How Important Is Handwriting Instruction?

Handwriting is a hot topic among educators at the moment.  What with technological advancements, core curriculum requirements, the need to prepare students for standardized testing  – teachers are struggling to fit everything into the finite amount of time they have to actually teach.  Handwriting has been slipping in importance as educators try to prioritize the essentials.  Researchers, however, are finding out that handwriting is a critical piece of literacy development in ways educators probably didn’t realize.  This article summarizes the major research findings of the past few years and gives you some food for thought regarding the necessity of handwriting.

Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) – a multi-sensory, developmentally appropriate handwriting curriculum, recently presented a seminar explaining how handwriting and handwriting instruction fits into and supports the Core Curriculum standards currently in place for public schools.  The presenter noted that writing is an essential form of communication in grades K-5.  Much of a student’s day is spent doing pencil and paper tasks.  She then stated that strong handwriting skills provide a good foundation for effective communication during the early years of a student’s academic career.  She cited recent research that shows a relationship between handwriting and grades – students with good handwriting receive higher grades, write longer essays, and develop into more creative writers.  Students with strong handwriting skills scored higher on standardized testing that requires written responses.  In addition, brain studies show a relationship between strong handwriting skills and brain development – and especially literacy development.

Associate Professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre notes that when writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions that is significantly different from those we receive when typing on a keyboard.  She describes an experiment involving two groups of adults asked to learn to write with an unfamiliar alphabet.  One group learned by writing with pen and paper, and the other learned on keyboards.  The subjects were tested at 3 weeks and at 6 weeks on recollection of the letters and rapidity in distinguishing reversed letters from correctly oriented letters.  The handwriting group did better on all tests given.  In addition, the fMRI brain scans showed an activation of the Broca’s area for the handwriting group but not for the keyboarding group.  Sherrelle Walker, M.A., August 23, 2011 – The Science of Learning Blog – cites research by Dr. Karin Harman James, assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences, Indiana University.  In this study, children were given fMRI’s as they looked at letters both before and after the letter-learning instruction.  Those who practiced writing the letters during the instruction showed more brain activity than those who only looked at letters.  After 4 weeks of training, the children who practiced writing skills showed brain activation similar to an adult’s.  These studies provide scientific evidence of a connection between writing letters and an increased ability to remember them.

The Handwriting Is On The Wall – an article by Margaret Webb Pressler – was published in the Washington Post in October of 2006.  She points out that because much of the history of our world is written by hand, “scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research.”  An exercise like reading the Constitution of the United States in it’s original cursive form is an experience many of today’s young people will not be able to enjoy because they’ve not learned to read and write in cursive.

Pressler also notes that “The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed.  The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one.  Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better – a lifelong benefit.”  She cites a study by Steve Graham, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies the acquisition of writing.  His study looked at first-graders who could write only 10-12 letters per minute.  When tested again after nine weeks of handwriting instruction given in 15 minute increments three times a week, he found that they had “doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex”.  Gwendolyn Bounds, with The Wall Street Journal, cites another group of studies by Dr. Graham “indicating that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could tank it to the 16th percentile.”

So – here’s what the research seems to be saying:

  • Handwriting can change how children’s brains develop.
  • Handwriting has a direct impact on literacy development.
  • Good handwriting can mean better grades.
  • Handwriting is faster – students who write in cursive are more prolific and faster than those who keyboard.

What do you think – should handwriting reclaim a prominent place in the curriculum for children in the early grades?

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