video introduction to personal best spelling VIDEO introduction to Personal Best Spelling

Spelling errors: Habit pattern errors

Spelling is a challenge. We all make mistakes when attempting to learn spelling. The process of skill development, i.e., learning something new, involves making errors. Some errors are random and the result of memory lapses, distractions, carelessness, fatigue or inadvertent mistakes. These errors occur irregularly and are usually self-detected and self-corrected. These are among the kinds of errors novice practitioners make.

Many spelling errors, however, are not random or careless but under error analysis appear to follow a pattern - they are consistent, systematic errors that through repetition, i.e., practice, have become learned, habitual and extremely resistant to extinction. Learned spelling errors, like all habit patterns, are produced automatically without conscious control and are for the most part no longer self-detected or self-corrected by the individual.

Consistency of spelling errors in human performance appears to be the rule rather than the exception. While a superficial inspection of performance errors in spelling may suggest that spelling errors are random, a closer inspection of the errors of individual performers invariably reveals a pattern. Across individuals, spelling errors are often idiosyncratic, but there is considerable intra-individual consistency in the kinds of errors produced. Most spelling errors are not only consistent, they are also systematic because, unlike random or guesswork attempts, they reveal the existence of an underlying logical, though incorrect, reasoning.

The fact that spelling errors are consistent; that we learn whatever we practice (whether it is right or wrong); and that spelling errors are soon learned, become habitual and therefore hard to eradicate, suggests that children learning to spell should try to "get it right the first time". This is a strong argument against the "invented spelling or inventive spelling" approach to teaching spelling, also known as "discovery learning" "spelling experimentation", "creative spelling" and so on. Because we learn, i.e., habituate, whatever we practice or repeat, when children are allowed to repeat the same misspelling multiple times, their error soon develops into a learned error or a habit and is then much harder to eradicate. "Getting it right the first time" applies not just to the learning of spelling but to all other conceptual and skills learning, e.g., learning a golf swing, driving a car, flying an aircraft.

Habit pattern errors, sometimes called learned errors, skill based errors, overlearned errors, habit intrusion errors, recurrent errors or expert errors are among the most common of all error forms. Learned errors have been demonstrated in a wide spectrum of human performance where automated skill, knowledge or behavioural routines are involved, e.g., in the learning of mathematics and science; in driving a motor vehicle; in sport; in working with computers; in speech therapy; in chronic coughing; in postural problems; in foreign language learning; in artistic performance; in management training and organizational change; and, of course, in spelling.

The wide prevalence of learned, i.e., consistent or habitual, errors has serious implications for corrective attempts because such errors resist correction. The failure to achieve rapid and permanent habit retraining and unlearning of erroneous knowledge and behaviour in skilled performance is widely documented. However, the significance of prior learning, i.e., consistent and persistent errors and misconceptions, as an obstacle to learning new ideas and new ways of doing things has been greatly underestimated.

Spelling errors: How do learned errors arise?

Learned errors have multiple causes. Many learned errors develop when, for some reason, e.g., misinterpreted instructions, the learner learns to do things wrong and this learned error progresses, through practice, to the autonomous stage of performance. At this point it is no longer under conscious control.

You do not have to be doing something wrong before you end up with a learned error. When change overtakes you then you can suddenly find yourself doing things incorrectly, e.g. when skilled performers have to change their behaviour when new equipment arrives, new procedures are introduced, new control panels are installed on previously familiar equipment, and so on. What was perfectly correct and best practice one day becomes unacceptable and wrong the next. The better someone has learned the original routine or actions in the first place, the harder it is to change over to the new way.

A common change management problem is faced by sports coaches when they take over players from another coach and the techniques taught by the new coach conflict with those taught by the old. If the old system or techniques have been well learned, the athletes will revert to the old system when placed under the stress of intensive training and competition.

Self-imposed change also creates problems, e.g., when a golf player changes club grip, the game starts to deteriorate. During the period of adaptation to the new way, performance may drop and errors increase. This makes players put off changing until they absolutely have to do so, by which time they will have developed an ingrained technique problem that resists correction.

