Modern Handwriting or Hieroglyphics? Are they simply DRAWING? (Part 1)

Is the hand ready for handwriting?
Is the hand ready for handwriting?


“Is writing really for the eye, at the expense of the hands?”






If you find that question intriguing, you must pick up Dr. Mark Changizi’s, equally intriguing book, The Vision Revolution.

As an evolutionary neurobiologist, he sparks this thought and

reveals that it is fortunate for the eye that

“writing has been culturally selected to look like nature….”

with its tendency “… to use the fundamental structural shapes in nature.”

That is good because the eye has evolved to see nature….”

It is unfortunate for “the hand, however, (which) has not evolved to draw nature.”  (1. p. 170)

 The Eye Versus The Hand

"Human sight is a complex sense composed of many complementary elements that work together.  The miraculous human eye, elegant in its detail and design, represents a gateway to vision."
“Human sight is a complex sense composed of many complementary elements that work together. The miraculous human eye, elegant in its detail and design, represents a gateway to vision.”

Our Eyes:

  • Our eyes have developed to recognize and interpret the foundational shapes and contours of nature – gradual and smooth deviations much like gentle movements with few angles to mark boundaries or beginnings and endings.
  • Our writing processes have changed over time, using nature as its guide, to meet the needs of our eyes.
  • Our ability to “see the natural shapes around us and…put those shapes to paper” to produce “thousands of tiny shapes” we call letters, and THEN to be able to use our rapid visual processing skills to interpret them is what Dr. Changizi calls “our greatest superpower of all!
  • This power provides us with literacy…which IS power in itself.  And he credits this superpower to the evolution of our eyes to record and analyze information for writing. (1. p. 167)


Our Hands:

Our hands did not evolve to reproduce nature's shapes naturally.
Our hands did not evolve to reproduce nature’s shapes naturally.
  • The hand, however, did not evolve to reproduce nature’s shapes naturally.  It was required to adapt to a handwriting process that was developed to use the fundamental shapes and contours of nature – lines and curves – to accommodate our visual system. 
  • Fine motor skill development is focused upon the need to use our hands in all of the required tasks of life – including handwriting. 
  • And the development of handwriting skills begins as soon as a child uses his visual system for the first time – at birth – before he ever puts a writing instrument to paper (or the wall) and makes a mark.
  • As soon as he does “make his mark,” he begins to understand the connection between the use of his hand and his ability to communicate with others.**


Scribbling, as pointless as it may appear, is the foundation for handwriting skills.

Scribbling is the foundation for handwriting skills.
Scribbling is the foundation for handwriting skills.
  • Scribbling is a natural developmental process that children worldwide develop following a similar process while using similar shapes.


  • Dr. Changizi urges us to look at children’s scribblings and understand that they are “objects – not necessarily realistic ones – (used) to convey a message…each culture using its own conventions to depict different objects.” (1. p. 177)  He suggests that if we “read” children’s drawings from a country that does not represent animals or people in art in the same manner as we do, their “objects” would most likely be difficult for us to interpret, as they are using their experiences to define them.  They are not pieces of lines and circles that have been placed next to each other to copy the object; but a visual image of what the object “looks” like to them in their “mind’s eye.”  Much like hieroglyphics, wouldn’t you say?


Hieroglyphics Fun Facts

  • Each character represented a common object in Egypt and could represent the sound of the object or simply an idea associated with it.
  • Of course, Egyptian hieroglyphics were based upon the conventions of the time and would be difficult for us to read anywhere outside of ancient Egypt without an interpreter.


My point here is that the pictures told the story – pictures of objects drawn from the “mind’s eye” – using mostly lines and strokes.   The readers “spoke” the same written language and understood the meaning of the representations.    The need for a written language that could be produced fluidly by hand and understood by those outside of one’s culture, however, demanded the need for structured handwriting instruction – one that would meet the demands of both the eyes and the hand.   This is where handwriting strokes came in.


Harnessing Scribbling to Mimic Nature

It appears that strokes are “fairly easy to see by the visual system, and are much easier for the hand to produce” than the shapes and contours in nature. (p. 171) 

Basic Strokes - Universal Handwriting Program
Basic Strokes – Universal Handwriting Program

Without the hand adapting to the needs of the eye, “the visual system couldn’t be harnessed for reading.”  Our “Literacy Superpower” would not be available to us.  Natural handwriting strokes, the precursors to handwriting skills, are all created through the scribbling of squiggles and doodles.  A crayon in a child’s fist is the first step in producing a message for the reader.  As children begin to gain muscular control over that crayon, they begin to realize that they can control which direction those scribbles take and the number of ways they can use them to create repeated patterns.  The first time they draw a dog that someone actually recognizes without translation, they collect that motor pattern and store it for future use, refining and modifying it until it is the best dog they’ve ever drawn.


