The Handwriting Debate: Which Program is Best?

handwritingHandwriting Without Tears.

D’Nealian.

Zaner-Bloser.

While these words might look like gibberish, they are actually the names of some of the most common handwriting programs used in schools today. Believe it or not, I’ve had some pretty hot debates with parents and colleagues over which program was best. I even remember a parent scolding me for allowing her child to form the letter “C” in HWT style, stating it should never be considered a “center starter”. I know, I know, the life of an OT can get pretty spicy…

So before you swear your allegiance to your favorite program, allow me to share a little objective insight from my experiences.

Handwriting Without Tears (HWT)

-Ok, I’ll just go out there and say it. This one is my favorite. (Oops, I guess there goes my objective stance…) The main reason is the jargon used with the program. Letters are grouped by starting point and have simple instructions to remember their formation sequence.

-Strokes are simple: big line, little line, big curve, little curve.

-The program has tons of activities and various ways to incorporate kinesthetic learning through building letters with wood pieces, using a magnet board, chalk board, or play-doh type letters.

-Mat-Man. (That should be reason enough right there. I love that guy.) During this activity, children use the wood pieces which represent each letter stroke (big line, big curve, etc.) to build a person. This has helped many children with the skill of drawing a representational figure of a person. Plus he has a cool theme song.

-This program has its own simplified writing paper. If your child isn’t using this program in school, then it can be difficult to switch back and forth for some children. If this is the case then I will adapt the program to follow the HWT outline with  whatever paper the child is using at school.

D’Nealian

-I have had more problems with this handwriting program than any other. This printing allows for a pseudo transition to cursive with slanted letters and little tails added on the end of each character.

-While this program is supposed to bridge the gap between printing and cursive, I find it just adds another detail to muddy up the process of learning print. For the kids that I work with, visual perceptual, fine motor, and sensory processing issues interfere with writing in the first place. Adding a tail to a letter just seems to make it more challenging. A lot of “a”s end up looking like “q”s.

Zaner-Bloser

-One of the most commonly used programs in schools. This program uses the paper with a blue top line, dotted midline, and red baseline. For most typically developing kids, this program is completely fine. For some of my clients? Confusing.

-“Start on the top line, then draw past the midline to the baseline, slide to the right, then curve back up to the midline with a swooping action, then curve around again until you meet up with the top line.” Ok, I’ve exaggerated a bit, but this is how I feel their instructions come across. They are very detailed and wordy. For kids that have a difficult time processing all of this information, it can be challenging.

-I do love the Z-B paper. The red base-line gives a strong visual cue to stop, and the midline helps kids size their letters appropriately. This is why I will use this paper with the HWT program for some children. However, on that same note, for kids with difficulty processing visual information, HWT has a simplified paper which may work out better.

The bottom line is that each program has its benefits. Plus, parents don’t always have a big choice when it comes to the program used at their child’s school. As an OT, it is our job to adapt whatever program we use to allow the child to gain the skill at hand. (Get it? At hand…handwriting… ok, you get it…)

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About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
This entry was posted in Insider Information, Occupational Therapy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to The Handwriting Debate: Which Program is Best?

  1. Pingback: Evaluating a Child’s Handwriting: An Inside Look | The Anonymous OT

  2. Pingback: Handwriting Without Tears “Wet-Dry-Try” App Review | The Anonymous OT

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  4. Maureen Curran-Dorsano says:

    In most European countries, children read print but write in cursive, right from the beginning. They all learn how to read (we are told kids have to print in order to learn to read) and have much better handwriting success. No problem with letter reversals and because they only work on one handwriting system, they have more time to master it.

  5. kategladstone says:

    I am not an OT, but a handwriting teacher. Would you please evaluate two programs that my students have great success with? They are BFHhandwriting.com and handwritingsuccess.com

  6. Gigi says:

    kategladstone which program do you prefer – BFHhandwriting.com or handwritingsuccess.com?? I have used the Handwriting Without Tears but am looking for an even simpler cursive as most schools are not requiring it and students are so resistant to it. I’m leaning towards the BFH.

    • I slightly prefer handwritingsuccess.com, but that is simply because slightly more of my students like that one a little better. With almost all of my students, I use numerous resources/techniques from both of these programs, especially when (as is often the case) the students are floundering with/resentful of one or more of the conventional programs such as HwTears

    • I think you need to study the web sites and blogs of any handwriting program. One critical factor is the older student and adult success (legibility and speed). Any program should supply samples.