Rule changes requiring a change in game plan and consequently in action sequences can also give rise to habit interference.

The universal tendency in human learning to relegate much of our activity to automatic response sequences triggered by environmental stimuli is usually beneficial because it is a more efficient way of functioning. Unlike conscious, deliberate and wilful regulation of thoughts, actions and deeds, automatic, nonconscious and unintentional performance routines require only one third the mental effort. This frees up much needed resources for higher order mentally demanding processes such as developing a strategy or implementing a game plan. Relegating practiced performance routines to "automatic mode" is, in itself, an unconscious, automatic and hard-wired part of how the human brain functions which serves to reinforce the universal significance of automated learning in all human performance situations.

Sometimes, however, as with established technique and other performance difficulties in sport, the learned, automated, pre-programmed performance sequence that is unconsciously and inadvertently triggered by an event or situation is flawed, unsafe, inefficient or in some other way "wrong", and it exposes us to injury or makes us uncompetitive. It is then that we discover to our regret that old habits really do die hard.

So, you inadvertently practice, i.e., repeat, the wrong spelling of a word, and before you know it, you have learned to do it wrong. Your learned error is now much harder to get rid of. You are the prisoner of habit.

Spelling errors: Conventional explanations of learned errors

Teachers' and psychologists' explanations of why persistent errors arise and why they resist correction are typically based on assumed intellectual or perceptual deficits. Under this deficit model, errors are seen as a sign that learning did not take place, i.e., the person learned little or nothing from the original instruction. Although the learner underwent instruction, and appeared to pay attention to the teacher, the information or learning did not "take". Ruling out lack of motivation and other obvious factors, the underlying assumption is that the learner continues to do it the wrong way because he or she still does not know the right way.

Spelling errors: Error correction and associated problems

Conventional deficit-based explanations of learning failure imply only one solution - once you assume that a consistent and persistent error implies a lack of knowledge or skill, then the obvious solution is to give the individual the missing knowledge or skill, i.e., re-teach it; do it all over again.

Re-teaching typically follows this pattern:

1. Tell him what he is doing wrong and explain why it is wrong.
2. Improve his awareness of what he is doing wrong.
3. Show or model the right way and explain why this way is better.
4. Ask him to copy it.
5. Give him corrective feedback and reinforcement.
6. Get him to practice it.

While additional learning modes, e.g., tactile, aural, visual, may be employed to reinforce learning over and above those used in the original teaching session, the general approach follows this model.

Re-teaching in the face of established habit errors is usually slow to show results, very time consuming, expensive of resources and largely unsuccessful, yet we persist with it because there are few alternatives. Correction methodologies that do produce worthwhile results such as some behavioural approaches are often complicated, time- and resource-intensive and difficult for all but highly trained practitioners to successfully implement.

Even when learning gains are made during conventional re-teaching, these improvements often fail to transfer to situations outside the original setting where the spelling correction took place. Learners often appear to improve during teaching sessions while under the teacher's direct supervision, but revert to their old incorrect way of spelling when left to their own devices or during tests. Consequently, short-term gains are not permanent and soon fade over time.

Reversion to old incorrect routines in the face of stressful performance situations has been commonly observed in education, sport; and other skilled performance situations such as ballet, and in workplaces. Clearly, something is wrong with the theory underpinning conventional methods of skill correction and habit reversal.

Learned errors are among the most common of all error forms and the most difficult to eradicate. The universal and extreme practical difficulty in eliminating learned, automated errors has led to the belief that eradication attempts should be abandoned in favour of controlling or minimising their consequences. Error management, as it has become known, now represents best practice in dealing with errors in many hazardous industries and in aviation.

The error management approach defines behavioural strategies taught in crew resource management as error countermeasures that are employed to avoid error, to trap errors committed and to mitigate the consequences of error.

