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Reading, writing and singing

For therapist, the way we teach kids to write changes everything


Educator Dianna Henn, who provides instruction to teachers, says the key to learning just about anything else might be learning penmanship.

“When you want to remember something, how do you usually do it? You write it down,” said Henn, an occupational therapist for Westminster Public Schools.

Writing helps retain more information and makes it easier to capture quantitative thoughts, Henn said. It’s imperative that letters are formed correctly so students can get speed and consistency. Otherwise they simply write fast and incorrect, which leads to illegible writing.

Henn is teaching a course on innovative ways to teach handwriting penmanship Sept. 15 and 16 at the Marriott Westminster, 7000 Church Ranch Blvd. The course is designed to demonstrate fun methods to teach cursive writing — including using puppets, music, wooden blocks and games.

“Using multi-sensory tools helps to solidify learning for all learning types,” she said.

The course provides 6.5 hours of professional development and continuing education credits for teachers.

Growing need

Henn said she saw a growing need for this type of teaching when many of the teachers at her schools brought students to her that were challenged with handwriting.

Studying their writing habits, she noticed problems with posture, vision, muscular control and mechanical styles. They simply had not been taught how to write correctly, she said.

“Even if the children have the knowledge, grades suffer because the students cannot get their thoughts on paper quickly enough,” said Henn.

That led Henn to research and discover the teaching habits pioneered by occupational therapist Jan Olson in 1975. Noticing her own son’s difficulties with learning handwriting in first grade, Olson broke down the alphabet into similar letter formation groups to help him look at it in a different way.

His teacher noticed his success and asked for her help with other students.

Olson’s program, Learning Without Tears, is what Henn teaches today.

“As occupational therapists, we are trained in task analysis and break all tasks down into components that it would take to accomplish each task, developmentally. That’s how this program originated,” said Henn.

Curves and lines

The method looks at the science of handwriting and breaks letters down into developmental order and shape categories. Students start with building the capital letters and numbers using straight and curved wooden pieces on a special mat to understand the shape and parts of each letter.

As they move into learning the lower case letters, all letters are grouped into the seven tall, 14 small and five descending letters.

“When we don’t give children that lifelong skill, we deprive them of so many things in life,” said Henn.

Learning Without Tears uses other methods as well. Songs remind students how to hold a pencil and how to make specific letters.

For example, the Magic C song tells how the letter C is the beginning to writing the letters A, B, D, G, O and Q. The Frog Jump song reminds students to jump and lift their pencil after making the first line of the capital letters F, E, M, and N to continue making the letter.

Henn sings the pencil song, “My thumb is bent. Pointer points to the tip. Tall man uses his side. Tuck the last two in for a ride.”

Motor skills

It’s a change from the way handwriting was taught in the past. Students didn’t get tips or shortcuts for remembering how to make each letter but learned how to make and perfect each letter individually, one letter at a time.

“Today, children are having a harder time holding pencils because technology has limited their motor skills,” said Henn.

Cursive writing curriculum tends to be optional at area schools.

“We no longer have requirements to teach cursive in our curriculum; it is not required in the Colorado Academic Standards. However, schools can make individual decisions to teach cursive,” said Cameron Bell, communications specialist for Jeffco Public Schools.

Henn thinks her method is also superior to simply teaching students to sound out the words and write them phonetically. Inconsistent teaching in the U.S. has led to high school graduates who can’t read, she said.

“Whatever reading level each child is at, their handwriting skills are typically at that same level,” said Henn.

Henn has personally trained teachers at the Westminster elementary schools she serves. One school, Skyline Vista Elementary School, uses the curriculum in all grades — preschool through fifth grade.


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