Vol. 23 Issue 19
The next generation is here
Are you a school-based OT but feel like a glorified handwriting teacher instead? School-based OTs are experiencing an alarming increase in handwriting referrals, yet these referrals are often due to inadequate or absent handwriting instruction in the classroom. Rather than using their skills to remediate foundational deficits, therapists are merely re-teaching students who have taught themselves wrong letter formations, inefficient stroke patterns and poor writing habits.
Handwriting instruction can and should be shifted back to the classroom. By addressing handwriting proactively and in the classroom, teachers can prevent poor handwriting habits. An innovative and exciting way of accomplishing this is by using Herbi Writer, a new software program created to teach handwriting through the use of technology.
Meet Herbi Writer!
Guy Barker, a software programmer with Microsoft, has long aspired to create software for individuals with disabilities. I had dreamed of having software written for the purpose of teaching handwriting. So I contacted Barker on the Internet about the possibility.
Over the course of a year, he and I have shared ideas, brainstormed and collaborated to produce Herbi Writer.
Herbi Writer is an interactive, dynamic computer game that teaches proper handwriting through game-based practice and drill. This software turns the task of learning handwriting into a fun, engaging and interactive process for the student. Because the game is fun, students are highly motivated to participate in handwriting instruction!
When using Herbi Writer, the student willingly participates and learns proper handwriting independently. The responsibility of teaching handwriting is lifted from the therapist and the teacher.
Students who use Herbi Writer learn letter formations and proper strokes correctly from the very start. Good habits are initiated from the onset and bad habits are prevented. Best of all, there is little required from the teacher or occupational therapist! Herbi Writer transforms the process of learning handwriting from a laborious task to a fun, interactive and motivating "play" activity that students thoroughly enjoy.
How It Works
Herbi Writer software must be loaded on a tablet PC. A tablet PC is similar to a laptop but can use handwriting for input rather than a keyboard. With a tablet PC, a person uses a stylus and writes directly on the computer screen using his own handwriting. Because the tablet PC can recognize and interpret handwriting, the Herbi Writer software could be created to teach handwriting in an interactive fashion that other types of computers were unable to facilitate.
There are two types of tablet PCs. One type is similar to a laptop and includes a keyboard. The person can either write directly on the screen or use a keyboard. The screen pivots and can be folded flat for ease of handwriting input. These tablet PCs run from $1,200 to $3,000.
Another option is the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). This type of tablet PC is smaller, portable and more affordable. It does not have a keyboard, so all input is through use of handwriting (although a keyboard can be attached if desired). UMPC pricing begins at $900.
The Herbi Writer Game
The Herbi Writer game begins when Herbi the dinosaur introduces a new letter. Herbi provides an animated example of how the letter is made by drawing through the proper letter stroke and formation. The student sees exactly how a letter is formed, rather than just a static end product of the letter.
The image on the right demonstrates Herbi Writer showing the student how to write the letter "a." The letter animation is repeated continuously so the student can watch it as many times as necessary. The speed of the animation can be controlled from slow to fast according to student preferences and needs.
Then the student makes his own attempt by writing directly on the computer screen on the lower line. The student must try to match the modeled letter stroke.
If the student writes the letter the same as Herbi did, the student's letter floats up to the righthand corner and Herbi smiles. The student earns a point.
The students love to make Herbi smile! If the student forms the letter incorrectly, the letter simply moves off the screen and the student does not earn a point (and Herbi doesn't smile), but he continues to display the missed letter (with letter animation) until the student writes the letter correctly. Once the letter is written correctly, Herbi smiles and the game resumes. Herbi then brings up a new letter for the student to try.
Herbi is smart and will recognize an incorrectly formed letter even if the end product looks the same as Herbi's sample. This is a strength of the Herbi Writer program over a traditional pencil-and-paper exercise. With those, only the end product is graded for accuracy. When using Herbi Writer, the writing process itself is graded.