Error management in education often takes the form of routines or memory devices, that supposedly assist the learner in remembering the correct answer. However, the added burden of having to remember many different mnemonics often adds to the problem, and is not all that effective.

When learned errors are present, the learning that the person gets from practice drills does not transfer to competitive performance. During tests learner may appear confused, performs more slowly, makes more errors, and falls back to his old, incorrect, spellings. Improvement comes only slowly, if at all. Clearly, we need a better way of teaching and learning when learned errors are present.

Spelling errors: Special techniques for correcting learned errors

Persistent errors in conceptual understanding and in spelling are commonplace and constitute a significant obstacle to performance improvement for many students, both adult and child. The teaching literature places great emphasis on, "getting it right the first time", because teachers and students know that technique errors that are allowed to go on uncorrected soon develop into learned errors or bad habits, and are then much harder to eradicate. However, despite quality teaching and highly motivated students, teachers inevitably end up spending a lot of their time trying to help learners improve spelling errors, misconceptions, and other learning problems.

Persistent errors, by definition, are resistant to correction by conventional means and have therefore become the target for special treatment, notably behaviour modification. Studies of the application of behaviour modification to skill development in education and training claim that manipulation of behavioural consequences, e.g., reward, negative reinforcement, behaviour shaping and modeling, can strengthen or suppress target behaviours.

The limitations of behavioural approaches to error correction and skill development are numerous. The manipulation of behavioural consequences inherent in operant approaches is a limitation, in that the locus of control is not readily transferred from external to internal sources of reinforcement. Operant interventions also require a controlled environment that is not always attainable, e.g., the choice and timing of reinforcements can be critical to success or failure. Incorrect use of reinforcements by inexperienced practitioners of operant techniques is another problem. When skill improvement was observed, the effects were often small to moderate, took a long time to achieve, and even when performance improvement was more rapid, teachers as well as students, found the correction methods too difficult, too time consuming or unpleasant to implement, making them of limited practical value.

Another approach to skill correction is one in which the teacher directly confronts the student with his or her technique fault and its consequences. The assumption is that when the student is confronted with the error of his or her ways, he or she can no longer deny it, and the shock value of this revelation stimulates a desire to change and improve. Unfortunately, conflict teaching or confrontational teaching, as it has been called, has limited success even though it is quite widely used. It can also have undesirable side effects with learners who are already under great pressure to improve and are demoralised by their apparent inability to improve.

So, if behavioural approaches to correcting learned errors tend not to be used by teachers, and conflict teaching methods do not work, what is the alternative? Almost all current methods of technique correction and skill development that are used by coaches rely on practice drills, i.e., practice or repetition of the right way. Practice or skill drills are excellent for providing practice and improving learning of new skills, but practice drills are not very effective when trying to correct a technique problem or change an existing skill.

Spelling errors: A fresh explanation for learned errors

Mental mechanisms that affect learning and memory have been studied by psychologists since 1920. One of these mechanisms, proactive inhibition (PI), is an inhibitory interference effect on learning and memory produced by, "conflicting associations that are learned prior to the learning of the task to be recalled". In effect, if what the person has learned previously is in conflict (disagreement) with the new material he or she is trying to learn, PI is involuntarily activated and exerts an inhibitory effect on the recall of the new material, causing it to undergo accelerated forgetting and leading to the person reverting to their old way of doing things.

The main effect of PI on new, conflicting, learning is that although it does not prevent learning from occurring, it prevents the association of conflicting ideas. This, in turn, dramatically slows down change and improvement, resulting in a greatly prolonged adaptation period to the new learning.

During this adaptation period the athlete appears to "forget" the new technique or skill and repeatedly falls back to old ways.

Please go to the demonstration of this proactive inhibitory mechanism, complete the activities, and then read the explanation of your scores on the two tests. This "words in colour" demonstration will give the opportunity to experience PI for your self, and will also give you some idea of how much PI you have hard wired into your brain. Follow this link to go to the PI demonstration.

