Handwriting: Is an app applicable?

Handwriting:  Is an app applicable?

by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L

on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog

This month, the Handwriting is Fun! Blog is proud to host another guest author series.  In July we will be sharing information on the topic of Technology and OT.  Our series will stray from our typical course and discuss non-handwriting related topics, except for this first one.  I know you will enjoy what our guests will be sharing and will learn a great deal from their expertise.  Let’s begin the series with my thoughts on applications for handwriting.

woman ones zeros geralt pixabayAs the Internet nudges print media to the side and encourages the increased use of television, computers, or mobile phones for the collection of knowledge and entertainment, the question, “How does technology affect learning?”  has achieved a higher standing in the minds of parents and educators.  And, although the concern is raised, there continues to be a lack of  guidance for the use of mobile learning with children.  This is partly due to the lack of a “widely accepted learning theory for mobile technologies, which in turn “hampers the effective assessment, pedagogy, and design of new applications for learning.”  (1)

While mobile learning provides “an environment of anytime, anywhere learning” made possible through an interconnecting flow of information between technologies, the production of these “learning tools” does not reflect a consistent theory for teaching and learning effectiveness.  (2)  The future promises a digital literacy that will toss out the linear learning forced on us through paper text and afford our children the opportunity to learn through         e-books, augmented reality and game-based technologies, and computing devices that utilize gesture-based (movement and touch) technology.   (2)  The effects of these promised treasures, however, are yet to be realized as the divide between the producers’ creations and the consumers’ developmental needs remains a wide one, and the implications for education and cultivation of informed educators on the uses of digital literacy tools in their classrooms continue to be investigated.  (1) (Part 3: pages 23-27)

The fact does remain, however, that the Internet and all of the technological byproducts that we have realized from it, are here to stay.  Just as the Gutenberg Press revolutionized the way that we obtained knowledge, changing us from an oral-based society where people gathered together to “receive information” to a reader-based one where learning became a solitary event, the Internet has catapulted us into a personalized state of learning that has us tapping, clicking, dragging, and linking – just us and the computer screen.  In addition, the Internet provides the “learner” with strong “sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”  (3)  The Internet and its byproducts are not controlled by us, instead they tend to be in control, as they do indeed have an influence on the way we learn, communicate, and make decisions.  Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows, pulls this transformation together in one potent statement about the Net:  “At the very least, it’s the most powerful (technology) that has come along since the book.”  (3)

There seems to be no area of learning that will be unaffected by this powerful tool; and, as a handwriting specialist, I understand that boy and chalkboard akshayapatra pixabaytechnology will change the way that my young handwriters will want to learn.  Their brains, eyes, ears, and hands will demand the “positive reinforcements” of sound, touch, and speed as they gather volumes of experiences from their preferred mobile learning device.  But, also as a specialist in my area of practice, I remain skeptical that the quality of this rapid-fire feedback-feed forward method of learning will provide them with the sufficient tactile, visual, proprioceptive, and cognitive developmental base for mastering handwriting skills.  Handwriting is a complex skill, one that demands the achievement of cognitive, visual/sensory, and physical components.   It is a task which utilizes information from our eyes; our mind; and our auditory, tactile, and proprioceptive systems.  It is a language that uses movement (fine motor), thinking, visual processing, and attention. And it is this last facet of handwriting’s language that begs investigation when we consider diverting our instruction and remediation of handwriting development skills to the mobile world.

Nicholas Carr speaks to this silent facet of the Internet’s control over learning as he describes our behaviors as we click, link, and tap:  We work in a state where we are “often oblivious to everything else going on around us.”  As we seek information, follow a new trail to gather more, and find ourselves amongst all the bells and whistles of positive reinforcement, we become, what he calls, “a mind consumed with a medium.”  Although the book as a medium provides us with a gentler, calmer sense of “losing oneself” inside its text, interactive games, mobile applications, and even social media grab us by the eyes and ears and force us to attend.  And, unlike the book, they do this only to distract us simultaneously with the “rapid-fire delivering of competing messages and stimuli.”  Handwriting applications offer young learners the opportunity to delve into this world of sensory feedback, where colors, sounds, flashes, and pictures have replaced the concentration and attention paid to the tactile, visual perceptual, and proprioceptive facets of learning the skill.   The “haptic” of handwriting has been ignored as we limit the use of the hands to provide our brain with feedback from motor actions, substituting a fingertip or the smooth movement of a stylus for “the sensation of touching a pencil and paper.” Associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre and neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay at the University of Marseille published an article in the Advances in Haptics periodical (4) in which they examined the question of whether “something is lost in switching from book to computer screen, and from pen to keyboard.”  Anne Mangen reports that “the sensorimotor component (of writing by hand) forms an integral part of training for beginners, and in special education for people with learning difficulties. But there is little awareness and understanding of the importance of handwriting to the learning process, beyond that of writing itself.”  She adds, seemingly disappointed, that “in educational science, there is scant interest in the ergonomics of reading and writing, and its potential significance in the learning process.”

