David Beckham has the art of scoring goals down to a tee: the action of putting boot to ball is ingrained and automatic, freeing him to conceptualise how the ball will pass the keeper and hit the back of the net.

**It’s the same for school students: those who can write the letters of the alphabet automatically, without thinking what a T looks like, can concentrate on what they are writing rather than how.

While practising sports or musical instruments to master a skill is well-accepted, the idea is shunned in the classroom.

Cognitive psychologist and University of Queensland education lecturer Carol Christensen said the idea of practising to master basic skills and knowledge had been confused over the past 30 years with rote learning or the parroting of facts without understanding.

“It’s a horrendous error,” Dr Christensen said.

“You only have enough attention to think about one thing at a time.

“If you have to focus your attention on low-level tasks of work such as handwriting, you don’t have sufficient attention to think about more sophisticated things, such as being creative in what you write.”

University of Western Sydney lecturer in pedagogy Megan Watkins says the concept of habit, habituating or embedding a range of skills is demonised in education circles.

Dr Watkins said habit was viewed as repressing creativity whereas relying on a habituated skill conducted independently of conscious attention gave freedom for creative thought.

“There’s only so much you can think about; the more you can hand over to habit, the better you can focus on higher order and more sophisticated skills,” she said.

Research conducted by Dr Christensen underlines the strong relationship between the component skills of handwriting and writing, basic maths facts and mathematic performance, and letter-sound relationships and reading. **

In a study of handwriting, high school students were encouraged to write in journals every day while a second group undertook a handwriting program, simply focusing on the way they formed their letters.

After eight weeks, the handwriting group had dramatic gains in the quality of the text they produced while the first group showed no improvement.

In a study looking at reading skills, a group of Year 1 students were taught about making meaning from text by reading lots of books, talking about the stories and learning letter-sound relationships from the stories.

A second group of children were only taught decoding skills, learning letter-sound relationships to sound out and read isolated words. After 12 weeks, their comprehension had improved 40 per cent compared with the first group.

Dr Watkins said habit had been progressively erased from school syllabus documents since the 1950s and was no longer considered a goal of teaching.

Dr Watkins said handwriting was a prime example of the need for an automatic skill, yet it was taught in an ad hoc fashion in schools, and given little or no time in teacher training courses.

Source: The Australian, Australia