For example, if the student attempts the lowercase letter "l" by writing a vertical line from the bottom up (rather than as Herbi modeled itfrom the top down), Herbi will recognize this as incorrect even though the final product looks the same as Herbi's sample letter. The student will not gain a point and will have to attempt the letter again until he completes it properly, from the top down. As a result, Herbi strongly enforces and positively reinforces proper letter formations.
Grading the Difficulty
There are three levels of difficulty in Herbi Writer: beginner, intermediate and advanced. In the beginner level, Herbi is more lenient about letter formations in regard to precision and size. He does, however, continue to insist upon proper letter strokes (top-down, etc.).
In the intermediate setting, Herbi becomes more discerning and specific about letter size, stroke and final product. Finally, in the advanced setting, Herbi is meticulous and demands nearly an exact replication of the sample letter. Because there are three levels of difficulty, Herbi Writer is easily graded up or down for individual student needs and abilities.
Playing and Finishing a Game
A typical game consists of all letters of the alphabet randomly presented one at a time. The student scores one point for each letter accurately formed at the first attempt. If a letter is missed, he continues with that letter until he forms it correctly. Then the game resumes, and Herbi moves to a new letter until all 26 letters of the alphabet have been cycled through. Then the game ends and Herbi gives a final score.
Drilling Specific Letters
If the therapist or teacher wishes the student to work on specific letters instead of the entire alphabet, the game can be altered to work only on those specific letters. Before the game starts, the teacher simply indicates the desired letters by entering them into the Herbi Writer settings. The next Herbi Writer game will be comprised only of those letters.
For example, if the teacher wants the student to work on the letters a, g, c, d and q, she simply enters them into the letter box under Herbi Writer settings. When the student clicks "new game," the game will consist of five possible points and will contain only those five letters.
Specifying letters is an excellent way to shorten the game for students with reduced attention span. Selecting designated letters also focuses the game on problem letters for that specific student, thus individualizing the handwriting lesson to the needs of the child.
Because Herbi Writer is a computer program, it has virtually no variability or errors in scoring. Therefore, students' scores can be recorded over a period of time to provide clear, accurate data for charting progress. In addition, Herbi Writer is an excellent tool for evaluating handwriting because it provides concrete data on letter production accuracy.
Herbi Writer can accommodate a variety of writing styles, from simple block manuscript to D'Nealian-style manuscript to cursive writing.
Since Herbi recognizes entire stroke patterns, additional lessons that include words and sentences are under development. However, the student must accurately write all the letters in the word to gain a point instead of just a single letter. This comes in handy with cursive writing, where the entire word is graded for stroke accuracy.
Herbi Writer currently has both three-line (with perforated center) and two-line styles. The line width is currently not adjustable, but this feature is under development as well. There is also the option for making the background of the paper standard white or bright yellow to increase visual contrast and clarity.
Herbi Writer layouts include a sample letter displayed above the student writing area or to the side of it. This format can be reversed, with Herbi on the right side to accommodate left-handed students.
Give Herbi a Try
I have been using Herbi Writer on a regular basis with my students. Some are overcoming poor handwriting habits, and some are learning handwriting for the first time. The software is equally effective with both types of students.
Most importantly, students who once disliked working on handwriting are now excited to work on it and cannot wait to have another session with Herbi Writer! After getting a letter correct with Herbi Writer, one student broke out in a broad smile, yelled "Yippee!" and in his enthusiasm, kissed his pencil.
Herbi Writer is still in the development stage but is being field-tested. If you have access to a tablet PC, go to www.herbi.org and download Herbi Writer for free! Barker and I would like your feedback on the program, so please email us with your thoughts and comments.
Susan Thompson, OTR, is author and creator of the Handy Learning program. She offers her workshop, The Write Stuff, all across the country. If you would like more information on her program or on using technology to teach handwriting, please visit her website www.handylearning.com or email her at Susan@handylearning.com. Susan has no financial affiliation with any of the companies or equipment mentioned in this article. If you would like to email Guy Barker, the creator of Herbi Writer, you can visit his Web site at www.herbi.org or email him at Barker@Herbi.org. You can download Herbi Writer for free at www.herbi.org.