University of Iowa

The Continued Importance of Handwriting Instruction

Student practicing handwriting at home

By putting pencil to paper, students are not only improving their penmanship, but also learning to recognize letters by connecting their visual representation to the physical act of producing them.

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Posted on: May 21, 2019

At one time, it was necessary to learn handwriting skills, such as printing (writing in letters that are not joined) and cursive (also known as a “running hand” where letters are joined), in order to communicate through anything other than speech. Although typewriters have existed since 1867, they were loud and heavy, and they made correcting even the simplest mistakes difficult (e.g., inserting a missing comma). It would have been unthinkable for a classroom of students to take an essay test on typewriters.

As computers and other electronic devices became widespread, handwriting instruction started to decline (Dinehart, 2015). The Common Core State Standards released in 2012 (National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers) referenced keyboarding skills in Grades 3-6 but did not include any references to handwriting. The absence of standards for learning to write in print or cursive may have communicated to educators and families that handwriting is no longer relevant.

This assumption has been bolstered by anecdotal reports and research findings which document students who have difficulty forming letters or spelling words can more efficiently and accurately produce written texts with word processing programs (e.g., MacArthur, 2000; Quinn, Behrmann, Mastropieri, & Chung, 2009). Arguments for continuing to teach handwriting often rest on the basis of handwriting being linked to writing fluency and the freeing of attention to focus on the content and overall structure of the message (e.g., Graham, 2009-2010; Lichsteiner, Wicki, & Falmann, 2018). However, these points only matter if students are expected to produce texts in handwritten form, rather than on an electronic device. Hence, such arguments ring hollow to those who see the medium for writing in current society most likely being digital. But handwriting instruction still has benefits for early literacy development.

Relationship of Handwriting to Alphabetic Knowledge

Learning the letters of the alphabet requires knowledge of their features including their shape (e.g., the lines and curves that form the letter) and spatial orientation (e.g., knowing when a letter is written upside down or backward; Terepocki, Kruk, & Willows, 2002). This knowledge is reinforced by the specific actions it takes to write letters. Functional brain imaging studies indicate the visual recognition of letters and the physical motion of producing letters both activate the same region of the brain (James & Engelhardt, 2012; Li & James, 2016). When children learn a letter by typing it on a keyboard, they are more likely to confuse that letter with a mirror image of the letter (i.e., the letter written backwards) than when they learn the letter through copying it by hand (Longchamp, Boucard, Gilhodes, & Velay, 2006). The sensorimotor representations are tightly paired with the visual representation of the letter, and the fine motor skills required to produce written letters are associated with early reading achievement (Suggate, Pufke, & Stoeger, 2019). Even adult patients who lost the ability to read due to brain damage or disease were more likely to recognize letters when tracing the letters with their fingers (Bartolomeo, Bachoud-Le´vi, Chokron, & Degos, 2002). Typing letters on a keyboard may be efficient, but it does not create an indelible representation of the letters in the way that handwriting can.

Supporting Handwriting Development at Home

Development of the skills necessary for handwriting begins around 3 months of age when babies start to grasp and hold items. First, they use their whole hands, and, before their first birthdays, they should be able to use the tips of their thumbs and index fingers like a pincer and begin adapting their grasp to the shape of the object (Karl & Whishaw, 2014). These abilities eventually lead to gripping writing instruments and can be fostered through play with building blocks, pegboards, dough, and motion boards (boards containing push buttons, spinning wheels, zippers, hooped rings, etc.). Other activities that can be helpful as children continue to grow include lacing and threading activities (e.g., threading beads on a string), assembling jigsaw puzzles, feeding coins into a slot, and squeezing squirt bottles or tension balls.

Between the ages of 2 and 4, children also need to learn to recognize and draw lines and shapes (Olsen & Knapton, 2012). These include horizontal, vertical, and crossed lines; circles; squares; and triangles. Until children can produce these freehand with pencil and paper, they can practice making lines and shapes with chenille stems (i.e., pipe cleaners) or strings, connect-the-dot activities, tracing in finger paint or with a paintbrush, and writing in sand.

