Below you will find questions submitted to an Ask Me Anything Q & A feed specifically about this program. The answers are provided by Amy Baez, the Founder of Playapy and Creator of the PALS Handwriting Program. The questions and answers are lengthy and may provide overlapping details.
Q: What inspired you to build the PALS Handwriting program? How does it work and what does it do?
A: I was inspired to create the PALS Handwriting Program because I experienced an increase in typically developing children referred for therapy. I realized that many parents and preschool teachers were putting pressure on children as young as 3 and 4 years old to learn how to write. This is a skill that used to be taught in schools in Kindergarten or even 1st Grade. Due to the passing of No Child Left Behind, handwriting was not included in the Common Core Standards. Therefore many schools set the expectation that children should begin school already knowing how to write and not considering what is developmentally appropriate. To give you an example, understanding how to draw diagonal lines is required to form many letters. Yet, most children do not visually differentiate diagonal lines until age four let alone know how to draw them. Hence, I was inspired to help children by supporting them in the process of learning how to form letters by giving them step by step directions also known as action words. The PALS programs involved using these action words to instruct proper letter formation. It utilizes what I call the Parroting Action Learning System (PALS). Children are taught 7 simple phrases to match directions of strokes. When combined, these phrases provide the directions for forming uppercase letters. Uppercase letters are addressed in the Treasure C.H.E.S.T. workbook. It divides uppercase letters into groups based on letter formation using a parrot as a mascot. These groups create the acronym C.H.E.S.T.: Clocks, Hats, Hooks, Ears, Slides, and Trees. For example, the letter A is a Slide letter because you must slide down first to form an A. Lowercase letters are addressed in the Tummies, & Tails workbook. It divides lowercase letters into groups based on how the letters are aligned using a monkey as the mascot. For example, letters that touch the top line are called Heads, and letters that break through the bottom line are called Tails. Each workbook teaches the correct formation and alignment of letters individually and then provides additional pages to copy words and test the understanding of the child in other activities.
Q: How long did it take for you come up with your handwriting program and how does the program aid children needing occupational therapy?
A: The idea for the program developed over the course of a couple years with some changes in marketing after publication to stress the importance of the action words utilized. PALS is an acronym for Parroting Action learning System. The concept of the workbooks developed over time while working with children receiving therapy for fine and visual motor delays. I realized that many children were introduced to handwriting prior to having developed the foundational skills to do so accurately. I needed to find ways to provide additional support because I could not control what the teachers were introducing in the preschool. Therefore, I used some techniques I used in encouraging the imitation of drawing shapes to the imitation of drawing letters. When children are learning a new motor skill they are in a stage that is facilitated by verbal cues. Many preschool teachers skip this stage and expect children to understand how to copy complex figures that are too advanced for their understanding. Even if they do provide verbal cues, they are not consistent or too complex for young learners. Using simple action words to break down the shapes and letters into parts helps a child to understand how to form figures. This is a skill called motor planning and many children receiving occupational therapy services struggle with the development of this skill. One great thing about the program is that it can be used with any child but particularly helpful to children that need the additional support.
Q: What materials and tools are provided in the PALS Handwriting Program and what approach should educators and parents adopt when introducing this program to children?
A: Currently the program consists of two workbooks divided to separate uppercase and lowercase letters with additional workbooks in development. The workbooks were specifically designed to be simple to use by any caregiver. Therefore there is no additional manual required. The concept of each book is captured in a one-page introduction with simple instructions on each page throughout the workbooks. A caregiver completes the workbooks with a child. It is not meant for a child to complete independently. Since the program stresses the importance of using action words, I encourage parents and educators to limit the time spent on workbooks to less than 15 minutes per day with importance placed on having the child repeat the action words used to form each letter and follow the correct formation. This reinforces a multisensory experience and facilitates a kinesthetic approach, which is supported by research. There is also a page providing tips to the caregiver as well. Overall, the program is designed to be simple and to not require additional materials. It is my philosophy as a therapist that most parents and educators can learn how to facilitate a skill like handwriting with minimal tools on hand.
Q: How is the PALS Handwriting Program specifically designed so that educators and parents can implement the program without the aid of a therapist?
