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Taking an Old-Fashioned Approach in Neuroscience

Mary Beckman, a now-retired special education teacher in the Elk River (Minn.) School District, says that new discoveries in neuroscience, and the face-to-face and online approaches they have helped create, aren’t the only way to influence the developing brains of young students.

Beckman argues that there’s a longstanding approach that does its part to develop the brain—handwriting. Eight years ago, that belief led Beckman to co-develop the ez Write Handwriting Program and start her own consulting company.

What started at the pre-school and kindergarten levels has since expanded the approach through grade 5. K2 classes use unconnected letters, while older grades practice in a simplified print writing method of cursive.

The approach, spread over 10 weeks, teaches eight basic strokes, including one formed in the shape of the letter “C” and another slanting down at a 45-degree angle from left to right. These shapes are reinforced visually in drawings of a round wall clock (in which the “C” section is marked out in bold) and of a child descending a playground slide, representing the left-to-right slanting line. Larger posters of the letters, which students can trace with their fingers, build muscle memory that reinforces their learning.

By combining the strokes into letters and words and repeating the process, Beckman says, the youngsters achieve “automaticity,” the ability to retrieve and produce letters automatically. “When letter production is automatic, memory space is freed up for higher level composing skills,” she says. “So students are able to get their thoughts on paper more quickly and often in more creative ways.”

Beckman also points to the results of the pilot program she completed six years ago at an Elk River Elementary School. After 10 weeks, the ability of kindergarten students to form letters correctly had improved by more than three-fold, increasing to more than 40 percent of the time, compared to kindergartners who had not used ez Write in the previous year.

Second graders, meanwhile, after a 10-week masters project, achieved a 32 percent increase in the time it took them to write a composition, a 55 percent increase in the number of words they used, and considerable gains in the quality of those compositions compared to their performance on a pre-test 10 weeks earlier.