John and Jane are bright. Why can't they write?
Do you ever wonder why so many intermediate grade students revert to printwriting? Or, why your best students are so frustrated by written assignments? The answer is found in new research on fluent movement.

Virtually anyone can write fluently. However, when legibility is a requirement, things change dramatically. A little experience in an intermediate classroom will provide a teacher with ample evidence that far too many of our students need far too much time to write neatly.

If students could write fluently, and produce legible work in the process, it would be much easier to accomplish the objectives found in the written curriculum. But in our classrooms, it usually comes down to choices. If you want to read student work easily, you must choose between teaching time and working time. Give students enough time to produce legible work and you find that there is not enough time to teach everything. Experienced teachers have found that time spent on practice activities in handwriting workbooks makes little difference. The question is, "Can I really do anything to help pupils develop the skill needed for fluent legibility?" The answer is YES!

Many scientific studies offer information regarding the learning of and application of movement. While there is much to be learned, current studies provide us with potent information which directly applies to classroom teaching methods.

Research On Movement
If you have recently applied for a new driver's license or signed for a U. P. S. delivery, you have probably had experience with the technology being used by motor-control scientists as they continue to study the workings of the human nervous system. The digitizing pad on which you were asked to sign your name is an interface which allows a computer to record information as you produce your signature. Did you find it troublesome to write with a pen which produced no line on the writing surface? This is an important question because research has shown that your answer depends upon the type of movement you use.

Peterson Handwriting started to use a digital tablet to collect handwriting samples in 1994. The tablet works much the same way as the pads above. Our software is set to collect measurements as the pen moves on the surface of the tablet. The data we collect can be used by a computer to reproduce the movements made by each writer - and, actually reproduce the handwriting - movement-by-movement - in real time. Like the digital pads used by U. P. S. and the Dept. of Transportation in Pennsylvania and other states, the movements of the pen do not produce a line on the surface of the tablet. We were sure that this would cause big problems for children but were surprised to find that it also caused trouble for a majority of adults.

Adults reacted to this "invisible writing" two ways. Many were frustrated to the point that they had trouble completing their name. They had to look up at the computer monitor to guide the pen movements on the tablet. Others could write a whole sentence without looking at the monitor - except when they needed to dot an i or cross a t.

It was obvious that we were capturing two very different motor control processes. One process relied heavily on visual feedback for motor guidance while the second must have achieved most of the guidance information from another, nonvisual source. Some people can produce legible handwriting in a very rapid and effortless fashion while others can only produce legible work by using a careful, laborious approach. We wanted to discover the reasons behind this relatively simple observation.

Analysis of thousands of these digital samples, from a teacher's point of view, has allowed us to make sense of the complex scientific studies which are focused on specific motor processes. The following data is presented to allow understanding of specific objectives for teaching and developing skills for fluent legibility. The big surprise is - it's easy to do!

The Difference Between The Two Processes
To facilitate discussion of the measures with regard to the different processes, we divided the subjects into two groups. We named one group Visual because of the fact that this larger group wanted visible traces on the tablet surface. The second group was named Nonvisual because these subjects did not rely on visual traces. While ten different measures were collected, one was particularly rewarding for the comparison of the two processes.

The most telling measure was acceleration/deceleration. To simplify perception of the measures, think about it as being a count of the number of times the pen stopped during the production of a symbol.

The examples below were written by one subject from each group. Each person wrote the word land three times.

The visual group showed little or no consistency. Note that each example of a letter shows a widely different value for this measure. The values shown are numbers chosen to demonstrate the concept. The actual data was much more complex.
 Subject 1

Visual Group


The Nonvisual group produced much different acceleration/deceleration data. It was very consistent for each iteration of a symbol. Again, the values shown in the illustration are contrived for simplicity.
 Subject 2

Nonvisual Group


Translation to teaching techniques and objectives:
The nonvisual group moved with very consistent rhythm.
The visual group showed little sign of rhythm in the movements used.
If we wish to teach fluency, we must teach the student how to move with rhythm!

Movement Objectives And Methods Of Instruction
The type of movement used by our Nonvisual Group has been named "Ballistic Movement" by the scientists. The type of movement used by our Visual Group has been dubbed "Visual Feedback Movement." The guidance information is stored in the brain. When discussing the storage facility, scientists refer to an internal model which is understandably complex. In the halls of education the term motor pattern is used to refer to the storage facility. The name motor pattern over simplifies the actual situation. It actually refers to a whole series of patterns*. If we want to help pupils learn to use fluent movement, our goal is to cause the integration of information into the motor patterns that will allow ballistic movement.

According to current research, ballistic movement must be completely organized in the internal model, from start to finish, before movement begins. This means that we must provide the following information for each movement on a cognitive level: (1.) Start Point, (2.) Movement Direction and Trajectory, (3.) End Point, (4.) Rhythm (how to move from start to stop).

