National Handwriting Day is celebrated each year on January 23, John Hancock’s birthday (according to the Gregorian calendar), an American Revolutionary leader and first signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association started this holiday in 1977 to acknowledge the history and influence of penmanship. And we carry on this tradition today to increase awareness of the literacy benefits of mastering handwriting skills.
One of the most overlooked skills in the assessment of handwriting problems is the visual component. Vision (which is comprised of 17 skills, only one of which is eyesight) can hinder a child’s educational progress by robbing him or her of the opportunity to form accurate perceptions of himself, the environment around him, and letter and numbers. These misperceptions can lead to reading and writing challenges as well as problems with sports and activities of daily living.
With vision in mind, I am re-sharing this post that explains the vital need for having a child’s vision assessed and the important role vision has in learning. And that includes handwriting.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills and understands the link between handwriting skills and writing. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.
For the month of September, the Handwriting is Fun! Blog will be sharing insights about the role of Occupational Therapy in the classroom. In recent years, the role of OT, in general, has been changing with the waves of healthcare and education reforms. Despite a certain amount of turmoil and confusion where those changes may have thrown us a curve ball, most often they have provided us with an opportunity to make a difference in an area in which we’ve longed to see an improvement. For me, that has been handwriting mastery. For others, it has been the role of OT in the educational system as a whole. This second article in our “OT in the Classroom” series addresses the role of OT as an vehicle for guiding teachers, educational staff, and administrative leaders in striving for and achieving handwriting mastery for their students. Marie Toole, OTR/L, shares the amazing work that she and the OT staff in her district are doing to Advocate for Change.
An Advocate for Change
by Marie Toole, OTR/L
Many years ago, as a new school-based occupational therapist, I was ready to conquer the world. That first year was a blur of referrals and therapy and meetings and learning. The OT staff sat down at the end of that first school year and — after counting up how many referrals we got for handwriting — decided to do something different.
We had to figure out how to handle all these referrals and distinguish between those students who really needed occupational therapy intervention and those who would benefit from good instruction in handwriting from the teacher. We needed to be agents of change or we were going to be burned out.
Over the last 20 years we have seen a significant drop in our referrals for strictly handwriting. The referrals we get now are for a myriad of reasons and almost all of them end up with us servicing the child for direct OT interventions. How did we cut our referrals in half, meet the concerns of the classroom teachers and yet still make sure students have legible handwriting? Over the years we have employed a number of strategies. Let me share them with you.
Teachers told us they either did not feel comfortable teaching handwriting in the classroom or felt like they were not doing a good job. So we helped.
We gave workshops to teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents about hand skills, handwriting, and posture. Building on our handwriting curriculum, we wrote out each letter description, which showed them how to form the letters and gave them the language anddevelopmental order in which to teach letters. Everybody is now using the same language to teach in a consistent manner.
Partnering with the physical therapist, we gave an inservice to local preschools on the typical development of the 2- to 6-year old. This helped those teachers to have realistic expectations for hand skill development.
With our physical education teachers we developed Classroom Rechargers. These are 20 movement-based activities per grade level that teachers can perform right in their classroom with little-to-no equipment or space. We put together handwriting warm-ups, exercises, and activities to be done just prior to teaching letter instruction.
We showed kindergarten teachers the importance of building the base of hand skills before adding on the challenge of handwriting.
We continually give workshops once or twice per year on various topics. Information, tips, or skills teachers can use the next day in their classroom are the most valuable to them. We generally have a large audience.
When new teachers join our buildings or teachers switch grades, we always make sure to touch base with them and help them navigate the teaching of the handwriting process. Checking in periodically to see how letter instruction is going is always helpful, too.
Seating and posture were important areas where teachers needed assistance.
At the beginning of each school year, we go in and check the desk and chair height for every student on our caseload. We make sure students fit their work space.
We send an email to remind staff how to check for proper desk and chair height and will help any teachers struggling with this. The custodian is our friend, helping us find the right furniture or to adjust desk height.