  7. Fiona says:

    The best handwriitng programme on the market I feel isThe Magic Caterpillar A Process for teaching Handwriting by Barbara Brann. There is a story to it and a reason for doing everything. I works within a child memory spaces and can produce correct letter formation in 4 to 6 weeks. It is great for correctlng poor formation. There are addiional resoursed avaiable to go with it. A lot of children using this programme only need to do published writing for spelling error not for poor writing. Check out (www.learningskills4kids.com or http://www.bmbeducation.com.au.

  8. kategladstone says:

    Fiona, I don’t see what would make that program better than the general run of available programs — and I don’t see what would make me choose it over my correct program choices (BFHhandwriting.com and handwritingsuccess.com). Can you please show me specifically how it compares/contrasts with these two?

  9. Loretta says:

    not sure where I should enter this post… as it does refer to handwriting… but what has been your (or any OT’s out there reading this…) experience with retained reflexes and their interference with handwriting??? any and all information/comments would be greatly appreciated… I have been working with this one boy for awhile now on the writing 8 exercise (letters superimposed on the 8, large motor movements from the shoulder, etc….) and he is not getting it at all! I suspect there are other things at play, of course, retained reflexes may be one of them (also, visual perceptual skills)… He has super tight grip, will press hard one minute, softly the next minute, then do it fine for a while, then hard, then soft, etc. no consistency, fluctuates daily, no recall, etc. He has no flow when going around the 8 track (fast, then slow, then fast, then just right, etc.) Anyway, I have read a little on retained reflexes but wonder who know more out there and where can i find more information to better tell me if it is (or is not) part of his issue…

    • kategladstone says:

      Loretta, someone who knows A LOT about retained reflexes is Kathy Johnson of the PYRAMID OF POTENTIAL program at pyramidofpotential.com — tell her I sent you.

  10. We are changing over to Fundations at our school what do you think of that program?

  11. Melody says:

    Which handwriting program is best for a left handed child?

    • kategladstone says:

      Of the several programs designed specifically for left-handers, the only one I can recommend is LEFT HAND WRITING SKILLS — http://www.robinswood.co.uk/left-hand-writing-skills/schools/ — which I very strongly recommend if you are looking for a program that is specifically designed for left-handed students. However, there is much to be said for a more inclusive approach, where the books and other materials are specifically designed to be maximally helpful for BOTH left-handed and right-handed students. Here, the programs I recommend most often (as maximally friendly to left-handers AND to right-handers) are BARCHOWSKY FLUENT HANDWRITING at BFHhandwriting.com and GETTY-DUBAY HANDWRITING at handwritingsuccess.com

  12. Stan Fomin says:

    As we all know, our school-based colleagues are facing increasing budgetary and time crunches every year. This makes having a program that can be quickly and affordably embedded in the curriculum more important than ever. Size Matters Handwriting Program through http://www.realOTsolutions.com is a new but proven program, having undergone the largest research study EVER on the topic. SMHP is concept-driven. The Key Concepts and strategies enable handwriting sensibility to occur throughout the day in all subjects. Definitely worth checking out!

  13. Kate… I’m curious about the regression you’re reporting. The Size Matters Handwriting Program has had terrific and immediate results changing legibility with students. This is in large part due to the built in follow-through component. When teachers embrace the concepts, remind students of The Rules, play the Dice Game, and graduate students to higher grade level paper once they’ve made their letters the right size, there is a natural and sustained retention of the information. Plus the self-scoring is a huge incentive and builds student buy-in. I would love to share more about the program with you. I believe you would be impressed by how quickly the students catch on, how easy it is for teachers to embed handwriting sensibility into the school day, how affordable it is and how simple yet meaningful is the progress monitoring. Therapists around the country are embracing SMHP because it works.

    • kategladstone says:

      Beverly — “Size Matters” is one of several programs in which I’ve heard all manner of glowing praisefulness while seeing student performance that didn’t deserve the pretty verbiage..

      In the programs I already use, my students learn self-scoring … they learn and enjoyably apply rules (about letter size and other important things) … they master the use of various paper formats, and they experience (in your charming phrase) “natural and sustained retention of the information.”
      (So I am not sure why we’d need your dice game.)
      Is it personally and/or professionallyimportant to you that my students and I should change to the program that you represent? If you believe that such a change would help my students, you are welcome to tell me why — _after_ you thoroughly familiarize yourself with the publicl y available information (web-sites) on my current choices of programs and resources (links below)
      http://www.BFHhandwriting.com
      http://www.handwritingsuccess.com
      http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/09/08/opinion/OPED-WRITING.1.pdf
      http://www.briem.net
      http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
      http://www.italic-handwriting.org, –
      http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html
      http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/curriculum.html
      http://www.freehandwriting.net/educational.html
      _After_ you demonstrably gain and comprehend sufficient basic information (freely available) on what my students and I are already using, I will be more than happy to hear you tell me why you think we should be using something else instead. I’m at 518-482-6763 and handwritingrepair@gmail.com … and looking forward to your “sharing” or other response.