A: The program was designed to be simple with only a one-page introduction to explain the concept and format of each workbook. Additionally, the workbooks begin with a brief introduction for the child of the action words that correspond to the strokes created. For example, when forming a vertical line, the educator or parent would say, “Zip down.” They would encourage the child to do the same. If a child cannot follow the steps to form these simple strokes, then it is suggested that parents and educators not continue on until the child is ready. Additionally, each letter has an individual page that states the exact words to use in steps. For uppercase letters there are only 7 action words. Therefore, it is very easy for a young child to follow. I also include in back of each book a page that contains the words for all the letters. Overall, any one can teach a child to write. The program provides the structure to provide simple and verbally consistent instruction. The aid of a therapist becomes necessary when a child has more complex delays or difficulties that inhibit progress. This can be due to attention span, behavior, muscle weakness, etc. The program makes the process of learning easier for the child when these factors are disrupting development.
Q: What were the testing and evaluation methods you used to develop PALS Handwriting Program to ensure its effectiveness?
A: The effectiveness of the program was first tested using a prototype with children receiving therapy services. This helped to establish if the method was enjoyable for the child in addition to measuring legibility. A sample of the child’s handwriting copying the alphabet is taken prior to formal instruction. Then a sample of the child writing without an example to copy is taken following completion of the workbook. At this time a formal study using standardized assessments has not been completed. A recent study of handwriting programs concluded that these types of programs can be effective but did not conclude one to be superior to another. It should be noted that this program includes several elements that research has shown to be effective such as using a kinesthetic approach and grouping letters. Examples of before and after photos are available to view on the Playapy website.
Q: Can parents use PALS program by themselves to teach their children or does it need to be done by a specialist?
A: Parents can absolutely use the program themselves. It was designed specifically for that purpose. Each book has a simple one-page introduction and each page has simple instructions. The most important thing I have to remind parents about is that the workbooks are meant to be completed with a parent present to give the child guidance and teach them to say the action words used. Children learning a new skill need this help. Parents often assume that they don’t and skip to just supervising instead of instructing. Children learn in stages and initially words are part of developing a motor skill.
Q: Will PALS work for children with intellectual disabilities such as dyslexia? How would you modify it to work for them?
A: PALS works for most if not all children. Since I am a therapist, I regularly use it with children with disabilities. Any modifications would be to the individual needs of a child, but the program is so simple that it is naturally much easier to use than other handwriting programs I have attempted with children with special needs. The letters are broken down into parts using simple 2 or 3-syllable phrases for each stroke. As an example, the uppercase Q would be, “Curve Around. Lift up. Slide down.” So the modifications are built into the system. I have had great success in particular with some children that respond well to repetition. They seem to recognize the system and appreciate the consistency it provides. Since the action words correspond to a direction, it helps those with dyslexia to distinguish letter formation.
Q: What kind of research have you done to prove the effectiveness of PALS?
A: Prior to publishing Playapy’s PALS Handwriting Program, I studied the research of some other programs and what has been proven to be effective. I then worked to include some of those aspects in the design of the book. This would include the use of groups and tracing as well as letter formation analysis. I noticed that many programs do not have any formal research that I was able to find and those that do have been in print for more than 10 years. I would like to have a researcher pick up the program to conduct a study. It should be noted that a recent study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy included several handwriting programs and did not show one to be more favorable than another. It did show overall that handwriting programs are effective in improving legibility and some may be better at different skills such as legibility verses speed. At this point I can demonstrate effectiveness from before and after examples of several children I have personally treated. There are also the testimonials of parents, teachers, and therapists that have purchased and used the program.
Q: How can teachers help more their students when learning handwriting?
A: This would depend on some factors like the age and skill level of the child. If it is a young beginner, the teachers can help to develop foundational skills before beginning formal instruction. I also suggest that a student not begin formal instruction until he or she is able to copy a triangle independently and follow multi-step directions. If you look at a triangle in parts, it includes three parts and diagonal lines. If a child cannot form a triangle, they typically are not ready to sit and copy letters within lines. The other factor to consider is that children can be helped with verbal directions when first learning a motor skill. Just asking a child to copy something is a more advanced skill. Another quick tip is to color a line with a highlighter if a child is having difficulty noticing where to start and stop. Overall using a program or specific curriculum has been demonstrated to be effective in helping student learn handwriting.
Q: How is your approach to handwriting when working with children?
A: My initial approach is to first establish that a child has the foundation skills for handwriting to determine if they are ready for the skill. If they are, then I check to see what they are able to copy and write on their own without any help. From there I analyze their sample to see what needs improvement. Some children can copy a letter well but not align the letter properly. Some may have difficulty with spacing or reversing letters. So I work with what areas need help. Overall I use a kinesthetic approach, which means the child is learning by doing not just listening or watching.