Modern handwriting instruction is (and should be) taught in much the same way. 

  • First we harness those squiggles and scribbles as children learn to draw some vertical and horizontal lines, then some circles. 
  • As they gain control over the motor movements, we move them on to crossed lines and a square, finally going beyond and producing triangles and diamonds. 
  • As a more mature grasping pattern develops, as well as their visual perceptual skills, we provide practice designed to refine their burgeoning handwriting style.  
  • When they begin to master the chosen handwriting program,  they are in fact developing their own personal style.  In the end, they will produce a fluid, smooth, and legible handwriting that reflects their own perspective – how they see the words in their “mind’s eye.” 


This harnessing of scribbling forces us to follow convention and learn the strokes and forms that society can read and interpret.  But the seed for our personal handwriting style… our creative interpretations for the message that we want to convey…remains in our scribbling memories.  Hence, if a child is struggling with the mastery of the strokes that his hands have been adapted to produce, wouldn’t a bit of drawing practice help him to find his way naturally toward handwriting success?

"Open the doors to learning for children through the visual arts." (Art In The School.Org)
“Open the doors to learning for children through the visual arts.” (Art In The School.Org)


In Part 2 in our “Modern Handwriting or Hieroglyphics” series, I will “draw” upon the elements of art that suggest that drawing would be the perfect medium for handwriting instruction and remediation.  I certainly hope that you will join me – and share your thoughts!





(1)  The Vision Revolution:  Dr. Mark Changizi
**Interesting Note:  Dr. Changizi reveals on page 170 of his book, The Vision Revolution, that data he has collected from children’s scribbles (has) shown that “the fundamental structures occurring in scribbles are unlike those found in writing and in nature.”

Katherine Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
Katherine Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who owns and operates a clinic that specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills.  She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.





 Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; the Wellness For Life:  Cape Cod blog; 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 authors 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.



What Do Handwriting and Optical Illusions Have in Common?

   Image Credit:  Science Bob

(previously published November 2013)

Optical illusions fascinate us with the tricks they play on our visual system.  Combinations of angles, contrasts, and geometrical shapes have the power to confuse our brain into thinking that stationary objects are moving and that flat images have 3-D qualities.  The information received through our eyes competes with the data we have stored in our brains in an attempt to make “sense” of what we are viewing.    The past struggles with the present in order to assimilate the information that we are seeing and square it with what we have previously seen.  When the brain has difficulty matching what it knows to be true (or has learned from experience to be true) with what we are looking at, it tends to take on a leadership role in transforming the scene into what it “should be.”  Hence, static and straight lines become moving, curved ones.   Susana Martinez-Conde, Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, AZ, defines visual illusions as “the dissociation between physical reality and subjective perception of an object or event.”  It appears that when we view an optical illusion, we are experiencing “the ways in which the brain can fail to recreate the physical world.”

eyesThe brain’s re-creation of the physical world begins the day we are born – the first time we set our eyes upon a physical object.  Our first sighting may be blurry and limited to a face, but the information that we obtain from it becomes part of our visual memory.  As newborns, however, we suffer from too many disorganized visual cortex connections, “which must be carefully pruned, based upon visual experience, into crisply defined columns.”  Less is more in the case of our development of fine detail and shape and pattern recognition skills.  Vision skillsranging from color and form perception, to face and object recognition, and to motion and spatial awareness are strongly influenced by “expectations based on past experience.”   Vision is the dominant sense in the acquisition of approximately 75-80% of what we learn and is a powerful force for how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.  It is this very power, however, that can lead the brain to incorrectly “see and respond to the visual world,” as it is drawn into misperceptions while it attempts to match what it knows with what it sees.  While visual perception plays a key role in the misperception of an optical image – resulting in an optical illusion, it also maintains a significant place in the mastery of handwriting skills.  “From the detection of light and dark in the retina, to the abstraction of lines and edges…to the interpretation of objects and their spatial relationships in higher visual areas, each task in visual perception illustrates the efficiency and strength of the human visual system,” and its vital link to handwriting mastery.

