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Peterson Handwriting: Using Rhythm to Improve Written Language Fluency

by Randy Nelson

A lot of parents recognize that it is very difficult for their child to put thoughts onto paper. It is a noted failure of mainstream education. The last NAEP Report showed that only about 25% of grade eight students were able to compose written answers proficiently.

If your child and student is having problems with the process of writing, you may be falling into the same trap that causes classroom teachers to rely upon failed teaching strategy year after year. Apathy and a lack of knowledge combine to prevent important learning for many children - learning that real research has shown to be so basic as to affect how the child’s brain functions to process symbolic language. Have you read recent news articles on brain scan research showing that children with reading problems are using fewer and different areas of the brain than are good readers?

Despite the fact that children show a strong desire to learn, apathy regarding handwriting skill has been steadily increasing for decades. The introduction of personal computers contributed to the idea that handwriting was no longer important and priority for skill instruction in our schools has been systematically reduced over the last thirty years.

It is ironic that during the same period of time, constantly improving technology allowed science to identify powerful reasons to give a high priority to motor learning. For several reasons, education failed to see handwriting instruction as motor learning:

1. A lack of teacher training leaves educators dependent upon commercial publications for curriculum.

2. Educational publishing companies are in the business of selling books. Programs are designed to use books, workbooks, journals, etc. which the publishers have ready to support their program. It is a sensible and convenient way to standardize instruction in the classrooms.

3. The instructional strategy for commercial handwriting programs is "Trace & Copy" - a great process to provide convenience and to sell workbooks. However, the "Trace & Copy" strategy for motor learning is faulted since most programs leave movement out of the equation.

A large number of schools also ceased to consider handwriting skills (and phonics) to be part of the language arts curriculum as trends toward whole language and sight-word reading spread. Are you using motor learning or have you taken the same road as mainstream education?

The Impact of Motor Learning Experiences

The following series of excerpts, primarily referenced from Endangered Minds, 1991, by Dr. Jane Healy, provide some powerful recognition of motor learning as a potent, physical adjunct to reading and language skill improvement.

Excerpt 1 (From Endangered Minds)

Dr. Jerre Levy to Dr. Healy:

"I suspect that the normal human brains are built to be challenged and it is only in the face of an adequate challenge that normal bi-hemispheric brain operations are engaged."

Dr. Levy goes on to say:

"...children need a linguistic (auditory) environment that is coordinated with the visual environment they are experiencing."

The above discussion revolved around the relative impact on brain development by television watching as opposed to physical play.

Excerpt 2 (From Endangered Minds)

Dr. Healy writes, "Authorities now suspect that the ability to activate and coordinate the work of both hemispheres may be even more important than developing individual systems in either side."

Excerpt 3 (From Science Magazine, Aug. 1997)

P. E. T. scans demonstrate changes in the brain resulting from motor training. Subjects were exposed to the training of a movement sequence as guided by a robot arm. The scan revealed that one area of the brain was involved at the initial exposure. A bit more than five hours passed before subject #1 could receive a "second lesson." At the outset of lesson two the scan showed several areas of the brain were now involved with the activity, and the subjects proficiency with control of the movement sequence had greatly improved.

The brain responded to the motor learning challenge by opening pathways to involve additional areas in the process.

Excerpt 4 (From Endangered Minds)

Pictures of blood flow in the brain as children are reading shows multiple areas (of the brain) are involved in the process. Good readers are definitely using both right and left hemispheres as well as prefrontal systems. (Segalowitz, S. to Dr. Healy)

Excerpt 5 (From Endangered Minds)

Brains of people forced to learn how to read differently due to deafness show divergent use of the two hemispheres. It is not surprising to find the right (visual) being used instead of the left (auditory). (Neville, H. 1982) It is important to note that deaf readers rarely process beyond a fourth grade reading level despite intelligence and instruction. (Healy, J.)

Excerpt 6 (From Endangered Minds)

Instruction tailored to boost hemispheric cooperation by focusing activities on the hemisphere that is least involved has proven to improve reading in dyslexics. (Bakker, D.) (Bakker, D. and Vinke, J. 1984).

Excerpt 7 (From Endangered Minds)

According to Dr. Jerre Levy, biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, "The entire brain must work together for our well-being. This is particularly true for reading and other cognitive functions that are extremely complex activities involving many areas of the brain."

We need to recognize the fact that a myriad of science has demonstrated that learning experiences can change the physical structure of the brain. The brain learns how to coordinate the activities of its various structures by opening pathways for communication, and pupil abilities improve as a result.

Excerpt 8 (From Matthew McNatt, private practice learning specialist in Illinois)

"I tell my clients who are reluctant to re-learn handwriting that they’re working on Peterson Handwriting primarily for its neurological patterning and cognitive training benefits; a positive side-effect is improved handwriting. Since they have consistently seen both, they’ve been consistently happy they invested the effort."

A Handwriting Program of Rhythmic Movement Exercises

While the science is complicated, the instruction is simple. If you can think of handwriting lessons as a series of rhythmic movement exercises you and your child do together, you can begin to use motor learning as a tool for improving fluency. The surprising part is that the program is inexpensive compared to those many handwriting workbook programs. And, the simple materials are mostly non-consumable. The Peterson Method, with its directed lesson strategy has been in continuous use since 1908. An extensive web site and telephone support offer help to improve your child’s written language fluency. You can even use your computer for motor learning activities with letter forms.

There is one consideration that some might consider a "downside." You must be involved in the learning activities. A directed lesson is key to teaching children how to move. Think of it as teaching a series of "line dances." Pun intended.

Visit to learn a whole lot more.