Supporting Handwriting Development at School

When formal handwriting instruction begins in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, it can be easier for children to learn capital letters first (Case-Smith, 2002). However, both capital and lowercase letters are taught in formation families, or letters grouped together because of the similar motions or strokes needed to write them. For example, formation families distinguish the letters  that require returning to the top of the first vertical line to form the next stroke (e.g., F, E, D, M) versus those that require moving to a new starting point (e.g., H, K, X), or those that require clockwise (e.g., b, h, r) versus counter-clockwise curves (e.g., c, d, q).  

Visual cues can help students learn the proper position for different parts of the letter. For example, paper might be printed with colored zones:

Paper with yellow, green, and blue colored zones

Or with different lines:

Solid, dotted, and dark solid lines on paper

Students also can start by tracing dashed letters with numbered arrows to direct their movements as shown below.

Tracing dashed letters with numbered arrows

Those who experience difficulty with the amount of pressure they apply when writing may need to have their table height adjusted, use a writing board set at a 25 degree angle (for pressure that is too light), or write on a mouse pad (for pressure that is too heavy).

Handwriting takes time to develop, but it is a worthy investment of families’ and educators’ time to help children pair the visual and sensorimotor representations of letters. Those who experience particular difficulty with forming legible writing at an appropriate pace certainly can use word processing programs when taking notes, completing assignments, or writing essays (MacArthur, 2000; Quinn et al., 2009). However, they still should be provided handwriting intervention to solidify their alphabetic knowledge and become proficient writers.

References

Bartolomeo, P., Bachoud-Lévi, A. -C., Chokron, S., & Degos, J. -D. (2002). Visually- and motor-based knowledge of letters: Evidence from a pure alexic patient. Neuropsychologia, 40, 1363–1371. doi:10.1016/s0028-3932(01)00209-3 

Case-Smith, J. (2002). Effectiveness of school-based OT intervention on handwriting. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 17-25. doi:10.5014/ajot.56.1.17

Dinehart, L. H. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15, 97-118. doi:10.1177/1468798414522825

Graham, S. (2009-2010, winter). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. American Educator, 40, 20–27. Retrieved from www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/graham.pdf

James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 32–42. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001 

Karl, J. M., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2014). Haptic grasping configurations in early infancy reveal different developmental profiles for visual guidance of the reach versus the grasp. Experimental Brain Research, 232, 3301–3316. doi:10.1007/s00221-014-4013-y.

Li, J. X., & James, K. H. (2016). Handwriting generates variable visual output to facilitate symbol learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 298–313. doi:10.1037/xge0000134

Lichsteiner, S. H., Wicki, W., & Falmann, P. (2018). Impact of handwriting training on fluency, spelling, and text quality among third graders. Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31, 1295-1318. doi:10.1007/s11145-018-9825x

Longcamp, M., Boucard, C., Gilhodes, J. -C., & Velay, J. L. (2006). Remembering the orientation of newly learned characters depends on the associated writing knowledge: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Human Movement Science, 25, 646–656. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2006.07.007

MacArthur, C. A. (2000). New tools for writing: Assistive technology for students with writing difficulties. Topics in Language Disorder, 20(4), 85–100. doi:10.1097/00011363-200020040-00008 

Medwell J., & Wray, D. (2008). Handwriting – A forgotten language skill? Language and Education, 22, 34–47. doi:10.2167/le722.0 

National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2012). Common core state standards initiative. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org

Olsen, J. Z. & Knapton, E. F. (2012). Readiness & writing pre-k teacher's guide. Cabin John, MD: Get Set For School.

Quinn, B. S., Behrmann, M., Mastropieri, M., & Chung, Y. (2009). Who is using assistive technology in schools? Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(1), 1-13. doi:10.1177/016264340902400101

Suggate, S., Pufke, E., & Stoeger, H. (2019). Children’s fine motor skills in kindergarten predict reading in grade 1. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 47, 248–258. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.12.015

Terepocki, M., Kruk, R. S., & Willows, D. M. (2002). The incidence and nature of letter orientation errors in reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 214–233. doi:10.1177/002221940203500304