In order to appreciate the mystery of optical illusions and their visual perceptual link to handwriting skills, we must begin with the one fundamental necessity for efficient handwriting – automaticity.  Virginia Berninger, in her paper “The ‘Write Stuff’ for Preventing and Treating Disabilities,” identifies handwriting automaticity as “a strong predictor of the quality of composition in normally developing and disabled writers.” Automaticity, in this context, is defined as the ability to correctly produce letters without having to consciously think about them.  When a writer can do this quickly, “memory space is freed up for higher level composing processes, such as what to write about, what to say and how to say it.”  Automaticity does not develop automatically, however.  It is heavily dependent upon guided handwriting instruction and practice.   As a student delves into the world of shapes, letters, and words, he begins to develop the visual perceptual skills that he will need for automatic writing.   The lines, angles, and curves that form letters begin to transform into communication tools in his long-term memory, ready memoryfor retrieval and storage into his short-term visual memory for use in writing quickly, legibly, and creatively.  The writing process from start to finish – from scribbling as a toddler to fluent handwriting skills – is a complex one that involves a myriad of strengths.  Physical, cognitive, and visual skills lay the foundation for automaticity…and the ability to see into the future.

Dr. Mark Changizi, in his book, The Vision Revolution, compares our ability to think about the future with our ability to see the future. Thinking about what will or might happen tomorrow is reflective of words and sentences coursing through our thoughts.  Sometimes we get it right and other times quite wrong.  Dr. Changizi states that, “visual perception is just a special variety of mental processes, one that leads to seeing rather than sentences running through your mind.”  He describes the visual system as one that creates “a perception that represents the way the world should look in the future” and that we must concede that it sometimes will get it wrong.  Optical illusions are an example of a misperception resulting from our brain trying to predict the future.  But he cautions us against worrying that these misperceptions are the result of faulty brain-vision designs.  Instead, he presents his theory that they are “useful fictions” and actually have a purpose in guiding our behavior as we interact with our world (as in the case of “filling in the blanks” when we can only see a portion of a familiar object).  Misperceptions occur when the object or event that we are perceiving “does not compute” with our experience of how that object should look or how the event should play out.  The brain steps in to make it right by rearranging the facts a bit, encouraging a match with a memory byte it has stored from the past.  This makes for great fun with optical illusions; but in the case of handwriting automaticity, “useful fictions” serve a more important function as they guide a writer’s behaviors by “filling in the blanks” for letters and words.

As we are composing or copying written material, we can’t wait around for the brain to figure out what is wrong and to make adjustments.    achesWhen a writer begins to form the letter “H” starting with the first vertical line, he must already KNOW that the next two lines are another vertical and a horizontal link.  As he writes, the information he produces matches his perception of the letter in his stored memory and he can quickly move on to the next letter.  In reverse, if he sees a vertical line with a short horizontal line extending from the middle right side of it, he will quickly form the letter “H” in his mind’s eye, allowing him to read or reproduce it. No matter the font,  an “H” is an “H” according to his visual perception!

In all cases, he is seeing into the future.

Our visual perceptual skills are in a constant state of motion. Neuroscientist Mo Costandi stresses that we do not see the world as it actually is.  Instead, he contends that “our perception of the world is the brain’s best guess at what is actually happening based upon the information it receives through the senses.”   Movement is a key component in learning as it engages the senses, particularly our vision.  As we learn through the experience of our bodies’ movement – from our trunks to our fingers – while they travel through space, we begin to understand how our bodies work and how they interact with the other objects in our environment.  This is vital to our development of directional concepts and spatial awareness.  These are not only critical skills for navigating physically through our lives, but they form the foundation for handwriting mastery.    Movement continues to play a significant role in our perception of the world as we use the skills we have learned.  Dr. Changizi stresses that we cannot “simply sit back and wait for the world to tell us what’s happening.”  Life, indeed, would be passing us by, both figuratively and literally.  Our visual perceptual skills need to be focused and engaged as we anticipate “the next moment and build a completed perception of it by the time it arrives,” moving with the moment – or at least a tenth of a second behind it.  (I suggest you turn to page 134 in Dr. Changizi’s book for this!)   Handwriting mastery – not simply the learning of handwriting – begins when a writer can anticipate the next movement of his hand in the production of letters before he is required to perform it.  Letter recognition, automaticity, and creativity demand that we remain one step ahead of our visual perception, staying clear of misperceptions.

Unlike optical misperceptions, there is no illusion to handwriting mastery – it’s all very visible, indeed. 

(origin unknown)
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, owner, Handwriting With Katherine

Katherine 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

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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.

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