Despite the lack of interest in the putting-pencil-to-paper aspects of handwriting mastery and the obsessive attention paid to the touch-and-learn angles of mobile media, the initial instruction and remediation of handwriting development skills continues to lie within the realm of the very real developmental stages of learning – Cognitive, Visual/Sensory, and Physical. The learning, development, and mastery of handwriting skills demand that we move within, touch, visualize, repeat, and self-correct our physical work.  We must review the product, uncover our successes and needs, and compare the samples in order to develop an awareness of mastery.  We must attend to it. There is absolutely no substitute for hands-on instruction that is structured, consistent, and guided – and social.  The benefits that the interaction within a classroom filled with students listening to the teacher, raising their hands, asking questions, and helping one another provides will never find its substitute within a computerized screen.  And while mobile learning can indeed offer a supplemental benefit to a 1:1 skill remediation session, the personal connection between the child and his pencil and paper allows the occupational therapist to facilitate the cognitive, visual, sensory, and physical input without the distractions of the bells and whistles. It’s important to remember that, as occupational therapists, teachers, and parents, we ARE the positive reinforcements.  Until research evidence proves otherwise, handwriting development remains a function of the hand.


Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/LKatherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.

Collmer Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation

 Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.

(1) Shuler, Carly, and Cynthia Chiong & Carly Shul. “Learning Is There an App for That?” Learning: Is There an App for That? (2010): n. pag. PBS Kids. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Web. 27 May 2015. <http://www-tc.pbskids.org>.  http://www-tc.pbskids.org/read/files/cooney_learning_apps.pdf

(2)  Richards, Reshan. “Theory of Mobile Learning.” Constructivist Toolkit. The Constructivist Toolkit, 24 June 2013. Web. 27 May 2015.

(3) Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.

(4) The University of Stavanger. “Better learning through handwriting.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011.

Author: otchic

Hi! I am a pediatric occupational therapist with a passion for handwriting! I have dedicated my practice to the assessment and remediation of children's handwriting skills and the education of teachers and therapists in handwriting development and remedial strategies.

8 thoughts on “Handwriting: Is an app applicable?”

  1. I agree with your blog post especially your concerns about the feedback feed forward system that technology provides. I have significant concerns for the upcoming generations in terms of motor skills and social skills. Today’s children are over exposed to technology resulting in decreased attention spans, lack of motor skill development and in my opinion a lack of social skills. That being said, I think we need to find a happy medium. Like you said technology is here to stay for sure so what can we do to combat overindulgence at a young age? As parents, we need to limit the amount of technology use in young children. One to two hours of screen time (computer, tablet or television combined) per day is suitable for children over two years of age. As therapists, we need to encourage and educate other parents as to why this is necessary.
    Regarding handwriting specifically, I do think it can be used in conjunction with traditional methods of teaching handwriting for motivational reasons for routine practice (when using a stylus). I would love to see some good studies done to establish carry over from the tablet to paper though.
    Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

    1. Magaret, Thank you so much for reading and for your valuable feedback. I, too, find that technology can encourage children to practice when they are not having difficulty with the initial instruction of handwriting. In my practice, of course, they were there to work (or play!) with me because they were not successful. It was actually funny, though, I never had a parent or a student ask, “Will we be using the computer?” I agree, as well, that although my experiences and professional sense tells me that apps cannot replace the tactile feedback provided by handwritten work, I would certainly welcome research findings that would validate – or not – my opinions. Thank you again, Margaret. I enjoy our conversations.

  2. I get frustrated with the current educational climate that doesn’t allow time for direct instruction of handwriting. I try to educate and encourage multi sensory handwriting experiences, but if I don’t see any carryover I do suggest apps that will at least support the concepts. “There is absolutely no substitute for hands-on instruction that is structured, consistent, and guided – and social. The benefits that the interaction within a classroom filled with students listening to the teacher, raising their hands, asking questions, and helping one another provides will never find its substitute within a computerized screen.”

    1. Thank you, OTMommy, for reading and for your feedback. I feel that the lack of formal, direct handwriting instruction is partly the reason for the rise in OT referrals for handwriting. By skipping the very important step of structured instruction, schools are placing children in the position of needing services. Very discouraging, indeed. And, I also agree, that apps that support the concepts can help, and at time motivate, students to gain mastery. Thanks, again, for your input.

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