Ways to Promote The Transfer of Learning

What Is The Transfer of Learning?

Transferring is the ability to take skills or strategies learned in an intervention and apply them in the classroom. Transferring learning in a different setting or situation is an important step on the journey to becoming an independent capable reader and writer. It requires a high degree of confidence and skill with a particular concept or strategy and the ability to initiate its use independently.

Why do students struggle with the transfer of learning?

There are several factors that can cause your students to struggle with transferring their learning to their regular education classroom. Some of these are very much student dependent, some are in the domain of the intervention teacher, and still others are related to the classroom setting.

Poor Working Memory

  • When a student has a poor working memory, utilizing their strategies independently may stress their cognitive load. You can think of cognitive load as similar to your ability to carry in groceries from your car. Depending on how efficiently the groceries are packed, how heavy they are, your degree of practice, and your levels of fatigue, how many trips it takes you to carry in a carful of shopping differs. A student’s cognitive load is dependent on their working memory, the difficulty of the task, and their familiarity with the strategies. For a student with working memory struggles, juggling their strategies may be the equivalent of trying to carry in 3 gallons of milk and a big bag of kitty litter in a paper bag in the rain. Just as you are likely to drop something in that situation, the student is unlikely to have the cognitive bandwidth to manage new tasks independently right away under these circumstances.

Not Enough Repetition

  • Another reason that students may struggle with transferring learning back to the classroom is that perhaps they have not had enough repetition to truly reach mastery. This may especially require spaced review and repetition to insure full mastery.

Lesson Pacing

  • I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of working with a student whose pace makes completing an entire lesson difficult or a student who always seems to finish with lots of time to read text at the end of the lesson or play a review game. Pacing is a double-edged sword. Pacing that is too slow may reduce opportunities to connect learning from one section of the lesson to the next. Another consequence of poor pacing is not having a good block of time to spend on reading continuous text. The text reading portion of the lesson is an opportunity for students to transfer learning within the lesson. It is their chance to orchestrate and apply their learning. Pacing that is too fast may not be providing adequate thinking time or practice.

Skill set may not match student’s reading development

  • Each student’s reading journey may look different. If the task the student is trying to do in the classroom has skills or elements that they are not yet proficient with, they are likely to struggle. A student that hasn’t yet learned vowel teams is unlikely to correctly utilize them in their spelling. In a similar way, if we are trying to teach something when a student is missing prerequisite skills, they are unlikely to gain independence. For example, if a student cannot yet blend three sounds, they are going to have a lot of difficulty decoding a book comprised of cvc words.

Not Enough Multisensory Teaching

  • The key to truly making the learning their own is to strengthen the neural pathways through multisensory teaching. If teachers are not using multisensory teaching strategies those connections and pathways are not going to be as strong and flexible as possible.

Student needs more time and reinforcement

  • It is very possible that if these other elements are all in place, the student simply needs more time and reinforcement to transfer their learning to the classroom setting.

Ineffective Gradual Release of Responsibility

  • It is easy for teachers to model and provide a high degree of scaffolding. Likewise, it is relatively easy to allow students to take ownership for learning and stand back. The trickiest part is decreasing the scaffolding gradually being careful not to provide excessive support or to pull the helping hand away too soon.

Communication with the classroom teacher

  • It is possible that the classroom teacher needs more clear communication about what the student can do, what he or she is ready to transfer to the classroom, and be given new expectations, checklists, or reminders.

One More Factor

One more possibility bears mentioning. If a student is receiving structured literacy intervention, but their classroom instruction is based on a balanced literacy model or another model that does not align with the Science of Reading, there is likely to be a significant mismatch between the strategies and methods in the classroom and the intervention space. This is necessarily going to slow the transfer of skills and strategies from one setting to another.

How can you encourage the transfer of learning for Orton-Gillingham students?

  1. Ensure that the Orton-Gillingham lesson matches where the child is in their reading development.
  2. Monitor the lesson pacing and adjust as needed.
  3. Remember to be both prescriptive and diagnostic! These are key principles of Orton-Gillingham instruction.

More important tips to keep in mind

  • Provide multisensory teaching techniques to strengthen neural pathways. We want to get as many senses working together as possible. Our goal is to use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic or tactile senses simultaneously.
  • Weave in review that will strengthen student’s working memory with card games like concentration. Games that utilize both decoding and encoding skills are particularly valuable.
  • Communication is key! Keep track of a child’s progress and communicate that to the family and/or the classroom teacher. Let them know when a child has reached mastery of a skill or concept. Let them know when a child knows how to apply specific decoding and encoding strategies and can be reminded to use them. For example: tapping out to spell. This can be done discretely so the student doesn’t feel like other students are noticing them. Another example: Using C.O.P.S. or C.U.P.S. when they are checking their work.
  • Part of communication is being explicit with students about ways that they can transfer these strategies to their classroom. For example, “You can use C.O.P.S. before you turn in your paper. Sometimes our hands and brains go at different speeds, and you may leave out a word or make another mistake that you will find right away if you do C.O.P.S.” Another example: “If you don’t feel comfortable using your hands to check b and d, you can use the d in your last name on your name tag to check your b’s and d’s.”
  • Effective gradual release of responsibility. This is not instant pudding. Effective gradual release of responsibility takes lots of practice, lots of observation, and periodic readjustment. It is never too late to increase or decrease the level of support in response to how students are responding. Remember the old saying: I do it. We do it. You do it.


Above all else, it is important to remember, the transfer of knowledge does not happen overnight! It is a process that takes time, a well-trained structured literacy interventionist or specialist, and careful and thoughtful instruction. By using the gradual release of responsibility and the principles of Orton-Gillingham, you can create the steps to help your students get there.

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