Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: PDF by Hand (Peterson Directed Handwriting)

Handwriting has been a large issue in our household. My son avoids writing as much as he can. It has provided for some great mental math exercises, simply because he doesn't want to write down the problems, but it hasn't helped much with legible writing. I know boys tend to not have beautiful handwriting, but, really, my standards are pretty low. My first criteria is that he can read his own writing (yes, this is a problem). My second criteria is that I can read it. Lastly, it would be really nice if others could read it too.

Last year, I started to give up hope and decided I was going to focus more on keyboarding skills. Then, a few months into the year, I was given an opportunity to review Peterson Directed Handwriting. I figured it certainly couldn't hurt the situation, and readily agreed. You can read the resulting review here. In that review I cover details on the Peterson method, which I won't overlap in this review. Please hop on over to read the first review if you are unfamiliar with Peterson Directed Handwriting.

We had just completed the Grade Three Homeschool Kit this year when I found out that Peterson had some new products to review. Perfect timing! In response to requests, Peterson has made available lesson e-workbooks for all levels of their program. During this effort to make the e-workbooks available, the idea for a handwriting software tool, PDF By Hand, was conceived. I was really curious on how using a computer for handwriting skills would work in our home and agreed to give PDF By Hand a try.

What is included?
PDF By Hand is designed to be used with a Wacom tablet. The software is available alone or preloaded with e-workbooks. There are three pre-loaded options: print, cursive, or full version. I received the cursive package.

PDF By Hand Cursive includes all levels of cursive writing, from kindergarten to adult. It is preloaded with six e-workbooks, which are also available individually. Click on the titles below to read a description of each e-workbook. You may also view the entire e-workbook in a non-printable version by clicking on the links in the parentheses.

Cursive Step 1, 81 pages (View 1 Here)
Cursive Step 2, 59 pages (View 2 Here)
Cursive Step 3, 55 pages (View 3 Here)
Cursive Step 4, 64 pages (View 4 Here)
Word Masters 3, 69 pages (View Here)
Word Masters 4, 75 pages (View Here)

Also included are two files that allow the user to create handwritten notes and pictures.

The individual license covers use of the software by students in the same household. With digital products, I'm always concerned with losing the program to a computer crash. Peterson Directed will provide you with another download in the event of a computer crash or a new computer purchase. The license also allows you to install on more than one computer in your home. Just ask and they are happy to help.

How does it work?

Any of the document pages can be printed for paper and pencil practice or used with the PDF By Hand software on the computer screen.

There are two options for computer work, mouse/finger mode or tablet mode. The mouse/finger mode is intended to practice large movement either with a mouse, or more ideally with the finger on a touch pad. (Finger tracing is one of the steps of the Peterson method that it utilized before the student actually picks up a pencil and writes.) With a tablet, the parent will hold down the button that functions as the left mouse button while the child uses a finger to write on the screen with the touch pad.

The tablet function uses the tablet pen on the tablet surface. By doing so, the student can write directly on to the worksheet displayed on the computer screen.

Work done on the computer can be saved as an individual PDF file for storage or sharing.

Why use the computer to practice handwriting?

You are probably wondering what are the advantages of practicing handwriting digitally. For those into "green", it certainly saves paper. I also like that practice pages can be saved as individual files and opened up by anyone with Adobe. Additionally, a digital record of progress for reference is easily stored on your computer as a PDF document. Using the computer also adds a bit of variety in handwriting practice, which usually does not rank high in our household.

The ability to increase the size of pages by zooming in and out helps adjust that pages as the child gains more pencil control. There are also options to change pen color and line thickness.

Using the software for practice provides an added challenge of movement control. Anyone that has used a tablet before will know that it takes some getting used to seeing the results of your hand movement someplace other than the paper. It requires visual attention on the screen, while directing movement of the hand.

How did it work at our house?

My experience was a bit unique because I originally tried out the software not with a tablet, but with a digital pen. My pen is actually an inking pen, that is read by a sensor that clips to the top of the paper. In order for it to work with the software, I needed to run it in finger/mouse mode rather than tablet mode. This system actually worked fairly well, but it did have some glitches. While fairly smooth most of the time, it was a bit inconsistent running in mouse mode, which doesn't provide as precise feedback as tablet mode. The other issue is that because it actually inked on the paper, my son would get the visual feedback on the paper as well as the computer screen, rather than relying on muscle control and memory for his movements.

