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Rhythmic Writing: The History, The Power and The Purpose!

Educational Therapy Strategies


Written By: Bridget Hughes

April 1, 2019

The History: Going Back in Time

History is an important and influential force in each of our lives, whether it is personal or national. It has been said that the past helps children, as well as organizations, understand who they are and where they come from (Crabtree, 1993). The National Institute for Learning Development has a rich history. If you have not had the chance to read A Work of His Grace, I urge you to read it as soon possible. What a great story of an amazing woman who pioneered for individuals who struggled to learn during a time when researchers and educators knew very little about how to help those who learn differently. Grace Mutzabaugh, NILD’s founder, made a  promise to the Lord in 1974 that she would give her life to this important cause if He would direct her to a program that would help those who learn differently. As you all know, Grace kept her promise!

As I was preparing to write this blog, I ran across another piece of history from another dedicated pioneer in the field of learning differences. It is an email from Dr. Rosa Hagin, the author of the SEARCH & TEACH program. Dr. Hagin was sharing information on our NILD email forum about the development of the Rhythmic Writing technique.  On May 6, 2010, Dr. Hagin wrote:

Dear Friends,

“Here we go again” to slightly misquote President Reagan, not on taxes, but on Rhythmic Writing. I can tell you the history of Rhythmic Writing. I learned it from Newell Kephart of Purdue University the summer of 1961 at his Achievement Center Camp in Colorado. I brought it back to the Learning Disorders Unit at Bellevue Hospital and taught the people on our staff to use it in the work we were doing on perceptual stimulation as a teaching approach. Dr. Archie Silver, a child psychiatrist and teacher with a Ph.D. in Psychology, headed the work there until 1979, when we completed the validation of SEARCH & TEACH. Dr. Silver went to Tampa to head Child/Adolescent Psychiatry and I stayed in New York and went to Fordham University to train school psychologists. Rhythmic Writing was used in relation to many other techniques, but we never did validity research on it in isolation. Kephart (“Kep” as he was called at Camp) was a wonderful teacher and diagnostician and a brilliant theoretician. His best book was The Slow Learner in the Classroom, in which he elaborates on the theoretical background of his teaching. You can learn about motility, body image, lateralization and many other concepts that are current in psychology, neurology, education and physiotherapy.

Deborah Zimmerman (NILD’s program author) learned about Rhythmic Writing as a volunteer in our unit. As a veteran teacher, I liked the chalkboard and the combination of motor patterns and verbalization. While Kep was using Rhythmic Writing as a diagnostic technique, its educational value became clear at Camp. Deborah, who had experience with brain-damaged patients as a nurse, sensed its value also. I continued to use the observations I learned from Kep in my practice. Indeed, many of the motifs created by my students and me continue in TEACH and other publications. For example, the four-leafed-clover NILD uses as a logo was the result of my attempt to combine Kep’s “lazy 8’s” into a more challenging motif. Despite the lack of isolated, clearly defined white-coated research, Rhythmic Writing found its way clinically into general usage and from this came innocent attributions of neurological functions associated with the use of Rhythmic Writing in work with students.

We certainly are not MD’s. Maybe some are a little envious; sometimes  education can be a very powerful therapeutic force for a student.

Teach Well!

Rosa A. Hagin, Diplomate, American Board of Professional Psychology

The Power: The Rhythm

What an amazing heritage we have! Recent research validates what these pioneers believed were essential in helping those that struggle to learn. Currently, researchers stress the importance of rhythm and patterning and explain how this is critical in the development of language. Rhythm is a form of structure that plays an amazing role in speech (Allen & Hawkins, 1980). The organizing rhythm of a spoken sound can be influenced by practically any element of speech that is subject to sequential patterning (Allen & Hawkins, 1980).  Kimpton (2015) shares that children learning through rhythm, often by repetition, is central to language learning. A study completed at Northwestern University in Chicago found that there is a strong correspondence between reading ability and those that are able to keep accurate time to a series of beeping sounds (Kimpton, 2015). This is affirming information for us as NILD educational therapists! We all know that many of our students with learning differences often have an inability to discern the rhythms of language as seen in their reading, speaking, and writing. Thus, the importance of our students stating the counts for the Rhythmic Writing motifs in a clear and precise, as well rhythmic manner, while practicing at the board.

The Super Power: Crossing the Midline

Current research confirms cross lateral repatterning motions (crossing the midline) can have dramatic effects on learning. We often see students having difficulty crossing their midlines during the Rhythmic Writing technique. Researchers are discovering how this can influence an individual’s ability to read effectively (Lengel & Kuczala, 2019; Welniak & Smith, 2019). This struggle can also affect handwriting since a person must cross the midline in order to write from left to right. It is not unusual to observe students stopping in the middle of a paper and switching hands when writing. In the Well-Balanced Child, author Sally Goddard Blythe discusses the dual functions that the corpus callosum performs to facilitate communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, which creates a “superhighway” of information. The crossing of the midline during Rhythmic Writing encourages the brain to perform tasks in a more efficient way. NILD educational therapists want to be sure that students’ shoulders are parallel to the board or the mat when crossing their mid-line during the Rhythmic Writing activities.

The Purpose: Cognitive Efficiency

Rhythmic Writing is a multimodal task that integrates motor and cognitive functions. Deborah Zimmerman, NILD’s program author, stated “there is no technique more central to the success of NILD’s educational therapy than Rhythmic Writing because we want the brain to function better than it does,” (NILD, 2016). Present day researchers emphasize the importance of motor skill development in children. Their data analyses suggest that fine motor skills are a strong predictor of achievement (Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010). When analyzed collectively, “attention, fine motor skills, and general knowledge are much stronger overall predictors of later math, reading and science scores than early math and reading scores alone,” (Grissmer, et al., 2010, p. 1008). Recent research stresses the importance of facilitating both motor and academic development as the two continue to be linked in neuroscience research (Westendorp, Hartman, Houwen, Smith, Visscher, 2011).  This confirms what we have been saying all along. Rhythmic Writing significantly enhances a child’s progress in NILD educational therapy and beyond! It improves visual-motor integration, handwriting, attention, directionality, mental calculation, working memory, sequencing and tracking, copying skills and spatial perception. Amazing!

As NILD educational therapists we will continue to zealously encourage our parents and students to practice this powerful core technique in order for them to become independent and competent life-long learners. How can anyone resist such an effective tool?

Signing off with rhythm (and no blues)...

Bridget Hughes, M.Ed., PCET, SL/DS