Handwriting and cybernetics

This is a systems approach to handwriting, based on cybernetics and research into feedback mechanisms. This systems approach to learning and teaching handwriting emphasises the critical role played by human factors in learning tasks.

The following information and recommendations apply equally to children learning to write for the first time and also to adults who want to improve their handwriting, i.e., change and possibly re-learn how to write more legibly or more attractively.

The learner is seen as a self-controlled system. Learning is a direct sensory and physiological feedback effect of a motor response that is detected by the brain and determines subsequent responses.

In the systems approach particular parts of the learning situation like the design of the child's pencil or pen, the writing desk/surface, the seating position and anything else that forms part of the feedback system takes on an important role.

Both the act of writing and the learning depend on self-guided motor-sensory feedback processes and not on one-way stimulus response processes. In other words, the child acts as a self-governed performer at every stage of learning to write.

The role of the educator then becomes one of enhancing, facilitating and building on the child's resources for self-regulation of performance and learning at any given moment.

An example of feedback systems research is the study of air traffic controller's use of light pens on VDU's. It was found that controllers found it much easier to operate the light pen if they could see more than just the tip. They also had to see part of the shaft to be able to use the pen efficiently. This extra vision enabled them to better predict the pen's direction.

Handwriting concepts

The main concepts involved are "feedforward", "feedback" and "monitoring."

Feedforward is the idea of anticipating or planning. Everything you do or act out is already pre-planned by your brain. The sequence of actions is plan - motor area - performance. Feedforward does not cause any problems but feedback does.

Feedback is knowledge of results. It can mean confirmation or disconfirmation. Children with apparent hand-eye coordination problems really have feedback problems instead and not feedforward problems. For example, when the child tries to draw a square or a circle, he comes up with a distorted version like this.

Monitoring. The distortion in the square happens because the child tries to monitor his actions as he goes along. He stops at certain points, for microseconds. These points of hesitation or monitoring show up as pressure points on the paper. At these points the child makes adjustments to his feedforward plan.

It is the feedback process that causes problems. This interpretation is much more accurate and useful than saying the child has "eye-hand coordination problems."


Handwriting is an information processing task. The amount of information that has to be processed at any one time is important for the outcome. The larger the size of the task, the more information that has to be processed.

There is little point in making artificial distinctions between "fine" and "gross" motor activity. This is simply a matter of which muscle groups are involved. Where handwriting is concerned, then, it is simply an ambiguous distinction. All that matters is that monitoring is involved in both kinds of activities, e.g., tennis or handwriting. Therefore, "fine" versus "gross" is an outdated concept which is of no diagnostic value at all, for handwriting problems.

To say that the child is "uncoordinated" has no practical value at all; he simply has learned to write in a particular way.

The larger you get young children to write, the more information there is to process. The child is therefore shaky because he corrects himself as he goes along.

We can improve his writing immediately by some 40%, simply by changing the size of the task. Less size means less information to process, so less chance of error and less need for correction as he goes along. Size, therefore, influences monitoring.

We can influence feedforward, which is built into the child; we can influence monitoring; and we can also influence feedback, simply by improving the conditions under which the child has to write.


Have good models, easily accessible. This improves feedforward, i.e., planning. Have the letters/words in front of the child on his desk.

Use a copy book format and not tracing books, because tracing takes away the child's feedforward plan. When tracing, the child only monitors someone else's plan.


The pen or pencil provides visual feedback and kinaesthetic feedback, both of which are important. If the pencil is too soft, the tip soon rounds and makes a thicker trace on the page. For the same pressure, hard and soft pencils make different impressions on the paper.

Soft pencils also have more lateral slip because they lay down more graphite which is a lubricant. This increased slip makes the child hold the pencil tighter and press down harder in an attempt to improve control and feedback. This, in turn, distorts things because:

  1. Fingers start to slip so the child grips the pencil lower down. His posture then distorts because you cannot sit up straight and still see what you are writing. So you have to lie down almost on top of your desk in order to see your work. This causes fatigue. A child only leans forward because he holds his pencil too short. Children then start to "finger write" instead of "hand write".
  2. The child puts a lot of weight on his wrist. This limits his range of possible hand movements and causes "bunny hopping" across the page. So, to get better visual feedback you should adjust your pen, not your body. However, for many children this does not happen and instead the pen becomes the master of the child.
  3. When there is too much weight on the wrist writing is slow, tedious and hand cramps result. Then we see children sprawled over desks, lying on the floor and so on.

The child should grip the pencil or pen 1" (25 mm) from the tip to give proper binocular vision of the tip and also the shaft. With this grip the child is then able to sit up straight at the desk. This improved feedback gives better control.

Use a 2H pencil for initial teaching. It is hard, stays sharp, slips a lot less, provides better kinaesthetic feedback, lasts twice as long and costs the same as soft pencils.


The back should be straight, supporting most of the weight of the body. Feet should be forward, about shoulder width apart, so that the feet are flat on the floor (not on the balls of the feet). The feet can then act as a counterbalance for the body's weight. The height of the chair is obviously important here.


Adjust the page to suit the natural arc of the hand.

Lines on the page give the child a reference point to tell him where the pencil or pen is in space. Visual feedback is thus improved. Lines should be drawn 8 mm or 11 mm apart, making the body of the letters 4 mm or 5 mm high.


Many of today's school desks shake too much and are too horizontal for writing. "Olden days" desks were slanted 15 degrees towards the writer.

Habit correction

Simply giving a handwriting lesson to the class that shows children the "new" way to hold their pencil, how to slant their page, how to sit, and so on will not make much difference. They may appear keen to try these new ways and want to please you but do not be surprised if the next day or even sooner they go back to their old ways.

This is because many of them will already have developed bad habits which, because of habit pattern interference with learning, will get in the way of their attempts to learn new ways. Old habits die hard. Despite your best efforts, many children will be very slow to take up these desired new ways. They will appear to forget what you taught and showed them from one day to the next and will repeatedly fall back to old ways. This will happen even when they are motivated to improve.

Conventional re-teaching will not help much with such learned errors or habit errors. You will need to use Old Way/New Way® learning to help children unlearn their old ways so that they can more quickly adopt the new ways. Details of online courses in Old Way/New Way® for teachers, tutors and parents are available on this web site.


If you find this information useful, we sell an award winning spelling tutor software program that uses a modified version of the Look-Say-Cover-Write-Check method to teach new words and also uses Old Way/New Way® to correct habitual misspellings (learned errors or habit pattern errors).

This software program has been used successfully by adults as well as children, with excellent results.

Sincere thanks to Dr E. H. Lyndon for sharing these innovative ideas on handwriting.


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