I ended up buying a tablet, partly because I always wanted one and partly because I knew we would get better use of the software. The tablet had a much smoother response and in general worked much better. However, I did find one very distinct advantage to using the digital pen described earlier. With the pen, I was able to hold the pen just above the paper and truly air write the letters with the results showing on the screen. It certainly wasn't enough of an advantage to stick with the digital pen over the tablet, especially since my son is beyond the air writing stage, but worth mentioning if you have both tools available to you. For overall use, I recommend using the software with a tablet, as designed.

I found using the computer for practice is much harder than I thought it would be and my son had some difficulty. However, when he did have some success, it made it all the more rewarding. ("Look how nice that one looks, Mom!") Part of the advantage is it really makes one think about the movement. It is sort of like writing with your eyes closed...are the letters so ingrained that you don't need to think about movement? We'll continue doing paper and pencil work as well, but the computer work is certainly worthwhile in handwriting training and adds a bit of variety.

As far as the Peterson method of handwriting instruction as a whole, we've had quite a bit of success with it. It has been a slow, but I've seen progress. My son likes the way the letters are broken down and the rhythmic movement. When I asked him why he liked this method, he tried to explain it with the following:
"In the other program, the letters were loopy and I just kept going and going. With Peterson, it slows me down and makes me think about each step."
The first thing I noticed after starting Peterson Directed Handwriting last year is my son's letter spacing dramatically improved when printing. His writing used to be just a string of letters and the reader had to figure out where a word started and ended. My son is still not fluent enough to write in cursive outside of practice, but his print writing is now legible and his cursive is improving. We no longer have tears during writing practice either. I have him work for 10 minutes and we are done for the day.

An added bonus!

I always look for multi-functionality of products and PDF By Hand is no exception. The software itself goes beyond just a handwriting practice tool. I have a ton of e-books and workbooks on my computer from a variety of sources. I realized that I could pull up the vast majority of these files in PDF By Hand and use the tablet to write on them. That means that the math worksheet that normally requires printing can actually be worked out on screen with the tablet, then digitally saved as a completed worksheet as a PDF file! Have an e-book or paper that you'd like to annotate? Perhaps you'd like your student to circle words that they don't understand? This is now possible by pulling the file up in PDF By Hand and marking the text with the tablet pen. I discovered that not all PDF files were viewable as some have security features, but many were.
You are also able to make your own worksheets by saving a file you create in a PDF format. Use the same worksheet for multiple children and save their answers without printing a single page.

How is customer service?

Worth mentioning is the excellent customer service. The website is filled with a ton of information on the program. The following three pages are good places to start.

Coaching Help
Information Directory
Training Interface

Rand Nelson, also known as Mr. Pencil, is available to give advice and answer questions. You are able to meet with him live in an online meeting room to discuss your handwriting needs.

How much does it cost?

The PDF By Hand Cursive is available for $75 for an individual license. This is a fabulous buy considering that purchasing just the preloaded workbooks alone costs over $100. Purchasing the e-workbooks as a package with the software gives you not only a hefty discount on the e-workbooks but provides the software as well.

If you would like to purchase just the PDF By Hand software, without any workbooks, it is available for $29.95.

Print, full (cursive and print) and Building Licenses (for schools) are also available.

Final Thoughts

If you are planning to use the e-workbooks and just starting out with this program, purchasing the program as a package with the PDF By Hand is the definite way to go for cost effectiveness. While we had mixed results with noticeable handwriting improvement as a direct result of using PDF By Hand during our short-term use, I like the challenge, versatility, and variety that the software provides to the handwriting instruction in our home. We'll continue to use a mixture of printed worksheets and computer screen work.

Visit the Peterson Directed Handwriting website for more information, to make a purchase, or discuss your needs in an online meeting room with Rand Nelson.

Fellow Crew member, Laura O at Day By Day in Our World, also reviewed the new PDF By Hand software. You can read her review here. Most of the other Crew members for this product reviewed the e-workbooks, which can be read here.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew, a team of 100+ homeschooling parents. While the product was provided at no expense to me in order to provide this review, I have not received any other compensation. Furthermore, receipt of the product does not guarantee a positive review. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.

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