We have also advocated for stand up desks and several of our classrooms now sport at least one stand up desk. We add sensory equipment — seat cushions, bicycle tubing around the chair legs, and hand tools — for those students who move and fidget. When students are comfortable and in a good place for learning, it makes handwriting instruction so much easier.
We use a pre-referral process to keep track of teacher requests and to address needs in a timely manner.
Teachers must fill out a basic form telling us their concerns and what they have tried already.
The pre-referral forms help us fine tune our classroom observations to an area in which the student may be having challenges, such as math, writing, or organization.
We then tailor our classroom observation to those specific areas.
In the classroom
Planning and coordination are important first steps.
At the beginning of each school year we discuss with the classroom teacher and special educator the most convenient time when writing is being taught and we plan our schedules around it. Most of our teachers have been with us long enough to understand the limitations in our schedule and will cooperate to make this work. When we show up for our therapy time, the teachers welcome the extra pair of hands to help with letter instruction, the writing process, typing on Google Docs, or writing poetry.
We know the curriculum. The students do not get pulled from instruction and we get to work in the moment with the students on meaningful work. We also get to put our eyes on all the students in that classroom and may help other struggling writers as well.
We co-teach cursive letter instruction in most of our third grade classrooms as part of our third-graders’ therapy time. It gives us in-class time and we get to work with the whole class by showing them some multisensory ways to learn letters using sand, chalkboards, or kin-tac cards.
We are lucky that we are district employees and have the luxury of having an occasional block of time to observe students in class, on the playground, or in the gym. We also use our therapy time to work in the classrooms with students on their OT goals.
Early Intervention and Response to Intervention (RtI):
In our district we are lucky to have an administration that support us.
This allows us to go into each kindergarten classroom under regular education for one half hour per week to “SPOT” children who might need help with hand skills.
SPOT stands for Speech and OT. Our “SPOT” time is available to assist the teacher with activities that may be challenging for 5- and 6-year olds. In our OT sessions we might be working on scissor skills, gluing, coloring, and eventually, after months of hand skills training, handwriting.
As the year progresses we generally have a small group of students that we focus on during SPOT. We do the same activity that the whole class is doing but those students may need more assistance. These students become our “watch” students in first grade and then we have our entry into the first grade classrooms under RtI.
This took many years of “selling” to our principal. We argued that we could ward off some referrals by giving a little help early rather than a lot of help later. The administration agreed to a trial. After seeing the results, the program stuck.
One way we have cemented that progress in our administrators’ minds is to have them conduct their yearly observations of us when we work in the classrooms. We love to have them come observe us working with a group in the fall, again in January, and later in May. To see that transformation is like gold in the bank.
Winning over skeptics
Patience and respect guide us in the classroom.
It is not always easy and there are some teachers who do not appreciate us coming into their classrooms. In those cases, we take it slow and become a guest in that teacher’s classroom. When they see the intrinsic value that we bring to the table as occupational therapists, most teachers come around.
Generally we have found that teachers can’t wait for us to work in their classroom and are bummed when they do not have students who receive OT in their classroom that year. It takes time, sometimes lots of years of trying. But working together as a team shows the student that everyone is on the same page and you have the same expectations for him or her.
Having a strong special education team is helpful as well.
Working with the classroom teacher, special educator, and the rest of the special education team has helped us to fine tune our occupational therapy process.
Often it is the special education teacher who brings concerns or referrals to the occupational therapy staff.
Advocating at the administrative level
Becoming visible is essential.
We knew we needed to get good at this or we would continue to struggle year after year. Our principal, assistant principal, and even the superintendent know who we are.
We consistently advocate for what is right for children. In our 20 plus years, there have been many principals and superintendents at the helm. We had to get to know them, their goals, and how they liked to work.
We asked for OT be represented on the curriculum committee for language arts when administrators revised it many years ago. We ended up putting a handwriting strand into the curriculum with expectations developmentally appropriate for kindergarten through fourth grade.
When the district was thinking of cutting out cursive instruction, we took this on as our mission to research it and make informed decisions. We took our time, and over the course of three years, we read many research articles and spoke with many other local districts to see what they were doing. We ultimately decided to keep cursive instruction as an integral part of our third grade curriculum.
