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What Is Your Strategy For Teaching Handwriting Skills?

by Rand Nelson, Peterson Directed Handwriting

uring the last several decades a particular strategy for teaching and learning skills for handwriting has become so dominant that few people, teachers or parents, recognize that there may be alternatives. When you plan a lesson for handwriting, do you recognize that your process for instruction employs a basic strategy? Do you recognize that the practice time spent by your child also employs a basic strategy?

The Most Widely Used Strategy In School Classrooms

The most widely applied strategy involves the presentation of a model. The model shows numbers and arrows in an attempt to illustrate a process for production of the shape that we hope to teach. Typically the training strategy involves having the child trace the model and then make copies to practice and improve the outcome. Sometimes the model is provided as a dot-to-dot exercise for tracing. Letís call this strategy "Trace and Copy."

A Plethora of Programs

There are many publishing companies producing "programs" for teaching handwriting. You have probably looked at many of them. When comparing these various programs you quickly notice that there are differences. Sometimes the difference is dramatic -- like programs presenting italic manuscript. Other times the differences are relatively minor. A print capital "M" may show long slants or short. A lowercase "t" may be tall or slightly shorter, may cross on the midline or above it. Some programs present "simplified" capital letters while others show capitals that are closer to the traditional American Standard Cursive Alphabet.

As you look for a "program" to follow you are immediately faced with a decision which immerses you in product. Which product is the best one for you and your child? This dilemma stops you short of considering the basic strategy for teaching and learning. It stops you from looking deeper to analyze the process that must be taught to the point of automation. It creates a false objective that has obstructed a clear view of the real objective for handwriting. It also keeps the basic strategy for learning buried in the pages of workbooks or sets of blackline masters. The simple fact is that virtually all of these programs are the same. There is no difference in the teaching or learning strategy. Virtually all give you the "Trace and Copy" strategy to use no matter what the product goal.

The Trace & Copy Strategy Consistently Fails

The Trace and Copy strategy came from the publishing industry with the invention of the workbook. It has been used with only minimal success for many decades. Many school systems adopt "new" programs on a regular cycle. While some no longer bother to adopt a handwriting program, many do for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly the language program they want shows letters that are different in shape from those shown in handwriting books.

The product again demands attention and a switch is on the table. A "new" handwriting workbook is needed. The product goal may be different, but trace and copy will remain. The strategy sells lots of expensive workbooks, but does it teach fluent handwriting skills? The fact is that these programs do not even address movement goals directly. The goal of fluent writing is rarely mentioned.

Handwriting remains as the primary tool for communication over time. The more professional your career, the more handwriting you use. Think about the people you know and deal with daily. Picture their handwriting and categorize. Do you know some people who seem to have a special gift for handwriting? Do you know some who say, "I can write neatly if I take my time."

The Strategy Failure

Digitizers are widely used these days. Your department of transportation and your local department store collect your signature digitally. Have you noticed the trend? Digitizer tablets have been in use for decades. Motor-control scientists have been using them to learn more about the brain and to learn how diseases like Parkinsonís affect the brain. Handwriting and similar movement tasks present a direct line to learning how the brain handles movement control.

Since 1991 digital tablets have been used to collect many thousands of samples from people of all ages. In the beginning these tablets were flat slates of opaque plastic with an embedded wire grid. The stylus did not produce lines on the tablet, but it did send signals through the grid to a computer which put the traces on the computer screen. Do you remember the early digitizers in your department store? You were asked to write your name but the pen did not produce lines on the little pad. Maybe you had to sign for a UPS package and encountered the problem. The majority of adults have trouble writing their name when they cannot watch the traces produced by the pen.

However, there are some people who are not bothered by the lack of visible traces. These people are those who seem to have a special gift for handwriting. They write quickly and easily on paper or digitizer, producing an easily legible and usually quite beautiful product. Why is it that so many adults can only write neatly when they take time to execute the movements carefully? Why do television commercials promote the idea that only a pharmacist can read your doctorís handwriting?