These inhibitory effects on recall of new learning and the associated problems with transfer of learning to new settings have been well documented in many experimental manipulations of the proactive inhibitory mechanism. However, the implications of such interference for error correction and habit reversal and for ways to accelerate learning were not sufficiently explored.

Old Way/New Way® theory has extended the PI story and produced an explanation of why habitual errors in conceptual understanding and skilled performance are so difficult to eradicate. The main principles are stated here, in the context of spelling correction.

1. Repetition of a skilled behaviour pattern is a sign that learning has occurred, so consistent, habitual spelling errors indicate the presence, rather than the absence, of learning. In this case, what the person knows is how to do it "wrong". This becomes the starting point for spelling correction.
2. PI does not prevent learning from occurring, it merely prevents the association of conflicting ideas.
3. When new information or ideas disagree or conflict with what the person already knows, this conflict generates inhibition of the new learning. This leads to confusion, slower performance, and an increase in errors. PI produces accelerated forgetting of the new, correct, spelling, and within minutes or hours, the person appears to forget what he or she has been taught.
4. It does not matter whether what the person already knows is correct or incorrect, because PI protects all prior knowledge and skills as it cannot discriminate between what is "right" and what is "wrong", in a given context.
5. PI therefore exerts a maintenance effect over prior learning, inhibiting change and preserving erroneous (as well as correct) knowledge and skills.
6. PI is an involuntary mechanism over which we have little or no control. It is universal but most people are not even aware they have this mechanism hard-wired into their brain.
7. There appears to be considerable variation within the population in the level of PI one inherits. Individuals with higher PI are less likely to achieve successful behaviour change (e.g., error correction, habit reversal) under conventional correction methods.
8. Performance becomes cue-dependent, and the person reverts to their prior, incorrect, spelling when the teacher's presence is withdrawn, thus inhibiting transfer of learning to other settings and ensuring that the erroneous knowledge and behaviour continue to resist correction.
9. This is why, "old habits die hard."

The emphasis in Old Way/New Way® is on what the learner can do, not on what the learner can't do. Whereas in conventional teaching the teacher would say, "He can't spell properly", in Old Way/New Way® teaching the teacher would say, "He consistently spells it 'recieve'; he should be spelling it 'receive'."

The enormous significance of learned errors for human learning and continuous improvement, and the impact on skilled performance, is reflected in the vast amount of literature on behaviour change, particularly in the fields of education, psychology, sports coaching, and the enhancement of skilled performance. Despite the impact of this universal problem, Old Way/New Way® is the first and still the only teaching methodology that offers a cost-effective and user friendly solution.


Spelling errors: Error correction and skill development using Old Way/New Way®

Old Way/New Way® protocols are prepared prior to an intervention, called a learning trial, and are tailor made for a specific performance difficulty or conceptual misunderstanding where change is required. Since no two performance situations are exactly alike, the Old Way/New Way® practitioner needs to be thoroughly grounded in the theory and practice of this learning methodology in order to diagnose each performance problem and design an appropriate and effective Old Way/New Way® intervention.

An Old Way/New Way® protocol that is specifically devised for technique and skill correction in education typically has the following steps:

1. Diagnosis of the performance problem or technique difficulty.
2. Systematic and progressive discrimination.
4. Generalization or practice.
5. Follow-up correction, if necessary.

Conventional technique correction used by teachers almost always follows the basic sequence described earlier, namely,

1. Tell them what they are doing wrong and explain why it is wrong;
2. Develop students' awareness of what they are doing wrong;
3. Show them the right way and explain why this way is better;
4. Ask them to copy it give them corrective and supportive feedback; and
5. Then get them to practice the right way.

One of the main differences between Old Way/New Way® learning and conventional learning methods is that Old Way/New Way® requires the individual to mediate the differences between the "old" and the "new" ways. "Mediation" in this context, refers to the student's ability to "stand between" the old and new knowledge, and to sort out their differences. However, while a "mediator" is typically a third party negotiator between two opposing parties, in Old Way/New Way® in education the mediator is the student him- or herself.