When advocating for the SPOT time in kindergarten, we came armed with data to show that it was beneficial. We constantly print out articles about teaching handwriting and give them to our principal.
Being relentless in the pursuit of continually advocating for what is right for children can be tiring. It is not something that happens overnight. Looking ahead and looking towards the big picture has helped us to maintain our vision. Continually putting it in front of administrators keeps it fresh and does not allow stagnation or somebody to forget how important handwriting is in the curriculum.
An important point to remember:
We cannot become the “handwriting teacher.” That’s the job of the classroom teacher. We are occupational therapists who look at functional skills and participation in the school curriculum and environment.
By empowering teachers to actually teach handwriting before they expect children to write, we advocate for what our students need. Ongoing support and advocacy will encourage teachers to keep teaching proper letter formation. This in turn will allow our OT interventions to remain focused on the functional skills students need to navigate the complex world of school.
Marie L. Toole, MS, OTR/ L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 28 years experience in NICU, Early Intervention, and private practice with the last 21 years spent working in public schools. She is NBCOT and SIPT certified as well as a member of AOTA and NHOTA. Follow her on Twitter @MarieTooleOTNH, on Pinterest marietooleNHOT, and on School Tools for Pediatric Occupational Therapists where she tweets, pins, and posts about OT, education, autism, and sensory integration, as well as other school related topics.
The month of August brings thoughts of the new school year and a fresh look at how children learn and grow. With that focus in mind, the Handwriting is Fun! Blog is proud to bring you a series of posts that will share insights from Occupational Therapists that reflect their views on and visions for our students’ learning experiences. The third article in our series is presented by Lyn Armstrong, OTR/L, and will explore the the process of identifying handwriting struggles early to prevent our students from falling behind in their handwritten work. I know that you will find her strategy easy to use and an asset to your OT Tool Box!
Help With Handwriting: A Screening Activity for All Ages
by Lyn Armstrong, OTR
Handwriting is a very complex task at any age!
If you can picture in your mind a ladder, let’s look at each major rung! The top rungs of this handwriting ladder are composed of written expression items (spelling, thought organization, punctuation, and sentence/paragraph development). The middle rungs may be composed of sensory motor items such as visual perception, tactile/proprioception. The bottom rungs handle fine and gross motor skills.
A student with handwriting difficulties may have problems related to each rung, particular rungs, or multiple rungs in each area. For example a child with Dyslexia may have different issues affecting the quality of writing than a student with “just fine motor skills” (rare these days). Illegible handwriting is sometimes called “Dysgraphia”.
Dysgraphia Subtypes (Deuel. Journal of Child Neurology 1995)
Spontaneous written text
Finger tapping(fine motor)
Poorly legible with textural complexity influencing legibility
Dysgraphia due to Motor Clumsiness
Legible or if neat extremely slowly produced
Dysgraphia due to defect in understanding space
In this chart, you can see that a Dyslexic student’s difficulties center on spelling and textural complexity rather than fine motor skills. For the observer of a Dyslexic student, the handwriting puzzle may be confusing as one may see the following:
Legible letter formations in handwriting workbooks or sheets
Legible writing with short sentences that are composed of familiar words
Decreased legibility as spelling demands increase
Decreased legibility as spelling, time restraints, reading comprehension, and/or organization is required
If we go back to look at the handwriting ladder, we see that the majority of handwriting issues with a Dyslexic student center in the upper rungs of written expression and not in the lower rungs of fine motor or visual perception. Therefore it is critical to work on the upper rungs of written expression not necessarily the lower rungs of perception and motor which generally are intact. An occupational therapist though specializing in handwriting may not be as helpful for a Dyslexic student as a Language therapist or a Dyslexic tutor who is more specialized in reading and spelling.
Knowing where the difficulties lie, help determines which professional is needed and which classroom modifications are appropriate.
The first thing to consider with a student who is having writing difficulties is whether or not the student knows the letter names, has attached the letter names to a symbol, and can write that letter (symbol) without thinking about it. If he can do this, it frees up the mind to concentrate on the aspects of writing sentences, spelling, etc.
