Why only smart practice makes perfect


Why some structured teaching and learning time is important when learning to print letters

The year in the reception class is an opportunity for young children to acquire the different skills needed for learning from instruction that will be the basis for classroom learning in the first year of formal schooling. 

These skills include knowing how to pay attention, attend to and remember instructions, complete a task and persist in the face of failure. Importantly children need to learn the rules of smart practice. 

Structured classroom time for teaching and learning basic graphic skills provides an opportunity for learning these important self-regulation skills and at the same time gives the students an opportunity to internalise the smart practice principles. 

Smart practice: the do-check-do-check process 

Practice that is merely repetition does not make perfect. Smart practice on the other hand  leads to improvement  because it includes reflection on outcomes and this gives the movement brain an opportunity to update motor plans based on information about the the difference between the intended outcome and actual outcome. 

Example: copying a circle: The child copies a circle and then pays attention to the outcome/product (the completed circle) and checks: "Is my circle the same as the example - how does it differ?"  

This attention to the outcome is often implicit - in other words it happens without conscious awareness. 

Smart drawing practice basics include:

  • Starting with a goal or intention and having an idea of what the outcome/product  should look like. 
  • Checking the outcome / product to see if it conforms to the desired one. 
  • Using this information / feedback  to adapt the the way the task is performed so as to get closer to the desired outcome / product. 

Implicit and explicit use of feedback for learning 

Children with good movement skills have learned to use feedback from the outcome produced by their actions to improve outcomes. This learning is implicit - it often happens without conscious awareness the process.  What is important is that they have learned to start with a goal (intended outcome) and then to  pay attention to the outcome and use this information implicitly to adapt motor plans.  

Children with poor graphic skills do not start with a well formed goal and do not pay attention to the outcome. The movement brain is not able to compare intention (goal) and outcome (product) and therefor cannot make the necessary adaptations to the motor plan which is needed for learning and improving motor skills. 

Teaching to enhance smart practice of graphic skills 

1 Explain what is expected, what the process is and what the product should look like. 

2 Demonstrate what should be done. Provide a good example and some poor examples. Let the children judge your efforts.

3 Provide an opportunity for practice. Instruct the children to draw several examples of the task at hand. 

4 Take time for feedback and reflection. Provide an opportunity for the children to pay attention to their products and talk about them.  

5 Children complete the task and check their work. 

Example: Copying circles in grid  

Explain: "Take a look at this task sheet. You are going to copy the circle in the first block in each of the blocks on the page." 

Demonstrate good and poor outcomes: Draw a good circle in the first block that is about the same size as the example circle. Next draw a circle that is smaller, followed by one where the begining and end of the line do not meet and one which is not very round. 
After each drawing let the children comment on the outcome. Talk about what is good and what is a mistake. 
You can also ask the children to indicate where you should draw the next circle to reinforce the left to right principle. 

3 Children practise drawing circles Let the children complete the first row of the worksheet and then stop. 

4 Children talk about their circles, choose the best ones.  

5 Children complete the task sheet and check their work

What children learn from guided practice 

Guided practice allows children to experience and internalize:

  • The importance of paying attention to instructions and demonstrations;
  • The need to understand the goals of a task: what the drawing or letter should look like, its size and position; 
  • The need check their drawings and letters and notice how they differ from the expected outcome.