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Automaticity when it’s not Automatic

Automaticity when it’s not Automatic

by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L

on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog

Automaticity Defined

Automaticity is defined as “the ability to recall previously learned or experienced information from memory quickly and accurately without conscious thought (Collmer, 2016, p. 163).”  Vision works together with the hand to “interpret our movements and incorporate them in a pattern using vision as a guide to call up letter and word formations automatically (Collmer, 2016, p. 5).”  Automaticity is achieved through instruction, repetition of the instructional material, and practice of the skill in functional tasks, eventually leading to performance without conscious thought about the process that produces the outcome.  It is accomplished by “overlearning,” where the skills are “practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery.”   

Automaticity When It Fails

When automaticity for handwriting has not been achieved, then the primary task, let’s say writing an essay, is interrupted repeatedly with concentration spent on the mechanics of handwriting, causing the writer to lose his train of thought, misspell words, or take too long to complete the assignment. Diminished automaticity for letter and word recall is a contributing factor for poor marks in school and can be one of the signals that orthographic dysgraphia is present. Automaticity is a skill that is often addressed in occupational therapy rehabilitation plans for students in grades 3 and above, as they and their teachers become concerned about their falling grades and frustration with handwriting tasks.  But the warning signs can be seen and addressed earlier.

Automaticity Strategies for Success

Recently I received the following request from a Handwriting With Katherine Facebook reader:

“The whole process of writing is so complex. For the older kids I work with I feel like if letter formation and letter recall is not automatic, then they struggle greatly with getting high quality content onto paper because they have to sit and think about what letter to write, what it looks like, and how to form it, all combined with spelling, alignment, spacing, etc. That is personally why I generally look to technology for older students. But my question for you is how or what do you do with those students when they are at a younger age or even at the older age to help with making handwriting (letter recall, formation, etc.) automatic so that the students can focus on the content of their writing compared to the mechanics.”


These were great questions, ones with which I’m sure we all have struggled. So I felt it was appropriate to answer them here as well and share my strategies for dealing with automaticity issues.  Let’s start with the factors that can result in diminished automaticity.

The Visible and Invisible Links

Handwriting mastery is one of the foremost outward and ‘visible’ behaviors linked to dysgraphic struggles and its inefficiency can interfere with educational success with or without the presence of dysgraphia.  Handwriting development involves a complex process of ‘invisible’ behaviors based on the proficiency of the developmental skill sets necessary for its mastery, which in the end is dependent upon the attainment of automaticity. Therefore the presence of diminished automaticity in school-aged children is most likely the result of diminished proficiency in these developmental skills:

  • visual-perception,
  • motor planning and execution,
  • kinesthetic feedback, and
  • visual-motor coordination.

The “combination of ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ factors can result in a decrease in incentive and motivation for using written work to achieve academic success (Collmer, 2016, p. 152).”  And at times this results in a push to remove the “offending skill” and offer the student technological options to replace it.  In some cases, this is part of an appropriate plan; but often it is only a band-aid fix that robs the student of the opportunity to conquer his dysgraphic struggles and demonstrate handwriting mastery.  So, how do we continue to deal with automaticity struggles while still offering our students with options that allow him to continue to learn in school?

Know when to fold ’em.

I found that over the years the most important concerns for students who are struggling with automaticity in grades 3 and up were to be able to keep up with their peers and to avoid the embarrassment of illegible and untimely work. Inasmuch as I wanted them to use their handwriting in school and at home, I came to understand that it was necessary to allow them to finish their work productively and creatively by giving them “permission” to use another option for class work, homework, and tests so that they could keep up with their peers and maintain their grades.  I say “permission” because they were struggling with many conflicting things at this point.  They wanted to master handwriting, yes, but they also wanted to get good grades, satisfy their teachers and parents, and meet my expectations.  It’s true.  Our students want us to be proud of them and giving up on handwriting meant they were giving up on themselves and me.  So, by giving them permission to use other options while we tackled automaticity was my way of allowing the students to feel “good” about trading handwriting for electronics because it was only temporary. They understood their work on handwriting mastery was going to continue in occupational therapy.  They were not giving up.  And I emphasized this to parents, students, and teachers – that the reason we were doing this was to facilitate the students’ learning while we continued with therapy to work on automaticity.

This compromise satisfied my need to continue to assess the students’ dysgraphic behaviors to determine if accommodations were indeed in order secondary to the presence of dysgraphia.  It also provided me with some breathing room to continue with the students’ therapy.  The times when I was a stickler for asking the students to hand write their work while we honed their handwriting skills, they became frustrated and their teachers began to request accommodations so the students could work entirely with technological devices in order to keep up with the classroom demands.  I didn’t feel that I was providing a positive strategy and so we compromised.  A “win-win” as they say.

