Friday, January 30, 2009

A Review of Peterson Directed Handwriting

Handwriting. I remember handwriting instruction in my grade school years clearly. Perhaps it is because I'm a lefty, which tended to make me stand out during instruction and also cause my teachers a small amount of stress. Regardless, it was certainly a focus of those early years, requiring instruction and practice. However, is handwriting instruction necessary today in the age of computers? I've heard experts say no, that the progress of technology has replaced the need to go beyond basic writing instruction. However, we now have a generation who can no longer write legibly nor even read cursive, let alone write it. High school students panic with the requirement to complete the essay portion of the ACT and SAT exams in cursive. I'm not sure that is progress. But with a son who has trouble putting pencil to paper, I certainly am not in favor of pushing handwriting with young kids when we have technology to assist. Therefore, my approach to handwriting instruction in our homeschool has been a bit mixed. My 9-year-old son is functional. Legibility has a lot to be desired. We have also (unsuccessfully) studied cursive. However, handwriting hasn't really been an emphasis in our homeschool and I tend to put it aside for less painful endeavors.

When Peterson Directed Handwriting arrived for review, I was open to giving it a try. I received the Grade Three Homeschool Kit Complete, Making the Transition to Cursive. Included in my package was a teacher handbook, a non-consumable student book, an audio CD, a CD-Rom with letter animations, two position guides and two Try-Rex pencils. The first thing that I noticed was that this company has been around since 1908. Impressive. Secondly, the Peterson method is heavily research-based and focuses on the movement and rhythm of writing. Obviously not a new method given the 100+ year established date, but certainly new for this modern homeschooling mom. This is not a copy and trace program. Learning how to write is taught by breaking down letters into strokes with the same muscle pattern, sliding right and returning to a baseline. Proper paper placement, body position and pencil grip are an essential component.

While each lesson requires direct instruction and supervision from the teacher, it is not a difficult method to teach. Each motion is first taught on a large scale. The student watches an animation using the CD-Rom or may simply observe the teacher write the stroke on a white board. Before even picking up a pencil, the student performs the motion by air writing, working on large muscle control and memory. Action words or counting are chanted to the rhythm of the movement. Once large muscle control is mastered, students then finger trace the pattern using the student book while verbalizing the rhythm. The last step is to write and say the pattern. After writing practice, the student may reduce the size of the strokes. Basic strokes are eventually connected to form letters and then words. See the animations below to get an idea of the letter formations. The “how” is rather easy. If you are interested in more of the “why”, I highly recommend you peruse the information-filled website, including a video presentation explaining the method by Rand Nelson, also known as Mr. Pencil.

The difference is rhythm!

As simple as it sounds, implementation was a bit more difficult in our household. Part of the reason is that my son has developed some rather bad habits. His writing is performed with a crooked posture and a claw-like pencil grip. This is partly due to my lack of emphasis on handwriting instruction and partly because he actually does have challenges surrounding handwriting to the point that assistive technology has been recommended. I’ve attempted to correct his grip in the past, but eventually declared defeat and started leaning towards keyboard instruction

Our first day of instruction ended up with him in near tears. However, this is not a program that you can access effectiveness in the first week. After working with the program for a couple of months, I'm still not sure of its effectiveness. The compliance has gone up as has the pencil control, but my son has not progressed enough to be writing full words in the beautiful cursive style on the workbook pages. I’ve observed improvement and for that reason plan to continue for the rest of the school year. For kids with handwriting issues, this is not a get-results-quick program. It will require dedication of both parent and child.

Quite a bit of preparation time is required before even starting the program. The teacher will need to browse the site and read over the manual before beginning. I found the teacher manual to not be exactly user-friendly at first. This isn't a program were you can just jump in nor one you can give your student to do alone. Once lessons start, the time commitment is about 10 minutes at the most, less if that is the limit of your child. If your child is not compliant, it can be a long ten minutes. Think of it as physical therapy. You must go through a bit of pain, but with consistency things will get easier resulting in functionality in the weak area. This program won’t have your struggling writer begging to do handwriting practice, but it may very well have fantastic results if you put in the time.

Prices vary depending on the package. The Complete Grade 3 Package I received costs $38.55. The Basic Package, containing just the teacher and student books, placement guides and pencils costs $15.05. The CD-Rom and music CD, included in the Complete Grade 3 Package, are used for multiple grades and are individually priced at $17.95 and $9.95 respectively. The letter animation CD-Rom was helpful, but not completely necessary. We didn't really use the music CD since my son felt too old for it, but it may be a helpful tool for younger kids.

If handwriting is important to you and you are willing to put in the time, Peterson Directed Handwriting may be a program to consider. It would be best for those just starting out or those needing intervention in their handwriting. While I don't have dramatic results to report, I see this method being effective with kids that struggle with handwriting. Furthermore, the customer service seems to be great, with a genuine concern for helping teachers. parents and students with proper handwriting instruction. You may request a consultation conference to discuss your handwriting program needs with a Peterson handwriting specialist at the Peterson website.

My thoughts on handwriting instruction have changed since using Peterson. At the very least, an effort is being made to correct a hand-tiring pencil grip. At the very most, I hope the results will be some beautiful cursive writing, but I’ll settle for legible. I expect the progress will be slow, but bad habits take time to form and even more time to undo.

Visit the Peterson website to find more about the program and read the volumes of information on handwriting instruction. To hear what others had to about Peterson and to hear about other levels, visit the TOS Homeschool Crew blog.


Anonymous said...

Hi Heidi, I just ordered Peterson Directed Handwriting last night and went through their website and googled to see what others thought about it. I remember seeing somewhere a recommendation for using the kit based on where the student is in their writing skills vs. their current grade. Perhaps you already know this, but I thought I would mention it just in case. Maybe you would have more success starting at an earlier level?

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