It will surprise nobody who has read Teaching Linear Algebra that I started with the thought of some sort of spaced repetition system to maximize his long-term retention with a minimum of effort. I needed to help him with around handwriting, so I wanted to be personally evaluating how he was doing. This seemed simplest with a manual system. I therefore settled on a variation of the Leitner system because that is easy to keep track of by hand.
To make things simple for me to track, I am doing things by powers of 2. Every day we do the whole first pile. Half of the second. A quarter of the third. And so on. (Currently we top out at a 1/256th pile, but are not yet doing any cards from it.) Cards that are done correctly move into the next pile. Those that he get wrong fall into the bad pile, which is the next day's every day pile.
So far, so good. I tried this. Then quickly found that I did an excellent job of sifting through all of the words he knew and getting the ones he didn't know into the bottom pile. But he wasn't learning those. This lead to frustration. Not good.
I then added an extra drill on the pile that he got wrong. At the end of the session, we do a quick drill with just the problem cards. Here is the drill until we get to 3 cards. If he gets the card first try, or gets a card that came all of the way from the bottom since he last got it wrong, it is removed from the drill. If he gets it wrong, I tell him how to do it, and put it back in the pile near the top so he sees it again soon. If he gets it right after a recent reminder, it goes to the bottom to get a chance to come out of the drill.
After we get down to 3 cards, I switch the drill up. If he gets a card wrong I correct him and put it in slot 2. If he gets it right I put it on the bottom. Once he gets all three right, I end the drill for that day.
After I added this final drill on the problem cards, the "not learning" problem disappeared. He began learning, and saw his school performance improve. His spelling tests went from under half the words correct to the 80-100% range. Everyone was happy.
It is worth noting that at the end of grade 1 he took several tests, and we found that he was spelling at a grade 3 level. We have no direct measurement proving it, but I guarantee that he spells even better now.
This happiness lasted until he got used to doing well. Over time we had more piles. In school he was being given more words. I began adding simple arithmetic facts. This meant more and more work. Not fun work. Sometimes he would make a mistake on a card that he had known for a long time. Then he'd get upset. Once he got upset he'd get lots of others wrong. Over the next few days we'd get the cards moving back up the piles, then it would happen again. The flashcard routine became a point of conflict.
Then I had a great idea (which I borrowed from a speech therapist). The idea is that I'd mix a reward activity and flashcards. We'd start on the reward, then do a pile, go back to the reward, then do another pile, go back to the reward, and so on. The specific reward activity that we're using is that I'm reading books to him that are beyond his current reading level (currently The Black Cauldron), but in principle it could be anything. With this shift, the motivation problem completely disappeared. He enjoys the reward. The flashcards are a minor annoyance that gets him the reward. If he goes off track, the reward restores his equilibrium. Intellectually he's happy that he's mastering the material. But the reward is motivation.
With this fix in place, we lasted several months. Then we developed an issue. A couple of words were sufficiently hard that they just stayed in the bad pile every day. So I made a minor tweak. I had been doing his top pile, then his next, then his next, on down. But instead I do his every day pile. Then go into the top pile, next, next, etc. But after each of those groups I try him again on the every day words that he hasn't gotten right yet. Thus he is forced to get his trouble words right 2x per day. This helped him master them and got them moving back up.
With that fix, we lasted until this week. This week we had a problem. His spelling test for this week includes the word embarrassing. (And he can get a bonus for knowing peculiar.) The problem is that this word has enough spelling tricks to get it right that he simply cannot get it in one pass. We tried several times, without success. I therefore have added flashcards like em(barr)assing for which he gets told, "The word 'embarrassing' starts 'em'. Write the 'barr' bit." With these intermediate flashcards he seems to be breaking up learning the whole word into manageable tasks, from which he can learn the word itself. But I've also generated a ton of temporary flashcards, which may become an issue. (I plan on removing those piecemeal ones after he successfully gets them in the every 8 day pile. In a few weeks I'll know how well this is working)
That brings us to the current state of his flashcard routine. He currently has hundreds of spelling words and basic arithmetic facts learned. 373 of them learned sufficiently well that he reviews them less than once per month. But I am sure that I'm not done tweaking. Here are current issues:
- One week is not enough. Every week he is given a new set of words to master. But as anyone who has done spaced repetition knows, a week is not very long to master material. Spaced repetition excels for memorizing a body of data over years, not one week. On most weeks he is given a set of standard words to learn, and a set of words for bonus points. With the bonus words he usually gets over 100% on his tests. But we don't stop, so now he'd do substantially better on last week's test than he actually did last week.
- He's only learning what I know that he needs to. This week I reached out to his teacher and said that I am doing flashcards with him, and looked for feedback on more ways to use them for his benefit. She pointed out a number of things he can improve on, including common words that he has wrong, grammar, poems he is supposed to memorize, and geography that he is supposed to learn. The flashcard routine can help with these issues in time, but I had not been aware that he needed it. Better late than never...
- Work is climbing again. Currently every day I add 2 cards. Plus every week I add a spelling test of unpredictable size (this week 27, of which he already knew one). This is increasing the size of the bottom piles, and the work has been increasing. It is manageable, but I'm keeping my eye on it.
- This takes my time. At the moment that's unavoidable. One of the issues that we're still working on is handwriting, so there needs to be a human evaluation of what he's doing. But still I'm taking an hour per day with this. I think it is an hour well-spent that we both value. However in a couple of years if his sister needs similar help, what then? In the long run I'd love to offload the flashcards to a computer program, but the idea of a reward activity has to be in there. All of the flashcard apps that I've seen assume that doing flashcards is itself a fun activity. That will not work for my son. Maybe I'm being too picky. But I've developed opinions about what works while fine-tuning my son's system. If there is something that fits that, I'd love to find it.