Therapy Activities That Address Automaticity

My initial assessment would provide me with information regarding any underlying visual-perception, motor planning and execution, kinesthetic feedback, and visual-motor coordination needs of my students. A portion of my rehabilitation plan, as well as my therapy sessions, would include work on these skills. In addition to strategies that address these needs, I have found a select group of activities that have worked well for addressing automaticity and ultimately the functional needs of my students – being able to complete their assignments legibly and in a timely manner.

First, let me say that I use the same strategies for students in all age groups. They are structured and “simple,” with their focus concentrated on the end goal. While the end result is automaticity, the steps leading there are the mastery of letter formations, words, and sentences, in that order, just as they are taught in a handwriting program.  And that takes patience and practice; no other way can get the students there.  But traditional instructional worksheets are not the answer. If they were, most likely the students would not be seeking our help but rather they would have attained mastery in the classroom.  There really isn’t any need for any fancy tools for this type of remediation.  Paper, pencils, a timer, and a great sense of humor are all it takes!  Let’s take it step by step.

Letter Formations and Words.  

My first step is to determine if the students are struggling with a group of letters, say those that include lines and circles (b, d, p, g, q), or if they are having difficulty with the alphabet in general.  In the former case, I will isolate those letter formations to work on during the beginning stages of therapy.  In the case of the latter, I select the groups of letters in the order in which they are taught in a structured handwriting program.  

Next, I select interactive games that allow me some control to guide their learning for motor movement and memory with 2-3 of these individual letter formations. For example, in my game Pingo, which is a combination of bingo and a dice toss activity, I use the template included in the link above to write in the letter formations that we are currently working on. I can also add gross and fine motor activities, say for posture or finger and hand strength, that are aspects of the students’ rehabilitation plan and that work in tandem with handwriting mastery. Hang Man is an activity that allows you to combine letter formations that are learned and those that continue to need reinforcement.  In lieu of Hang Man, the game could be revised to create a beach scene where the person is buried in the sand. When his head is the only visible body part remaining, then the game is over!

The Pingo template allows you to insert the letter formations and words that your students are working on currently. The link in the paragraph above includes the rules.

At the start, editing is a team effort, with the students and I chatting informally about their work and making revisions together.  Soon we transition into a strategy where the students “guide” me toward the errors they’ve made.  I make it a game where the students chart those that they find on their own and those that I guide them toward, the goal being that they “won,” of course, when they found more of them independently or all of them without my help! When they have a good handle on these 2-3 letters, I transition to minute-to-win it strategies that allow the students to copy each letter formation as it’s presented to them within a minute without editing, which is done after the minute is over.  They keep track of the letters that needed editing and the goal is to produce them all in a minute without any editing necessary. For students who tend to write too fast, I substitute a Turtle Race activity that presents letter formations to the students during a one-minute period and emphasizes a slower speed and the opportunity to edit their work as they write. They chart the number of letters that needed editing and were corrected as they wrote, as well as those that were discovered after the minute was up. Again, the goal is to copy them efficiently.

Minute-to-Win It and the Turtle Game encourage speed (increase and decrease) and editing skills.

I resist the temptation to skip from letter formations to words until the students have learned at least 3-4 new letter formations with a good degree of automaticity.  Then I use those letters and any letters they may have mastered previously to conjure up words that can be used in those same games.  I continue to use the same games in this step as in the previous ones in order to concentrate their efforts toward building confidence in their handwriting and to avoid any learning curve that may occur by introducing new games. Instruction, practice, and repetition are the goals. At this point in their therapy, however, I am mixing it up by switching between games using words and those using the letters they need to continue to work on.

Then finally when the student is writing 3-5 letter words with a good degree of automaticy, I move on to sentences, again mixing the games between letters (if still needed), words, and sentences.  With sentences, I usually begin with copying tasks, first on the desk than from the board, so that the activity doesn’t require them to draw on their creativity, simply to copy the words they see.  At this point, we are practicing handwriting development skills still and not writing. I start this transition to sentences with a “safe” strategy that doesn’t have a time limit, yet it does ask them to record the time they take to write each sentence (usually 4-6 words long).  My understanding of the time they need to write the sentences guides my transition to minute-to-win it with sentences (using the same editing strategy as above). It also gives me an indication of any need to address speed issues so that the students will be able to finish their work in a timely manner.

When they’ve done well with minute-to-win it with sentences, I transition to writing in a journal for a minute (without editing while they write) and begin a game where they count the number of words they have used and how many letter formation errors they have made.  It’s a contest against themselves where they can have the freedom to write and create without editing but also..

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