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Handwriting Instruction and English Language Learners

by Bertha Perez, Ed.D., and Ellen Riojas Clark, Ph.D

Handwriting is an important communication skill that reinforces reading, spelling, and writing. Because of its foundational nature, this skill is important for all children, including English Language Learners (ELLs).

It is essential to know your students’ first language (L1) literacy levels. Students who are literate in their first language can draw upon those literacy concepts and skills as they learn to write English (L2). Even when the writing systems are different, research shows that concepts about the meaning and constancy of letters/symbols and skills, such as alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness, will transfer to another language (Cummins, 1992; Cisero & Royer, 1995).

Handwriting instruction will give ELLs a tool for writing. Zaner-Bloser Handwriting and Zaner-Bloser La escritura use continuous-stroke vertical manuscript to teach the distinctive shapes and features of letters. This instructional approach will lead to mastery of basic writing skills (manuscript and cursive), improved letter recognition, and fluency in writing. Learning to write the vertical manuscript—the letters children see in books and environmental print—strengthens the L2 reading-writing connection.

The more a teacher understands the mechanics of English spelling and writing, the more successful their ELL students will be (Kroese, Mather, & Sammons, 2006). Teachers can assist students with L1 literacy skills to use those skills to write in English (August & Shanahan, 2008). For example, ELLs who know Spanish or other Roman alphabets can use those letter names and sounds to identify the same letters in English.

English orthography might not be easy for ELLs who use a non-alphabetic system, but teachers can assist students to make the connections (Moats & Tolman, 2008). Some ELLs’ L1 may be written in a different script (such as Chinese or Arabic) or may be organized from right to left (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2009). For these ELLs, use visuals to demonstrate handwriting strokes.

The more students attempt to write in English, the more handwriting practice they will acquire. Visual aids such as graphic organizers can help students generate ideas for writing (Sigueza, 2005). In addition, concrete content and language can also help students understand ideas they may wish to express in their writing. It is important to integrate concrete content and language (Morahan & Clayton, 2003). The use of ELLs’ background knowledge as a cultural resource (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) will anchor their writing to their conceptual learning.

ELLs need time and special techniques to acquire the proper handwriting strokes. Teachers can demonstrate the academic language used to teach handwriting (shape, size, spacing, and slant) through Total Physical Response (TPR) and other second language approaches. As you work with ELL students, implement the following:

  • Allow the students to watch you forming the letters. Use visuals to demonstrate proper stroke sequence. Say the stroke sequence aloud as you form the letter.
  • Use TPR to describe letter formation. For example, point to your head when referencing the headline on the handwriting grid. Say, “Your head is the top of your body. The headline is the top line.” Similarly, you can demonstrate strokes with TPR. As you say “Slide right,” slide your feet across the floor.
  • Ask students to describe and demonstrate the steps in creating the letter, whether in L1 or L2.
  • Conclude the lesson by having the students apply the new handwriting skill in a meaningful context.

Finally, as the students practice their handwriting, guide your ELLs

  • to access their prior knowledge (Jefferies & Merkley, 2001) about what to write about.
  • to write as a class, in pairs, or independently (Morahan & Clayton, 2003).
  • to use their native language when necessary.
  • to write about what they know.


August, D. & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2008). Developing reading and writing in second-language learners. NY, NY: Routledge.
Cisero, C. & Royer, J. (1995). The development and cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20(3), 275–303.
Cloud, N., Genesee, & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher’s Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Cummins, J. (1992). Bilingualism and second language learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, 51–70.
Gonzalez, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kroese, J., Mather, N., & Sammons, J., (2006). The relationship between nonword spelling abilities of K-3 teachers and student spelling outcomes. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 14(2), 85–89.
Jefferies, D., & Merkley, D. (2001). Guidelines for implementing a graphic organizer. The Reading Teacher, 54(4), 350–357.
Moats, L., & Tolman, C. (2008). English gets a bad rap! Retrieved from article/28650.
Morahan, M. & Clayton, C. (2003). Bilingual Students in the Elementary Classroom: A Reference for the Practicum Student at Boston College Lynch School of Education. Title III Project ALL, Boston College Lynch School of Education.
Sigueza, T. (2005). Graphic organizers. Retrieved from

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