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Can You Imagine a World Without Handwriting?

Protect your students’ right to write!

Legibility. Fluency. Automaticity. These three abilities form the cornerstone for successful written communication…and yet they are skills that must be learned! Children don’t naturally know how to grip a pencil or wield a pen but think of how powerful they can become when they’re taught how.

Handwriting is so much more than just being about to write a sentence or your name. Here are seven reasons why handwriting is key to academic and personal success.

Handwriting is a foundational skill crucial for literacy success.

It teaches letter formation and supports reading and language acquisition. Additionally, through perceptual and motor skills practice, handwriting advances neurological development and augments writing fluency. Foundational literacy skills begin well before a child enters kindergarten. Preschool-age children start scribbling letter-like forms as early as age two, and these scribbles contain the features of writing such as directionality and linearity as a child develops (Dinehart, 2014; Feder & Majnemer, 2007; Puranik & Lonigan, 2011)—their “writing” begins to look qualitatively different from their drawings. Researchers find that even very young children can recognize the loops and connectors of cursive writing before they can write script themselves (Bonneton-Botté, De La Hay, Marec-Breton, & Bara, 2012).

Early fine motor skills indicate readiness.

Fine motor skills are the strongest predictor of special education referral and the second strongest predictor of kindergarten retention (Cameron et al., 2012; Roth, McCaul, & Barnes, 1993). Children in preschools now spend about 37% of their day engaged in fine motor skill activities, and only about 10% of that time is spent with paper and pencil—but kindergartners spend nearly half their day engaged in fine motor activities and nearly half that time on paper and pencil tasks (Marr, Cermak, Cohn, & Henderson, 2003). Introducing more writing tasks can help preschoolers make the leap to kindergarten successfully. Children with stronger fine motor skills do better not only in literacy tasks such as letter writing but also in kindergarten math (Luo, Jose, Huntsinger, & Pigott, 2007; Son & Meisels, 2006). Early fine motor skills also support later academic success. These skills are associated with ongoing reading and mathematics achievement as late as fifth grade (Dinehart & Manfra, 2013; Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010; Murrah, 2010).

Handwriting leads directly to reading acquisition.

Even at the preschool level, teachers can encourage literacy skills by leading students through letter formation activities, including writing their own name and practicing writing other simple words and letters (Puranik, Lonigan, & Kim, 2011). In early learning settings, rigorous attention to the detail of individual letters is less important than the letter forming process itself: exciting new research has shown that the variation in children’s letter formation is actually a crucial part of their learning to identify and form letters (James & Englehardt, 2012)—which is the basis of both reading and writing. According to the National Reading Panel, letter knowledge and phonemic awareness are the two best predictors of reading proficiency. Writing letters by hand has been proven to help children recognize and remember letters more easily than if they typed them (James, 2012; Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou, & Velay, 2005; Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, Graham, & Richards, 2002: Berninger et al., 2006; NICHD, 2000).

Writing by hand engages the brain in learning.

Through modern brain-imaging techniques, researchers have found that neural activity in children who practiced printing (also known as manuscript writing) by hand was far more advanced than in children who just looked at the letters. Handwriting seems, based on empirical evidence from neuroscience, to play a large role in the visual recognition and learning of letters (James & Atwood, 2009; James & Englehardt, 2012; James & Gauthier, 2006; James, Wong, & Jobard, 2010; Longcamp et al., 2008).

Students write most assignments and tests by hand.

A 2008 study showed that older students produce at least half of their writing for school by hand. Younger students handwrite nearly 90 percent of their schoolwork. Even in the Common Core State Standards, almost half of the sample K–8 student essays are hand written (Denton, Cope, & Moser, 2006; Cutler & Graham, 2008).

Standardized essay scores are influenced by handwriting. More troubling, solid research finds that handwritten tests are graded differently based on the legibility of the handwriting (Graham & Harris, 2002; Conti, 2012; Vander Hart, Fitzpatrick, & Cortesa, 2010). Poor handwriting can drop a paper from the 50th percentile to the 10th or 22nd percentile (Graham, Harris, & Herbert, 2011). Essay graders of handwritten standardized tests read more than 100 essays an hour, making legibility even more important (ACT, 2011).

Handwriting instruction supports automaticity, speed, and output.

When students develop the fine motor skills that accompany learning to write by hand, their speed and output increase (Graham & Harris, 2005; Graham & Weintraub, 1996). Additionally, with consistent handwriting practice, the processes involved become less demanding and more automatic, enabling students to devote a higher amount of neurological resources to critical thinking and thought organization (Peverly, 2012). Students require manuscript handwriting skills in order to become accustomed to the common letterforms in books and environmental text. Cursive (also known as script) handwriting skills are necessary for students to decipher teachers’ comments on written assignments, to pen their signatures, and to read a variety of historical documents—including the founding papers of the United States of America.

As students become acquainted with both manuscript and cursive handwriting, they are better able to determine their preference for the handwriting style (manuscript, cursive, or manuscript-cursive hybrid) that best serves them in terms of speed, automaticity, and output for note-taking, in-class assignments, and high-stakes tests.

Handwriting fluency continues to develop past the early grades.

Studies show that handwriting instruction improves legibility and fluency through grade 9; in addition, the overall quality of writing and the length of writing passages increases through grade 9 with handwriting instruction (Graham & Santangelo, 2012).

Ready to make handwriting instruction a reality in your classroom?
Curious to learn how?

Download "Written-Language Production Standards for Handwriting & Keyboarding (Grades PreK–8)" for a complete bibliography as well as handwriting standards to introduce into your school or district curriculum.