Handwriting is a complex language.

Handwriting is a complex language.

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

on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog

Language is defined as a “communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures or written symbols.”  This system includes rules such as words and sentences and is shared by a specific group of people or a nation.  Language allows us to tell others what we know, ask questions about things we don’t understand, and to make our needs known.  Language is a living component of our lives.  We learn it, develop it, hone i,t and expand upon it.  It is complex.  And it comes in many forms.

As I conducted my research for this article, I came upon this interesting diagram that defines language as having five components:

The 5 Components of Language
The 5 Components of Language (Originally appeared in an article by Glenys Ross)

This clearly points out the myriad of connections that take place in communication.  But it also provides some insight into the complexity of handwriting mastery.  The author of the article, Glenys Ross, points out that

Handwriting is not an isolated activity; neither can it be seen solely as a motor activity (all about movement).  It is part of language activity.” 

Handwriting, as a task, 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.  It has symbols, rules, and sounds.  And when we come across a child who struggles with the mastery of handwriting skills, these layers of complexity need to be investigated and assessed to determine which ones are hindering his progress.


As Occupational Therapists, we work to discover the underlying culprits that require remediation and begin the process of developing a plan that will attend to the development and/or adaptation of a handwriting program to meet the child’s needs. 

1.  We take into consideration how the child’s struggles with handwriting are affecting his educational success, as well as his self-esteem. 

2.  We look at the goals of his parents and his teachers. 

3.  And we must determine the child’s developmental, physical, and cognitive skill levels. 

4.  At times, the hurdle appears to be the very act of handwriting itself.  It’s laborious and time-consuming.  Perhaps the child’s pencil grasp is inefficient and his hand hurts. 

In many cases, the child has already been offered an adaptation that provides him with a keyboarding option.  For some, this appears to be the “just right” fit.  But is that truly the answer to solving a student’s handwriting problems?


But is keyboarding the answer?

Many of my clients’ parents are on the fence about this adaptation.  While they do see the benefits of having their children use a computer or iPad for schooltypewriter retro D Gabi pixabay-79025_1280 and homework, they continue to have concerns about the underlying reasons why they had difficulty with handwriting in the first place.  And they rightly should. 

The fact that handwriting is a complex language, and that it is one of our forms of communication,  indicates that the same facets that comprise it are also integral components of one or more of the other four languages identified above.


  • Reading is visual and cognitive. 
  • Listening utilizes cognitive and attention skills. 
  • Thinking requires movement and vision in order to access new information and to adapt stored information. 
  • Speaking requires thinking and listening skills. 

The languages we use do not stand alone.  They work together to provide a stage for learning and growth.  When the language of handwriting is deficient, it is most likely that another language area has been affected as well.


Removing the problem of handwriting with a keyboard does not address the underlying skills that stand in the way.  This strategy can certainly help a student over the immediate hurdle of completing class and homework in a timely and legible manner.  It can provide him with a means to keep up with his peers.  However, it does not work on the skills that he needs to address in order to solve his handwriting problems.


Why do we care if he can write by hand?

office building windows geralt pixabayIn a study headed by University of Washington professor of educational psychology, Virginia Berninger, (1) researchers found that children in the second, fourth, and sixth grades composed essays faster and more prolifically when using a pen versus a keyboard.  The fourth and fifth graders tested wrote more complete sentences using a pen.  Berninger found that the keyboard was better for writing the alphabet.  However, the results for composing sentences were mixed. 

Her research has shown that “forming letters by hand may engage our thinking brains differently than pressing down on a key.” She points out that written language in itself has “multiple levels like a tall building with a different floor plan for each story.”  For handwriting, the written language – letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs – comprise its set of complex levels.  She relates that although they appear independent of each other, they are actually related.  Spelling, words, sentences, and organizing sentences are located on different floors but can affect each other as a child begins to master handwriting and the written language.  Difficulty with spelling or composing text stems from skill proficiencies located on different levels resulting in transcription challenges.


Berninger stresses that transcription disability should not be ignored in children who struggle with the language of handwriting and that it is important to provide these children with the opportunity to form letters by hand.  She acknowledges that we still need more research to determine how forming letters by hand encourages learning differently than using a keyboard.  However, she points out that “Brain imaging studies with adults have shown an advantage for forming letters over selecting or viewing letters.”  The scientific reason behind this involves the reticular activating system (RAS) located at the base of the brain. 

  • As we perform any task, our brain is collecting information from our bodies, the environment, and from within the brain itself. 
  • Some of this information is essential to the task that we are engaged in.  Others are extraneous, such as the lawn mower in the neighbor’s yard, the student talking to the teacher, or our memory of yesterday’s events. 
  • In order for us to be able to effectively carry out the task at hand, the RAS filters the information we are receiving and places the most important to our task in the forefront.  It appears that the physical act of writing does just that. 

Berninger shares the thought that this physical act of writing – using your hand to form and connect letters – may provide the brain with a more active involvement in the process and brings the information being scribed to our attention.  Keyboarding is a passive activity where the “writer” touches keys and creates a letter or word with finger movement.  Handwriting provides the writer with the opportunity to “engage the hand” and the brain together in learning.


This is an exciting area of research into the areas of handwriting and learning. 

As we work toward developing handwriting mastery in children who struggle with it, it is important to remember the significance that handwriting plays in learning.  In a research study conducted by Laura Dinehart, an assistant professor at Florida International University’s College of Education, handwriting was shown to be a key indicator of academic success in elementary alphabet letters geralt pixabayschool.  Study results revealed that second-grade students who received good grades on fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in reading (B averages).  However, students who did poorly on pre-k fine motor writing tasks achieved an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in reading (C averages) in second grade. 


Substituting keyboarding for handwriting can be a temporary accommodation for some children.  Let’s be sure to make that distinction as we assess and remediate a student’s handwriting needs in an effort to give each child the opportunity to use the language of handwriting effectively.


(1) Berninger, Virginia W., Robert D. Abbott, Amy Augsburger, and Noelia Garcia. “Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children With and Without Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disability Quarterly 32.Summer 2009 (2009): 123-41. Sage Journals. Web. 6 July 2015. <http://ldq.sagepub.com/content/32/3/123.abstract>.

Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/LKatherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting development skills.  Her book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation:  A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, can be purchased on 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; 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.

(1) Berninger, Virginia W., Robert D. Abbott, Amy Augsburger, and Noelia Garcia. “Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children With and Without Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disability Quarterly 32.Summer 2009 (2009): 123-41. Sage Journals. Web. 6 July 2015. <http://ldq.sagepub.com/content/32/3/123.abstract>.

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