A simple screening exercise for grades 1 and higher is mentioned below. Please remember that this is a screening only! It should help you determine if the child is visualizing the letters correctly, transitioning quickly from one thought to another (cognitive associative shift), and receiving good input through the sense of touch (tactile) and body movement (proprioceptive).
Screening Procedure: Choose a time when the student is not tired. Place a piece of blank paper long wise in front of the student. Have the student write the upper case alphabet in his/her choice of print or cursive with his eyes closed. Have the student open his eyes to check his work. Then repeat with the lower case alphabet. Always praise the student even if done poorly.
As the student writes, make notes of the following:
Hesitation on a letter
Difficulty sequencing the alphabet: you may help by giving a letter
Talking out loud as he writes a letter or the sequence
Once finished note the following:
Are the letters placed on an imaginary line? If so, it appears the student knows where his hand is as it moves across the page. If not, you may want to work on sensory items with the student to help with better sensory input in the hand. Check for pressure: are the letters made very lightly or can you read them from the other side of the page (engraving). Extra pressure can result from poor sensory input or from over concentration on the activity.
Also draw a line across the top of the letters and one under the letters. The space between these two lines (height of the letters) may be the comfort level of the moving fingers. Adjust the writing spaces on other papers to be equal to this space. For example, if the letters of a third grade are large like a kindergartener, the student may have trouble writing in the small spaces on a fourth grade workbook or college rule notebook paper.
Are there hesitations with certain letters? We picture the letters as we write in our minds. The letter as it is being written matches or does not match a letter in our minds. If a student has trouble visualizing a letter, he will hesitate or say “I don’t remember”. Work on that particular letter.
Can the student write the alphabet sequence without help? This requires writing a letter, remembering where the letter is in the alphabet sequence, picturing the next letter, writing it on the paper and repeating this process. This takes memory, visual recall, visualization and motor production. Shifting from one skill to another may be difficult and need extra help. Processing speed may be slow as well.
Are the letters made top to bottom or bottom to top? If the letters are legible and made bottom to top, this may not need to be corrected.
The following may be helpful as you scan the student’s papers after you have noted motor, perceptual or sensory issues:
Look at the student’s writing in all subjects.Just because a student has good grades in spelling, one needs to look at the spelling in the context of writing sentences and paragraphs. One may be able to remember the spelling words in isolation but not when thinking about what to write. Even look at math papers for number formations, sizes of numbers, ability to write in smaller spaces and written words in word problem solutions.
Look at the spaces the child must write in on the various pages.Some students have a need to completely fill up a space even when writing their name on the top line of the paper. Others who may be insecure with their writing may choose to write very small to disguise errors. Others may have visual perceptual issues!
Check the consistency of line size in various subjects. A child with motor planning difficulties may have difficulty adjusting his motor movements for writing to different sized spaces. Look for consistency of letter size. Size can affect in legibility.
Look at where the lines of writing move to across the page: Some prefer to start on the left and move to middle of paper. They slowly pull away from the left side of the paper and start their sentences in the middle of the page indented to almost the middle of the line spaces, making a diagonal pull from the left side. Modify by moving the left side of the writing page to the body’s midline as it appears these students are more comfortable with their right body space.
Check the color of the paper. Some students with visual perceptual or sensitivity problems write better if the paper is colored which seems to reduce the black/white contrast. Look also at overhead lights to see if they are causing a glare on the paper.
Check the furniture. A too high desk will result in the student laying his head down. Same for a too low desk.
Check computer skills: Note taking may be faster on a computer.
Truly, handwriting is a complex task!
Lyn Armstrong is a pediatric occupational therapist with 35 plus years of experience living in the Houston area. Her primary focus has been on handwriting which has led to authoring several articles in The International Dyslexic Association Resource Directory and to her book “Alphabet Soup: Stirring Your Child’s Interest in Letters”. She can be contacted through her website, lynaot.com.
