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How Legible Handwriting Enhances the Writing Process and Assessment

Legible handwriting is increasingly important in today's curriculum. Its benefits are well documented in sources ranging from handwriting research to current news stories and the work of educational leaders.

Even in this age of word processors, the quality of children's handwriting can have a profound impact upon their learning and the acceptance of their ideas. Increasingly, standardized tests include a written essay that is holistically scored by trained raters. There is evidence that the quality of handwriting significantly skews the evaluation of these essays (Sloan & McGinnis, 1978).

Lamme & Farris, 1994.

Legible handwriting is a practical asset for students and teachers. Like the test evaluators studied by Lamme and Farris, busy teachers spend hours deciphering illegible compositions. Yet legibility can be easy to teach and learn. In fact, handwriting experts report most students can master this simple motor skill. The widely used four keys to legibility-shape, slant, spacing, and size-illustrate this point. Once students understand these keys, they become more conscious of their handwriting and can easily be taught to evaluate and improve it, step by step.

A systematic approach also makes legible handwriting easier to teach and learn. For example, Zaner-Bloser developed a manuscript and cursive alphabet, each based on just four strokes. This system of common strokes helps students learn each letter quickly and write more legibly.

Instruction in manuscript writing supports reading by calling attention to the strokes used to form each letter. It actively engages students in reproducing the letter using these strokes. In many methods and materials, the strokes are numbered and described to help students understand and learn them.

Benefits for Writing

The benefits of legible handwriting are so many and so well-known that some educators may take them for granted. However recent research points to an important new discovery about legible handwriting-students who write legibly actually produce better compositions. In a study of Seattle students, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Maryland concluded that legible handwriting frees students to focus on words and ideas, instead of letterforms:

Handwriting is not "mechanical" for many young writers. Each time they are faced with writing a letter they must construct anew a "program" for constructing the letter. Because they are focused on letter construction, they have fewer attentional resources to devote to the meaning-making aspects of composing. Frequent, brief, explicit instruction that helps young children learn to automatize letter production and retrieve letter forms rapidly from memory may increase the probability that they will become skilled writers who use the building blocks of written language-letters-to construct quality written compositions.

Berninger et al., 1997.

Benefits for Assessment

Learning to write legibly also offers important benefits for assessment. A recent USA Today story echoes the findings of research on the importance of legibility, particularly for students taking the new round of state proficiency tests. According to one researcher from Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, 45 states have proficiency tests in place, and the majority of those tests include an essay:

"Last year alone, an estimated 10 million students nationwide were asked to write responses longhand on state-required tests."

Temple, 1999.

As Lamme and Farris showed, students who write legibly receive the highest scores. In addition, since handwriting is a motor skill that almost every student can master, it provides the perfect opportunity for students to become actively involved in learning and take responsibility for their own success:

An important goal of academic instruction is to help students become self-regulated learners (Graham, Harris, & Reid, 1992; Harris & Graham, 1992). ... In the area of handwriting, self-regulation has typically been included as part of the instructional program in two ways: one, students are encouraged to verbalize overtly the steps in forming a letter as they are learning how to write it (self-instruction) and, two, they are asked to evaluate their success in forming letters correctly (self-evaluation).

Graham, 1992.

For example, in Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, students say each stroke used to form a letter as they learn to write it. Teachers encourage self-evaluation by reminding students to use the keys to legibility to check their work.

Springboard for Success

The skills that students learn during handwriting instruction can teach them valuable lessons about their own abilities and help them to create a model for their success in other areas of the curriculum as well. Consider the experience of Blackshear Elementary, an inner-city school in Houston:

Teachers were complaining that students weren't up to grade level, parents were frustrated, and principal George Mundine knew he needed to make some changes--and fast. What the school needed was a common goal to serve as an anchor, Mundine thought. ...Then it came to him--they would concentrate on handwriting.

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, Blackshear has been recognized as one of the best elementary schools in the country, and its reputation as 'the handwriting school' has grown locally and nationally. The focus on handwriting serves as a springboard for student achievement across the curriculu... .

A penchant for penmanship, 1996.

As the Seattle study conducted by Berninger et al. showed, legible handwriting affects students' work in other areas of the curriculum, such as composition. This is true of both young children and older students. For example, the authors report that boys' vulnerability to handwriting problems explains a gap between boys' and girls' writing ability in junior high:

The initial superiority of junior high girls in compositional quality disappeared when effects due to handwriting were partialed out (Berninger et al., 1997). Thus early intervention directed to both handwriting and compositional fluency may maximize compositional quality in the later grades, especially for boys.

Donald Graves, the highly respected authority on the writing process, notes how legible handwriting enhances the writer's ability to think:

When the handwriting flows, the writer has better access to his own thoughts and information. This is why writers want to write. This is why handwriting is for writing.

Graves, 1994.

Conclusion

Students who are taught to write legibly have an advantage in daily writing, on standardized tests, and in life. Consider the wisdom of this practical advice from Donald Graves:

Make no mistake, if handwriting has a poor appearance, the writer is judged poorly by our culture. This won't end tomorrow. Surface features will always attract far more attention than underlying structures. For a person who has poor handwriting, the road ahead is difficult. In spite of the high quality of his ideas and information, the writer will bear a lifelong burden. But such a fate is unnecessary...for those who know how writers develop their skill in handwriting.

Legible handwriting is an important skill-far too important to be left to chance. Systematic handwriting instruction can and should be provided in every district, school, and classroom because all children deserve the benefits that legible handwriting can confer.

Bibliography

Berninger, V.W., et al. (1997). Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 652-666.
Graham, S. (1992). Issues in handwriting instruction. Focus on Exceptional Children, 25, no.2.
Graves, D. (1994). A fresh look at writing. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Lamme, L. L., & Farris, P. (1994). Authentic assessment of children's handwriting. A penchant for penmanship. (1996). Learning, November/December.
Temple, L. (1999). An unscripted future may be at hand. USA Today, 2 September.

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