I listened diligently that first week and tried to imitate the movements modeled by the coaches. I showed up the following Tuesday eager to get started and jumped right into the first exercise, throwing the ball into the air in preparation for a serve. As Riley demonstrated the toss, he asked casually, “Did you practice over the weekend?” I mumbled my sheepish response, to which he issued a gentle admonishment that even with all the instruction in the world, better tennis skills could only be achieved with practice. We continued to work through the technique, but I kept coming back to this most obvious of ideas, that I needed my own in-the-act practice to make the movements seem more natural to my body. Just running through the drills with my coaches wouldn’t make me the independent player I strived to become.

Readers also need the chance to take the instruction that we provide and practice it in the act of reading. As teachers, we facilitate numerous activities aimed at boosting our students’ ability to read text. Sometimes those exercises are a bit disconnected from authentic reading but ideally, the skills we teach are steps toward the ultimate goal of improved independent reading. They are not the end goal in themselves, though. In order to reach proficiency, students must have opportunities to take those skills and utilize them in the act of real reading. While we may hope that our students will use out-of-school hours to practice, sometimes the only assurance we have that they actually have those practice opportunities is for us to provide them.

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Lesson #3: Celebrate the wins.

By the end of that blazing summer, I had spent weeks doggedly chasing after hundreds of tennis balls and gritting my teeth in frustration over a racket that seemingly had a mind of its own. On our final evening on the courts, we staged a mini tournament whose only prize would be the satisfaction of using our newfound skills. We needed no trophy to award our triumph; each of us knew when our play demonstrated growth. So inwardly, we cheered ourselves on, feeling that the frustration and sweat and pain was worth every point we won. But also, the joy in the faces of our long-suffering instructors, who had stuck with us through the tedious hours spent on that hot court, was an added prize. Their cheers over our successful plays that night were a bonus that motivated us to push even harder because, here on this court, their praise was the final acknowledgment that we had achieved the skills for which we had been striving.

Readers, especially those for whom the path to literacy has been a hard-fought one, deserve those moments when they finally feel the accomplishment of their efforts. While it probably won’t come in the form of any exuberant display and might only be viewed by themselves or maybe the teacher sitting alongside, their successes warrant a celebration. They need to cheer their own efforts and triumphs, and they also need acknowledgment from those to whom they have looked for guidance and support on the journey. They need to know what successful reading feels like and they deserve the pleasure that comes from the victory that is now theirs.

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I wish I could say that I am headed for Wimbledon after that summer of tennis lessons. (I’m not.) But then again, that’s not really what my efforts were all about. With the unwavering support of my tennis coaches, I have moved forward. Like those readers who suddenly realize that they can now read the Magic Treehouse books all of their friends are reading or can finally pull Harry Potter off the shelf with confidence, I have tasted the fruits of my hard-fought labors. I know that, in tennis and in reading, there’s not really an end goal but just a good solid start. And sometimes that’s all I, and our striving readers, need to keep pushing forward toward continued success.

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