The answer lies in the strategy for instruction and practice employed by the schools and teachers. The fact that the vast majority of adults in your community can write legibly only when they take time to do so, provides proof that the teaching strategy continues to fail the majority of students in our classrooms. Are you using the same failed strategy at home?

Motor Science Answers

Those few people you know who can write fluently have learned to use a guidance system that is available to all of us at least to a certain degree. Motor science has shown that the brain employs two different processes for guiding movements. With the right training and practice, opportunities to face and overcome challenges, the brain learns how to use both of these potential processes in smooth, fluent, cooperation.

Consider the surgeon who must repair a damaged artery. Speed is essential. Accuracy is essential. Are all surgeons born with the ability to control the extremely precise movements needed to suture an artery in seconds? What strategy did he or she use to develop the motor skills that will save lives?

The automatic, fluent type of movement is guided by an Internal Model in the brain -- a muscle memory that can operate in cooperation with the other guidance system called Visual Feedback. The IM guides a fluent movement that is goal oriented. It is called the primary sub movement. The VF system guides precise movement that might be needed to get to a very tiny target. These VF adjustments are called secondary submovements. Trace and copy activities demand only visual feedback movement.

An Alternative Strategy

Practice should be aimed at improving the accuracy of the primary submovement - the automatic one. That should after all, be the goal for our instruction and practice efforts. We should be working to automate the production process so that the brain can focus primarily on translating our ideas into words.

But how can we focus our efforts on this Internal Model guidance system? What strategy for teaching and practice will get this system involved? The answer lies in information from motor science. We now know a bit more about the system and how it operates.

1. The IM guides goal-oriented movements. It means that we need to teach stroke- producing movements with a different concept. We need to show where each movement starts -- and where it ends. The IM guides movement with a different process than the VF system. It sends a "batch" of information to the muscles that includes start point, direction, trajectory and goal. Then the muscles move to execute the sequence. We need to teach letters as movement sequences with clear goals.

The best writers recorded digitally, exhibited great consistency in the movement goals used as writing progressed. We measured acceleration/deceleration with the digitizer. Stop points were very consistent. Many people wrote fluently but produced a scrawl that would demand our television pharmacist for translation. Measures revealed only minimal consistency for the stop points that translate into control.

2. The IM guides rhythmic movement. Have you tried to learn a line dance by watching the other dancers on the floor? You cannot move with the others until you know, and can anticipate, all of the steps in the sequence. If you must look first to determine what the next step will be, you cannot execute fast enough to keep up with the others. The challenge is to execute the movements in sequence and do it with the beat. Success demands both sequencing and processing skills that can be taught and learned.

To automate the writing process for most children, we need to teach the movement sequences and the processing. We need to include movement pacing (rhythmic movement) as a goal. The child needs to learn the sequence and be challenged to move with rhythm.

Brain function scientists have long held that the brain responds to challenge. When a learning activity presents no movement challenge, there is no need to change the way it processes information or guides movement. Beyond the first few attempts to draw a letter, copybook practice offers little challenge. The only reason to try to move is to get the page finished. Moving faster does not always mean smooth rhythm.

The alternative to Trace & Copy for handwriting instruction is called a "directed" lesson. Action words are chanted to create a rhythmic template for the writing movements. Chanting as you move the pencil challenges the IM to get involved in the movement process. Handwriting lessons are like aerobics classes - active, fun and engaging. The brain is provided with regular opportunities to learn how to use the IM and VF systems effectively in a smooth fluent process. Written language fluency could actually improve for all students -- not just a few who manage somehow to figure it all out on their own.

If your child struggles to put legible words on paper visit and ask Jeeves, "What is directed handwriting?" You could also phone the author, Rand Nelson, at 724-837-4900. Office hours are weekdays, 9:00 AM - 4:30 PM, Eastern.