If the old way persists after four or five fortnightly repeat sessions then this strongly suggests that the original error diagnosis was incomplete or faulty. Much depends on the experience and ability of the teacher, the student and the educational psychologist, who is the Old Way/New Way® practitioner, to jointly bring their expertise to bear on the situation so they can accurately;

  1. Identify and analyse the performance error;
  2. Identify and demonstrate the substitute action required; and
  3. Describe, and elicit from the student, the essential physical and psychological differences between these "right" and "wrong" ways of spelling the word.

Studies of the effectiveness of Old Way/New Way® in many different performance settings including education, workplace training, and Olympic sport coaching, and the results of numerous field trials, consistently report that after one successful correction session lasting from 20 minutes to an hour or so, the person has:

  1. An 80% probability of performing in the new way, and a 20% probability of still doing it in the old way, when compared with conventional skill correction.
  2. There is also a 90% probability of self-detecting an old way when it occurs and of self-correcting it. This further accelerates learning.
  3. Spontaneous recovery of the old way can be expected at two to three weeks after the original learning trial, and if it occurs is easily dealt with.
  4. Achievement of full correction and eradication of the technique or skill problem is influenced by how much the learner practices the new way after the learning trial.
  5. Everything being equal, more practice means that additional learning trials may not be necessary. However, with highly complicated performance skills it may require from two to five learning trials spaced at fortnightly intervals, to achieve full correction.

A new model for teaching and learning

  1. Old Way/New Way® offers an entirely new approach to the correction of performance errors and misconceptions.
  2. Although highly innovative, this teaching methodology is readily integrated into what teachers and students normally do in their quest for knowledge development and continuous improvement.
  3. Old Way/New Way® is a unique example of successful collaboration between researchers and practitioners to design the most effective teaching protocols.
  4. Old Way/New Way® is basically a Neo-Constructivist model - the learner is the one who is responsible for learning, understanding and changing.
  5. The teacher's ability to identify and diagnose the error or misconception problem is critical, as is his or her ability to identify, explain and demonstrate to the student the "correct" performance. This befits the teacher's role as the expert.
  6. The student can be empowered through Old Way/New Way® to take on personal responsibility for improving.
  7. The student's prior knowledge and skills (incorrect as well as correct) must be incorporated into any teaching strategy.
  8. If no conflict is likely between new and pre-existing knowledge and skills, then a conventional teaching strategy is OK and new knowledge and skills will consolidate and build on old.
  9. However, when prior knowledge and skills are different, and likely to conflict with the new, the student needs to follow prescribed Old Way/New Way® procedures, and not just attempt to practice the new while ignoring pre-existing knowledge and skills.

A new model for change and continuous improvement

The student does not have to be doing something wrong, before he or she can benefit from Old Way/New Way® learning. The Old Way/New Way® learning method can speed up all kinds of learning and accelerate change in many contexts, apart from error correction.

Transition training is another kind of learning that greatly benefits from Old Way/New Way®. When the learner has to change over to new procedures due to a change of rules, or has to adopt a new style of working because of a change from one system to another, PI will try to slow down the desired change, create confusion, slow down performance, and increase errors. Old Way/New Way® gets round this problem, bypasses PI and makes faster change possible. You do not have to be doing something wrong before you can benefit from Old Way/New Way®; you simply have to want to change whatever you are currently doing.

Old Way/New Way® applications

Old Way/New Way® enables individuals, groups or teams to change and permanently improve their performance more quickly in education, for all age groups and levels.

For example, Old Way/New Way®:

  • helped musical performance students overcome performance anxiety and its inhibiting effects
  • corrected student misconceptions in science and mathematics, and accelerated learning
  • corrected established spelling errors of adult learners, and school age children
  • is being used effectively by adult literacy and workplace literacy teachers
  • overcomes persistent reversals in young children
  • can be used with individuals or with whole classes, and with multi-age grouped classes
  • improved attitude towards school and confidence in learning ability, especially for boys
  • read these case studies and our annotated bibliography for more information.

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