The Importance of Correct Practice
The human tendency to internalize early mistakes is very strong. Years ago, when Morse code operators helped the railways and the military, many operators could be identified based upon the occasional mistakes they would make. When learning Morse code, operators would confuse the code for particular letters during their early practice. Years later, after thousands of hours of correct practice, many would still make these same early mistakes, simply because they ingrained particular errors early in their training. Simply put, we internalize what we practice.
How important, then, that we practice correctly! Consider another example—that of dancing. With access to films of great dancers, a competent teacher can begin to teach dance appreciation. A teacher who doesn’t know how to dance, however, will likely have great difficulty teaching students to dance using only such films. Common sense suggests that films of great dancers doing simpler moves, which students can copy, might help—but such common sense is only partly right. When students invent their own ways of moving to approximate even those simpler models, they tend to invent, practice, and memorize inefficient ways of moving. Then, if they want to be a better dancer, they must work to unlearn their poor patterns in addition to trying to establish good ones.
With access to ornate samples of highly skilled calligrahers, a competent teacher can begin to teach handwriting appreciation. Handwriting appreciation, however, like dance and Morse code, isn’t crucial for everyone to learn. Efficient handwriting, however, is crucial. Common sense suggests that simplified handwriting models, which students can copy, might help—but again, such common sense is only partly right. When students invent their own ways of moving to approximate even those simpler models, they tend to invent, practice, and memorize inefficient ways of moving. Then, if they want to write better, they must work to unlearn their poor patterns in addition to trying to establish good ones.
In order to learn efficient movement, students must be taught how to move. Moreover, the movements they are learning must teach them basic skills early—skills like top-down processing, left-right orientation, letterform memory, letter-word spacing, and gross- and fine-motor rhythm and control. The movements they learn early must also be portable to the movement sequences they will learn later—movement sequences which should be designed around distinctive features of our language.
Traits of Good Handwriting: The Seven S’s & Three P’s
Peterson Handwriting teaches students to write in a way that, by the time students learn cursive, demonstrates each of these traits of our language:
- The Shape of the letters, or “letterforms,” is consistent and written in a way that emphasizes distinguishing features of each letter. These features help keep writing legibile, even when scrawled quickly.
- The Smoothness of writing depends on a rhythmic alternation between ballistic movements and control points—between quick movements out and downstrokes that slow at the baseline. This rhythmic alternation of quick movements and attention to “pause points” paradoxically enables quicker writing while maintaining legibility. Rhythmic writing also helps maintain relaxed attention.
- The Stops, or “control points,” are emphasized in each letter of the Peterson Handwriting system to give writers time to transition into the subsequent letterform. Though as brief as 6/100 of a second each, when internalized as part of a writer’s muscle memory of each stroke, these brief pauses make execution of subsequent movements much more quick, easy, and accurate. Because these “stops” (control points) are on the baseline, consistent use of these stops is called “line control.”
- The Slant of each downstroke (the part of each letterform formed by moving down toward the baseline) should be consistent. For languages that move from left to right, the slant of quick writing—whether cursive or “threaded” manuscript—should also lean toward the right, ideally between 1 and 2 on a clock dial. By allowing the ballistic parts of each stroke to travel in the same direction as writing and reading, this slant actually accelerates both—for right-handers and for left-handers.
- The Size of each letter in relationship to other letters should remain consistent every time that letter is made. Moreover, the size of the parts of each letter in relationship to one another should also stay consistent. Consistent size helps promote quick recognition of letters: “Every cowboy needs a saaaee” is not the same as “Every cowboy needs a saddle,” but the only difference in cursive between the last word in each sentence is the size of the parts of each letter.
- The Spacing of letters, when consistent, reinforces rhythm and size and maintains legibility.
- The Style, or “neatness,” of writing is also important for maintaining legibility. Teaching movement helps ensure that style can be maintained without resorting to erasures or retraces. Time taken for erasing or retracing to ensure legibility hinders writing speed and can even affect comprehension as a student’s focus shifts from the flow of what he is writing about to fixing the appearance of his writing.
By teaching handwriting movement and by emphasizing Pencil grip, Paper position, and Posture, Peterson Handwriting helps students learn physical language, improve reading and spelling, and integrate all of these improvements in their composition and note-taking. No “trace & copy” method of teaching students to write comes close.