The month of August brings thoughts of the new school year and a fresh look at how children learn and grow. With that focus in mind, the Handwriting is Fun! blog is proud to bring you a series of posts that will share insights from Occupational Therapists that reflect their views on and visions for our students’ learning experiences. The second article in our series will explore the vital role that the process of learning to write by hand plays in our students’ ability to adequately present their knowledge and thoughts. I look forward to your comments and feedback – in handwritten form, if possible!
Handwriting and Learning: A Vital Link to Skilled Writing
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L on the Handwriting is Fun! Blog
“Where would we be without our hands? Our lives are so full of commonplace experience in which the hands are so skillfully and silently involved that we rarely consider how dependent upon them we actually are.”
He goes on to say that “any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historic origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.” Studies have shown that the hand plays a major role in learning. And research is uncovering the impact that it has on the process of reading and writing. The hand, as it is utilized in the mastery of handwriting, is involved in the development of motor memory for letter recognition. And letter recognition has been found to be the most reliable predictor of future reading success.
Handwriting, by definition, is writing done by the hand, in some cases that which characterizes a particular person. The hand has been described as giving “the upper limb its importance and originality.” (1) It is a complex unit comprised of intricate muscle, joint, and ligament components that create movements so flexible and dexterous they allow us to manipulate a grain of sand. The inside of the hand is innervated with neurons that relay signals to the brain relative to contact with objects, while proprioceptive information relative to finger and thumb positioning is transmitted through the joints, muscles, and ligaments. The tactile sensitivity of the fingertips (2) detects spatial differences allowing for receptive touch such as that used to read Braille characters. The hand extends from the body to engage, react, and defend. And, it is continuously working together with the other senses to enhance learning.
From birth, infants discover the world through their senses. They move their head toward a sound. Their vision guides their eyes toward movement or light. They maintain life through their sense of taste. As they grow, they begin to explore the world with the addition of their vestibular and proprioceptive systems – rolling over and pulling up to become active players in the world in which they live. And from the moment that they discover their hands, they begin to stretch and reach to learn more about the objects around them. From this time on, their hands provide the medium for manipulation, exploration, and expression. Learning through the use of their hands, as well as their vision, opens the door to curiosity and creativity.
It is important at this point to make the distinction between “handwriting” and “writing” skills:
Handwriting it the process through which the writer uses his hand to produce letters, words, and sentences on the page in order to convey knowledge or thoughts.
Writing, on the other hand, is the vehicle that transforms handwriting into a means of expression.
Skilled writing requires the writer to utilize three cognitive processes:
(1) Planning to generate ideas and set goals,
(2) Translation to turn ideas into written text, and
(3) Revision to recreate the text for improved clarity and idea expression.
In addition, children’s translation has also been found to require text generation and transcription, which includes handwriting (letter production) and spelling (word production). (7)
Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, in the Foreword of Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School, (8)stresses the importance of skilled written expression:
“…it is obvious that if today’s youngsters cannot read with understanding, think about and analyze what they’ve read, and then write clearly and effectively about what they’ve learned and what they think, then they may never be able to do justice to their talents and their potential….Indeed, young people who do not have the ability to transform thoughts, experiences, and ideas into written words are in danger of losing touch with the joy in inquiry, the sense of intellectual curiosity, and the inestimable satisfaction of acquiring wisdom that are the touchstones of humanity.”
In that same report, Graham and Perin site statistics that reflect Mr. Gregorian’s reason for concern.
Seventy percent of students in grades 4-12 are low-achieving writers.
College instructors estimate that 50% of high school graduates are not prepared for college-level writing.
The knowledge and skills required for higher education and employment are now considered equivalent.
Writing, with its requirement that the “writers formulate their own thoughts, organize them, and create a written record of them using the conventions of spelling and grammar,” (8) demands certain efficient cognitive skills. Information about letter formations and sounds, word and sentence structures, as well as the principles of grammar, must be accurately stored in memory, available for quick retrieval, and produced automatically in order to free up the cognitive skills needed for the writing process. Considering the evidence that handwriting affects the grading of a student’s work, (9) legibility must be considered to be an equal partner in the development of skilled writing.