      • Kate…
        The tone you’ve engaged in seems hostile and confrontational. As a colleague and an OT with 38+ years of experience, I think it serves our profession better when we refrain from insults.
        Regarding the programs you’ve chosen to review, HWT, D’Nealian and Zaner-Bloser, I am extremely familiar. Your rhetoric to ‘gain and comprehend sufficient basic information’ of all the others comes across as arrogant and not at all collegial.
        While you may have experience using all of the above, your surface knowledge of SMHP no more qualifies you to critique it than mine does of them. What I can tell you is that none of them have undergone the rigor of scientific study to the extent that SMHP has both in scope and in significance. That evidence is available on my website. You are welcome to become familiar with it, if you chose.
        In truth, all programs work. Research shows that direct instruction is the way to go. The difference between programs is related to font, workbook exercises, verbal instructions and the like. What makes Size Matters different, effective, and appealing is its emphasis on letter size. Size is proving to be the variable that impacts legibility most. Correcting errors in letter size makes and immediate and visible difference in the consistency, and thus readability, of the written page. Beyond that, no materials are needed at all. It is concept-driven. And those very concepts enable it to be embedded into the school curriculum. In this day and age when schools lack money and time for instruction, programs of the future are those that are proven, achieve results quickly, are measurable and affordable.
        I’d love to learn how your students score themselves. I’m glad you have an assortment of options to offer your students. I believe you would find Size Matters to be beneficial for them, too. As I travel the country, therapists report that they too were skeptics until they tried for themselves. Despite your putdown about ‘pretty verbiage,’ the praise was genuine and earned.

      • kategladstone says:

        Thanks for replying, Beverly. Since you ask me to look at research evidence on your site, I’d welcome a link to it. I’ll read it with my fullest attention.

        Programs I use involve direct instruction and great attention to letter size. Given this, and your statement that “all programs work,” I remain unconvinced that there’s reason to switch to a program that (to judge from what I’ve seen of it) lacks a certain internal consistency which my students and I value in materials we’re using now. (Regardless, I don’t agree with you that “all programs work.” Some “work” only when compared with an utter absence of instruction — which, as I think you agree, is sadly VERY common.

        Thanks for asking how my students score themselves. Two of the many concept-driven self-scoring strategies we use are an LLPM strategy (scoring Legible Letters Per Minute) and a Look-Plan-Practice strategy from the Getty-Dubay series.

        Re: “no materials are needed at all” — I see that materials are sold on the program web-site. I assume that (as with approaches I’ve come to value) these are helpful but not absolutely essential.
        I would have become less of a skeptic about your program if I’d seen it gaining desirable results for the students of teachers who used and promoted it. NOTE — since one of my principal areas of concern and interest, in any program, is how the student gets from unjoined to joined writing, I’m wondering if you can tell me how that area (in particular) is handled in your program — it’s been a notable problem for students who later get sent to me from a variety of programs (including the one you favor). What should I know, in order to best help the student who is referred to me after lack of the success that had been expected within “Size Matters”?.

  14. kategladstone says:

    Stan — what I wrote to Beverly, I mean also for you. The regression issues and issues in your program are of course found in other programs also (e.g., in HwTears and in conventional classroom choices of program) — I do not choose programs in which I see those issues often occurring. If you object to this, please show me why I should choose a program that I don’t see living up to its praises … and, as you prepare to show me that, please familiarize yourself with my ourrent choices of programs and resources (listed above, in my response to Beverly) … at least, to understand where I am “coming from.”

  15. Phew, things are getting heated here, people. Agreed, Beverly, let’s keep it civil. Obviously the whole purpose of this blog is to freely share ideas, experiences, and reviews, but in a way that fosters conversation, not defensive comments over whose personal programs are best. Deep breaths…it’s only handwriting. I heard that’s going out of style anyway…

  16. Well, I’ve kept quiet until “deep breaths…it’s only handwriting. I heard that’s going out of style anyway.” My comment on that is: Why did you write the blog in the first place if you felt it wasn’t a valuable resource for your readers.” I’m truly saddened, as an OT, with that statement.

    • Hi Katherine, It was a joke meant to diffuse a tense situation, referencing my latest blog post, “Is Handwriting Dead.” (In which I discuss how important handwriting is.) I wrote the blog for the reason mentioned in my previous comment. Thanks for reading.

