Be honest: How much time do you spend teaching your students handwriting?

Across the country, handwriting instruction is fading from prominence as teachers and students go electronic. Keyboarding and word processing are viewed as essential skills; handwriting is not. As a result, many schools and districts, emboldened by the new standards, which only require students to print upper- and lowercase letters, have drastically cut back on or eliminated handwriting instruction.

“What we hear is that handwriting is not a skill that’s tested, so therefore we don’t have to teach it,” says Laura Dinehart, associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University. “But just because it’s not tested doesn’t mean that it’s not influencing other skills.”

In other words, insisting that your students learn to write by hand can have a positive impact on learning.

Research Says: Handwriting is linked to literacy.

Indiana University researcher Karin H. James was one of the first to notice the link between the motor systems of the brain and reading. Using MRI scans, she showed that the motor sections light up when literate adults simply look at printed text.

Keyboarding doesn’t “light up” the literacy sections of the brain in the way handwriting does. “Pressing a key on a keyboard doesn’t really tell us anything about the shape of the letter,” Dinehart says. “If you press A or B, it feels the same. But if you’re creating a symbol over and over again, it creates in the brain a kind of cognitive image of what that letter looks like. The writing of that letter is critical to producing that image and having it in your brain.” Although researchers aren’t yet sure how handwriting is related to reading, studies have shown that working to improve students’ handwriting may improve their reading, and vice versa.

Make It Happen: Use technology to your advantage! Apps like iCanWrite and ABC Cursive Writing allow kids to trace letters and words on iPads and tablets. Kids Writing Pad turns an iPad into a higher-tech version of a lined writing pad and gives kids the freedom and space to independently practice letter writing. (James’s research suggests that independently creating letters is more beneficial for young brains than simply tracing them.)

You can also enhance students’ handwriting skills by messing up on purpose. Barb Lengler, a first-grade teacher in Dover, Ohio, sometimes makes a letter “really sloppy” so her students can’t read it. The mistakes allow Lengler to emphasize the importance of proper letter formation.

Research Says: Handwriting practice enhances learning.

Research shows that writing by hand also activates the parts of the brain that are involved in memory, impulse control, and attention. Anecdotal evidence and research strongly suggest that writing by hand “moves information from short-term to long-term storage,” says Carol Armann, a school-based pediatric occupational therapist.

A 2014 study found that college students who took notes by hand demonstrated better conceptual understanding and memory of the material than students who took notes using a laptop. Researchers suspect the same may hold true for younger students.

Make it happen: James requires her students to take notes by hand, and you can do the same. You can also create special projects that require students to write by hand. Jeannie Scallier Kato, a recently retired fourth-grade teacher, required her students to write a final report in cursive. Each student’s project was then sent to Studentreasures Publishing and returned as a glossy hardback book.

“To my students, it was like creating an art project,” says Kato. Some parents objected to using such an old-fashioned method to create a report, but, she says, “I reminded [them] that children did digital projects, too, and that the published books [would be] a sample of their child’s personal writing as it was at age 9 or 10.”

Research Says: Better handwriting = better writing.

Many studies have linked handwriting fluency with compositional skill. Research by Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, found that handwriting instruction improves first graders’ composition skills, and a 2007 study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology found that handwritten essays were two years ahead of typed essays, developmentally.

Why would handwriting instruction improve students’ compositional skills? Dinehart says it’s partly because handwriting practice makes writing automatic. “If you’re too busy focused on getting the writing out, you take the focus away from what it is you’re writing. You’re focused more on the writing itself than on the content.”

Make It Happen: Try explicitly combining handwriting and writing instruction. Rhonda Thomas, a sixth-grade English teacher at Woodson ISD in Texas, projects her writing onto a SMART Board. “You can’t just tell students, ‘Write an introduction,’ ” says Thomas. “I model writing for them, often sentence by sentence. They watch me as I write the whole thing out. The next week, I’ll leave a few blanks and they start filling in their own words when they copy it. By the end of six weeks, they’re writing their own introductions.”

Research Says: Handwriting may boost academic success.

It’s a near-universal rule: Kids with better handwriting do better in school. And while it’s easy to attribute this to the fact that teachers tend to give better grades to papers they can read, the link between handwriting and academic achievement appears to be deeper than teacher bias.

Kids with better handwriting have “better reading grades, better reading scores on the SAT, and better math scores, both on the SAT and as it relates to grades,” says Dinehart.

“How we interact with things physically has a huge bearing on cognitive development,” James says. “Fine motor control, memory, and learning are highly connected, and doing things with the hands is really important.”

Make It Happen: Stoke students’ enthusiasm for handwriting with incentives. When second-grade teacher Anita Perry noticed that her students were no longer excited to learn cursive, she took action. “When I introduce handwriting, I make it a special, upbeat occasion by giving each student their own erasable pen,” Perry says.

You can also weave handwriting into classroom instruction. When English teacher Thomas covers letter writing, she has her students write letters and address envelopes by hand. Thomas also uses tutorial
periods to provide focused handwriting instruction.

Teachers at Zielanis Elementary School in Kiel, Wisconsin, don’t have much time to teach handwriting, so they enlist parents’ help. “We send a letter home letting parents know that our goal is to introduce kids to it and help them be able to read cursive,” says second-grade teacher Sara Kassens. “We let parents know that if they would like their child to really master writing cursive, they’ll need to spend more time at home [on it].”

Keyboarding and tech skills are a necessity, but handwriting matters, too. You can offer your students the best of both worlds by giving them opportunities to do both. “This is not handwriting versus technology. There is a place for both of those,” Dinehart says. “Handwriting serves a purpose, particularly for young children.” 

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