By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer
Nov. 17 - The reason Johnny can't read, Jeanette Farmer maintains, is that he doesn't write.
The Denver handwriting specialist has been arguing for several years that "old-fashioned penmanship training'' should be more widely embraced by schools and society at large. Her reasoning: the act of writing helps develop kids' brains, improves their self-control and may even combat attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities.
It doesn't matter what Johnny writes, she hastens to add, as long as he puts pencil to paper.
As she explains to anyone who will listen, the fine motor activity involved in writing by hand "plays a critical role in training the brain'' to tap its innate capacity to communicate through language.
In essence, she asserts, the rhythmic contractions and releases of the thumb and forefinger help build the neural pathways that enable young people to read and write - just as repetitions of leg or arm movements help "repattern'' the brains of grown-up stroke victims.
So far, the academic establishment hasn't paid much attention to Farmer's theories, in part because teachers and psychologists in this country - unlike their counterparts in Europe - tend to put handwriting studies "on the same level as reading bumps on the head,'' as prominent graphologist Marc Seifer of Rhode Island put it recently.
But neuroscientists are bolstering Farmer's arguments with new insights into the linkages between hand and brain, and numerous teachers are applauding a program of handwriting exercises she has developed for classroom use.
"We have fewer interruptions, a calmer atmosphere and improved work habits. But more important, they are "suddenly' reading better. It really seems to work,'' marveled Linda Peters, a special education teacher at Carson Elementary School in Denver.
"I believe it contributes to children's ability to become focused, to do something for five minutes and to get ready to begin their lessons in reading and math. All I know is it settles them down so they can attend to the task at hand,'' agreed Evelyn Hunter, a first-grade teacher at Gilpin School, also in Denver.
Other fans of the exercises, which are typically accompanied by therapeutic music, have used terms like "remarkable,'' "profound'' and "truly astonishing.''
Farmer, a folksy woman who markets her "WriteBrain Potential'' workbooks from her home in southeast Denver (and through her Web site at www.retrainthebrain.com), has been exploring the relationship between the hand and brain since the mid-1970s. A certified graphologist, she has written several monographs on the subject and served two terms as editor of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation Journal.
Affects left brain
Her hand-movement exercises, inspired by the old Palmer "push-pulls'' and "running ovals,'' invite children to fill the lines on worksheets with rows of tepees, horse shoes, chimneys, loop-de-loops and other patterns.
Generally, the exercises are performed for only a few minutes a day, usually the first thing in the morning but sometimes in the afternoon as well.
"Although the repetitive movement process stimulates the whole brain, it especially impacts the left brain - the "brain that goes to school,' where comprehension of spoken and written language and writing capacities are located,'' Farmer states in the introduction to her workbook for children in kindergarten through second grade.
"The net effect is that it also provides an unrecognized but major physiological influence in subtly developing the ability to read.''
One teacher who used the materials in a ninth-grade class of learning disabled students last year, Kris Leaver of Gossfield, Wis., reported that at the end of the term, 10 of the 14 involved scored better than the expected half-year gain in reading ability for their age group.
In Denver, Evelyn Hunter said her inner-city first-graders got similarly encouraging results on the reading portion of last year's Iowa tests of basic skills, recording an average score of 74 points - a dramatic increase over the previous year. But she attributed this to "a very intensive phonetic literature program I use called Open Court'' rather than to twice a day handwriting sessions.
"However, I wouldn't be doing the WriteBrain program if I didn't feel there was some benefit,'' she added. "This year I have a really "impacted' classroom, with about a dozen kids functioning below grade level, and even the most distracted children will attend to this task. It's not easy for them to break into, but as they work with it more and more, they get better at concentrating. There's nothing I can measure, but I think behind the scenes it is contributing.''
At the privately run Parker Montessori Educational Institute in Parker, which began using Farmer's materials on an experimental basis this fall, director Susan Parkinson said it is too early to judge their effectiveness.
But, she noted, "Her research says it builds attention and impulse control, and we're interested in that because our society is so focused on speed. We're given lots of information in a short time on television, and the picture is always changing. But in school, kids need to learn how to focus for long periods of time.''
Sharon Ford, a proponent of Farmer's theories who teaches educational administration at the University of Colorado at Denver, zeroed in on the potential benefits that expanded handwriting practice might offer in the post-Columbine era.
Children who learn to concentrate, she suggested, tend to grow into adults who are less likely to commit acts of violence because they are "more able to make decisions, as opposed to acting on impulse.''
She added: "Obviously, we don't want to say that if handwriting were taught more, kids wouldn't be violent, because there are so many factors involved. But we do think this factor has been overlooked.''
But the literacy coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education, Stevi Quate, challenged Farmer's conclusions, noting that "I've also seen switches in kids' moods'' when they're asked to sit down and write with music playing in the background without any exercises.
THE MARSHMALLOW TEST
In support of her argument that impulse control is an important side benefit of writing in longhand, Jeanette Farmer cites a study done in the 1960s and '70s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues.
In it, a number of 4-year-olds were told they could have two marshmallows if they could wait until the researcher returned; if not, they could have one marshmallow right then.
Tracked down when they graduated from high school, those who had been able to endure frustration and delay gratification as preschoolers were found to be more socially competent, effective and productive than the others.
In fact, the ability to control impulses predicted a 210-point advantage in SAT scores 14 years later.
The study appeared in the journal Developmental Psychology in June 1990 under the title "Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulating Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification.''
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