      • kategladstone says:

        Wanting to keep the discussion on a rational level, or to return it there, I will say this:

        As a non-OT who is personally and professionally concerned with handwriting, I have noted that many OTs take offense when I observe that I have seen their favorite program (HwTears, Loops/Groups, SMHP, whatever ) come short of its advertising (in cases with which I am personally/professionally familiar).

        How would anyone respond (re any other type of product, such as a car or a diet/nutrition plan or whatever) if, after you’d seen its results not living up to the claims made, you’d been told that you must try it anyway because (you were told) it really, truly worked?

    • Thanks for sharing your reason for the comment. I was a bit confused, I guess, about that, as I feel strongly about maintaining a very positive and serious spotlight on the importance of handwriting. Sorry for mistaking your joke for a comment on this important topic. In the spirit of OT and educators, let’s continue to share our knowledge and questions!

  17. Kate… It appears that you are writing as the Anonymous OT. Yet you said in an earlier post that you are not an OT. Which is it? I fear you are misleading readers in your heading if you are not an OT.

    Despite your opinion, SMHP has been very successful in a variety of settings with a variety of children. In the largest study ever done on handwriting, change scores from pre to post tests were significant at a .001 level. That study has been accepted for publication by the Occupational Therapy Journal of Research. A second study using SMHP in disability classrooms has had similar significant changes. That study is still in manuscript form. A third study is analyzing data, but is likewise powerful in reflecting positive changes using SMHP. And there are more. This is a new program, but the body of evidence is building.

    And yes, while all programs will work IF you teach them, what distinguishes SMHP is the emphasis on letter size which transforms struggling printers into legible printers in unprecedented times. Also unique is its built-in measurement component, incentives, and ability to be embedded into the curriculum.

    Regarding the materials that are available… they make life easier. That said, if someone knows the concepts, they can implement the Size Matters program using their knowledge alone.

    To your followers, please know that the profession of OT values evidence-based practice. Subjective experiences are interesting. However, they remain the anecdotal singular opinions of the practitioner.

    • kategladstone says:

      Beverly — I am not “the Anonymous OT.” I am not an OT, anonymous or otherwise.
      Thanks for mentioning research — l’d like to see research (by OTs or other researchers) comparing the outcomes of SIZE MATTERS with the outcomes of BARCHOWSKY FLUENT HANDWRITING and of GETTY-DUBAY HANDWRITING. Do you know of any? I’ve tried without success to find anyone who’s compared either program with SIZE MATTERS or with others mentioned here.
      Meanwhile, could you please perhaps share with me any compelling reason that one would want to choose a program which substantially changes its letler-models partway through (when joining begins) over a program which keeps its letter-models consistent?

  18. kategladstone says:

    Re: “SMPH transforms struggling printers into legible printers in unprecedented times” — What are those “unprecedented times”? How long does it take, over all, in SMPH versus BFH or GD?

  19. kategladstone says:

    Was the research on SMHP entirely limited to comparing SMHP-instructed students with as-yet-uninstructed students (testing a student before and after instruction, or was any attempt made to compare the performance of SMHP-instructed students with the performance of those being instructed in some other program?

  20. Holly says:

    While I am not a professional, I am a homeschooling mother. One of my kids has dyslexia. She has benefited greatly from the information from this debate. We looked through many programs. The programs at handwritingsuccess worked very well. Even my other two are doing really well and are very proud of their handwriting. All of them prefer cursive or italic cursive to print. We have used both HWT and D’Nealian prior to Getty-Dubay. So thanks a bunch!
    PS – their spelling has improved greatly with cursive as well.

    • kategladstone says:

      It would be interesting to see your own views comparing and contrasting “HET and D’Nealian [with] Getty-Dubay.”

  21. Stacia says:

    Do you have a preference in programs for left handers? Struggling with my soon to be 8 year old.

  22. kategladstone says:
  23. Yes these programs are good but in my opinion The Magic Caterpillar Handwriting Program by Barbara Brann is the best around. I have been using it for the last 25 years in my private practice with amazing results. This program has a story which reinforces where to start which way to go and why etc. Plus works within the child’s memory spaces. It stops b d confusion. It is also research based and has been used world wide.

  24. Ivan says:

    Another program we have found very successful is ABC BOOM! The French version in ABCBOUM!. It is a Canadian Program designed in Quebec http://www.abcboum.net/
    It is about the methods, not the materials and has great by in from the children, especially the boys.

  25. Don Potter says:

    Here are the two handwriting programs I use in my personal tutoring. They are free with no strings attached.

    http://donpotter.net/pdf/shortcut-to-manuscript.pdf
    http://donpotter.net/pdf/shortcut_to_cursive.pdf

    For a plethora of information on handwriting.
    http://donpotter.net/education_pages/11gth.html

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