“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
- 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)
- 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 a natural developmental process that children worldwide develop following a similar process while using similar shapes.
- Rhoda Kellogg, pioneer of the study of children’s art, “focusing on scribbling and the early ‘ages and stages’ of child development,” encouraged parents and educators to provide children with ample opportunities to scribble and copy adult models as they “develop the symbols that will later become the basis for all writing and drawing.”
- 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
- While our English alphabet is based upon 26 characters we call letters, which are then combined to form words and sentences to tell a story, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing contained more than 2,000 characters.
- Each character represented a common object in Egypt and could represent the sound of the object or simply an idea associated with it.
- There were even cursive hieroglyphs that were used for religious documents.
- 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)
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?
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 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.