Errorless Learning: Ensuring Success Every Step of the Way
By Diane Ryckman
Errorless learning is really a fancy name for something we do quite naturally with our little ones as they learn and grow from babyhood to child hood, and it is something we can continue to do with our children on into their formal education. So just what is errorless learning? It is guaranteeing that my child does not fail at a given task by helping him along until my help is no longer necessary. It is making sure that he gets the answer right every time. It is giving him the answer whenever he hesitates. And it is a very legitimate teaching technique!
Why Errorless Learning?
For many children with learning challenges it is so important that they are not given the opportunity to make mistakes when learning a new skill. Making mistakes often leads to discouragement, which results in a lack of motivation to even try the skill again. Often once a mistake is made, it becomes very difficult to unlearn it. Errorless learning is an excellent way to avoid discouragement, and to build success and self-confidence in a new skill. Another huge deterrent to learning is frustration, whether it’s me getting frustrated with my child “not getting it”, or whether it’s my child becoming frustrated because it just doesn’t make sense. Errorless learning eliminates both.
Introducing a skill
When teaching my child a new skill using errorless learning, I must first make sure that he knows what I expect of him. This can take a long time and a lot of patience on my part as we go over and over and over a new skill together. There are a number of ways I can introduce a new skill. I can prompt my child by talking through each step of a new skill. I can provide hand over hand support. I can do the skill with my child over and over again. I can provide him with cues he can “peek” at to guarantee his success. I can do the skill for him when he hesitates, modeling my expectations. Whatever approach I take, I need to provide my child with all the help he needs to accomplish the learning task given.
Here’s how Nila has been applying errorless learning with her daughter Anna:
“We are trying to get Anna's auditory sequencing up, and one of the computer programs we have has animal sounds and instrument sounds which they play in different orders and require her to play them back in the same sequence. Until she understands exactly what is required of her, I actually do it for her. Today I did the exercise many times myself, walking through it with her, until she seemed to grasp what they were requiring. It may have been a simple task for another child that doesn't have learning challenges, but for Anna it involved several things that she had to think through. When I could hear that she was actually saying them back in the right order, then I would use the mouse myself to start her with the one she had said first. Otherwise she had a tendency to say them right, but when I asked her to move the mouse to the first one, she would always go to the one she heard last. Her problem was that she had to keep the order in her mind, and remember to get the mouse working, and recall the right order, while they may have interrupted her concentration with asking her to find the right order or repeating the sounds. Had she got it wrong repeatedly she would have become very disappointed and probably would have just shut down for the day or a few days. As soon as I got her going on the first sound, she could recall the others and would say, "Anna do it." We did this over and over as long as her interest was there, and we ended on a positive note.”
Reducing your help
As my child shows that he is beginning to understand what is expected of him, I need to slowly reduce the help I’ve been giving, but I also need to be prepared to give him help whenever he hesitates. The key, again, is keeping his learning error free. Here’s what Amy does with her daughter Reagan:
“When Reagan knows something, she is very quick to respond. If I show Reagan a sight reading flashcard and she hesitates more that 2-3 seconds I give her the correct word so that she doesn't just guess and "cement" the wrong word vs. what is represented on the card.”
Breaking it down
If my child just doesn’t seem to be catching on, it may be necessary to break the skill down into small steps that need to be learnt first. When Andrew was learning to count, I realized that though he had learnt to count up to 10, he did not understand the concept of quantity – that 3 meant three things. Using errorless learning I made up some games to help Andrew learn about numbers. Here’s what I did:
I made a "game board" out of a piece of construction paper with 3 recipe card size squares glued onto it. On the squares, I wrote the numbers 1 to 9 as well as the corresponding number of dots, using a different color for each number.
I also made a set of number cards, with numbers on one side and corresponding dot patterns on the other. I color-coded the dot patterns to match with the colors on the game board, but made the numbers on the cards black.
The games for this board are simple matching ones - match the numbers, match the dot patterns, name the numbers as you match them, call the number that you want your child to match, place the number cards in order. The purpose is to help your child to become familiar with numbers, to recognize number names, to be able to count in order.
I then made a second "game board" similar to the first, but with just the dot patterns on it - still color-coded to match the game cards (I made it on the back of the first board). The game for this board is to match the number cards to the dot patterns. Peeking at the colored dot pattern on the back of the card is allowed and encouraged until it is no longer necessary. Another use for the game board is to place counters (buttons, coins, raisins, Lego, whatever might be fun and interesting for your child) on the dots, counting them as you do. From here you could match counters to the number cards without the dot patterns to guide, though allowing peeking on the back as necessary. The purpose of these games is to help your child recognize that numbers represent specific amounts.
Using the same language with each lesson, following the same steps, in the same order, using the same words, can become a prompt for my child to help him know the response I’m looking for. As Amy has been teaching Reagan to answer “who, what, where, when and why” questions, she uses visual cues and has also developed a script to use when delivering lessons.
is not always appropriate in her responses to "wh" questions. In trying to
Matching, Selecting, Naming
One errorless learning technique that can be used in teaching many concepts is Matching, Selecting, Naming – a method developed by Patricia Oelwein for teaching children with Down syndrome how to read sight words. The key to this technique is using a double set of flashcards of whatever the concept you want to teach. As an example, let’s look at teaching shapes. Matching: First show your child a card with a triangle on it. Tell your child, “This is a triangle”. Place the card in front of your child, along with 3 other cards with shapes on them. Give your child another card with an identical triangle on it. Ask your child, “Find the triangle” and have her match the card in her hand with the correct card on the table. Selecting: Ask your child to give you the card with the triangle on it. If she’s unsure, find it for her and go back to matching triangle cards with her. Naming: Once she’s able to pick the triangle out of a group of shapes, ask her to name the card you show her. If necessary, prompt her, then go back to matching or selecting until she’s familiar enough with the shape to name it for you.
This technique of matching, selecting and naming can be used for teaching many concepts: colors, letters, letter sounds, sight words, numbers, math concepts, money, telling time, the list can go on and on....
The Master Teacher
In writing this article, I’ve been thinking a lot about errorless learning lately, and in thinking it hit me that the only true errorless learning we can experience is when we have an errorless teacher. And the only errorless teacher I know of is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What a blessing it is to realize that as He teaches us the lessons of life, He is there beside us modeling (“…but as He who has called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct" I Peter 1:15), prompting (“Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it…” Isaiah 30:21), guiding (“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3), and ensuring our success (…to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy…” Jude 24). As I go through the school of life, I hope that I will be a willing and co-operative learner in the hands of my Master Teacher.