We develop understanding through illustration and models. Some schools "adopt" a series of books to provide models for teaching and learning. It is important to understand how the models you use can affect pupil understanding, practice and application, of the fluent type of movement.

Models And Perception Of Movement
Look again at the words written with poor rhythm. The numbers roughly indicate a count of separate movements. Look at each of the words as a series of movements. Try to decide where the movements used for each of the letters begins and ends. Fluent movement requires knowledge of start and stop points in order to preplan the movement.
 Subject 1

Visual Group


If you are having a little trouble with the decision, don't feel bad. Part of the reason is rooted in the fact that the measures show no clear indication of end points inside the word. There is considerable evidence that this fact relates directly to teaching methods and learning models which provide few clues for rhythmic interpretation or practice.

Some Widely Used Models
The following samples could have been taken from handwriting workbooks found in many classrooms. Let's use them for a simple exercise aimed at perceiving the movements. Fluent movement requires preplanning, from start to finish, before movement begins. Otherwise, visual feedback is needed to control the product. This means you must understand start points and stop points. Look closely at the word little. We have marked the obvious start/stop points in red on the enlarged word. Do you see others? Would your student see others?

Let's consider the model of the word little. I have enlarged one of them below.

To use fluent movement, the pupil must know start and stop points before movement begins. What happens if we separate the rhythmic units to help our students learn how to move?

It is easy to see that the visible units of movement within this model have little to do with individual letter units. Given the number of new words your students need to learn each week, for reading, spelling and language, is it any wonder that this type of model forces the pupil to use visual feedback movement? Do you ever wonder why so many intermediate grade students revert to printwriting? They know where print letters end. This means that they can use a more fluent, and automatic, type of movement - one letter at a time.

Cursive Models Designed To Teach Fluent Movement
The models below look a lot different from the previous examples. They also look different from the fluent writing product produced by most people - even those who are good writiers. The models are designed to exaggerate the start and stop points so it should be much easier to identify the targets. As with the other samples, use a pencil to mark the start and stop points you see on the word little.

Mark the sample below also. We refer to this as "Cursive Print" and have been trying to promote its use since 1972. Note that the start and stop points coincide with complete letter units on both the joined (above) and separated (below) versions.

Cursive print offers an excellent way to correlate rhythmic letter production. It helps the pupil to produce rhythmic units by exaggerating the start and stop point for each letter. New words can be built with rhythmic movement one letter at a time. Yes, the Peterson Font offers this style! You can correlate rhythm into spelling, vocabulary and language activities quickly and easily. We also offer ready-made, reproducible practice sheets with high frequency words. Order Word Masters, for grade three or Word Masters for grades 4-8.

Points To Ponder When Planning Lessons

  • One of the most common activities used for handwriting instruction and practice, is Trace & Copy. Based on the latest research findings, this activity is a visual-feedback strategy. Because the pupil will want the traces to match the lines of the model, he or she is forced to use the visual-feedback type of movement. This means that there is little chance that the movements will be made with rhythm. Eliminate the pencil or crayon from the activity. Instruct students to trace the movements with the pointer finger to allow rhythmic movement.
  • The impact of rhythm is huge. The fingertrace activity can teach rhythm when a grammar of action, what we call Action Words, provides a rhythmic template for the movements. See it, feel it, hear it - multimodal activities maximize the "input" by taking advantage of all available channels.
  • Considerable evidence points to the need for gross-motor activity at any level. Research shows that gross patterns are not muscle group specific. They share information readily. Fine patterns are specific. We need to provide input and practice at both levels no matter what the age of the student.
  • One study demonstrates a powerful link between the dynamic information in handwriting motor patterns and fluent application of symbolic language for reading*. The study indicates that time spent to develop fluent dynamics will have a positive effect on reading fluency also. Because gross-motor patterns share information readily, it makes sense that the gross dynamics are involved.
  • If you are hard pressed to find enough time to teach everything, the research indicates that time invested to improve handwriting patterns could pay big dividends all across the curriculum.
  • Provide models which allow students to develop understanding. The student needs to see the symbol as a pattern of movements. Direct practice to allow integration of the movement patterns and improve control. Provide opportunity for application of new learning. At first the application is cognitive. But as practice improves confidence, the application can become more automatic. It is important to remember that application of fluent movement for handwriting is linked to developing spelling and language skills as well as developmental perceptual and motor maturation.
  •  *1. "Neural Correlates of Motor Memory Consolidation" Reza Shadmir and Henry Holcomb, Science Magazine, Vol. 277, 8 August 1997.
    *2. "The perception of dynamic information in static handwritten forms." Babcock and Freyd, 1988, American Journal of Psychology, Spring, Vol 101, pp. 111-130.

    Copyright © 1999, Rand H. Nelson, Peterson Directed Handwriting, Greensburg PA.

    Last update: March, 1999

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