Technology, keyboarding in particular, has been suggested by many to be a viable, more timely substitute for handwriting. Computers are expected to replace the need for handwritten work in the educational system due to the increased demand for keyboarding skills in the workplace. And typewriting has been perceived to be equally as effective in the development of writing skills. Considering the research that strongly suggests a tie between writing movements and letter memorization and the relationship of cognition with perception and motor action, (6) as well as the link between automaticy in handwriting and skilled writing skills, (10) the substitution of typewriting for handwriting warrants research. Mangen and Velay, in their article, Digitizing literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing, (6) reported upon the significant differences between the motor movements involved in handwriting and typewriting. Handwriting produces a strict and unequivocal relationship between the visual shape (of the letter) and the motor program that is used to produce the shape, with each letter associated with a given, very specific movement. They report that typing is a “form of spatial learning” that requires the writer to transform the visual form of each character into the position of a given key, turning the movement to create thoughts into a visuomotor association linked with pointing movements and characters on the keyboard. In that light, they felt that the less specific typewriting movements should provide little in the way of visual recognition and memorization – Memorization that is required for automaticy and skilled writing skills.
“Writing is an immensely important and equally complex and sophisticated human skill commonly ascribed a fundamental role in children’s cognitive and language development, and a milestone on the path to literacy.” (6)
Handwriting cannot be ignored as an important step on that pathway.
To read Week 1’s Posting in the Series, please scroll down past the references!
(1) Wilson, Frank R. The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Print.
(2) Johansson, Roland S., and J. Randall Flanagan. “Coding and Use of Tactile Signals from the Fingertips in Object Manipulation Tasks.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience Nat Rev Neurosci 10.5 (2009): 345-59. Web. 19 July 2015. <http://220.127.116.11/ehrsson/pdfs/Johansson&Flanagan-2009.pdf>.
(3) Renaud, Jean-Paul. “Good Handwriting and Good Grades: FIU Researcher Finds New Link.” News at FIU Florida International University. Florida International University, 08 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 July 2015. <http://news.fiu.edu/2012/01/good-handwriting-and-good-grades-fiu-researcher-finds-new-link/34934?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=good-handwriting-and-good-grades-fiu-researcher-finds-new-link>.(4) Daly, C. J., G. T. Kelley, and A. Krauss. “Relationship Between Visual-Motor Integration and Handwriting Skills of Children in Kindergarten: A Modified Replication Study.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.4 (2003): 459-62. Web. 19 July 2015.
(4) Daly, C. J., G. T. Kelley, and A. Krauss. “Relationship Between Visual-Motor Integration and Handwriting Skills of Children in Kindergarten: A Modified Replication Study.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.4 (2003): 459-62. Web. 19 July 2015.
(5) The University of Stavanger. “Better learning through handwriting.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm>.
(6) Mangen, Anne, and Jean-Luc Velay. “Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing.” Advances in Haptics (2010): 385-401. Web. 26 June 2015.
(7) 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>.
(8) Graham, Steve, and Dolores Perin. Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School. Alliance for Excellent Education. Alliance for Excellent Education, Sept. 2006. Web. 24 June 2015. <http://all4ed.org>.
(9) Gentry, J. Richard, Ph.D., and Steve Graham, Ed.D. “Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Importance of Direct, Systematic Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance.” Saperstein Associates. Saperstein Associates, n.d. Web. 07 July 2015. <http://www.sapersteinassociates.com/>.
(10) Graham, Steve. “Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting.” American Educator Winter.2009-2010 (n.d.): 20-25. Web. 26 June 2015.
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.
As 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 technology 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.
(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.
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:
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, 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 school 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?
In 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.
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 school. 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>.
(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>.
There’s been quite a bit of debate recently about the value of including a structured handwriting program, especially cursive, in our students’ daily schedule. While cursive has been given the most attention, I have found, as an Occupational Therapist who specializes in handwriting skills, that handwriting instruction in general has taken a giant leap backward in importance relative to that of the other subject areas. Yes, handwriting IS a subject area. It is not an extracurricular activity. While we might loudly discuss whether or not the mastery of cursive is necessary to be able to read a letter from grandmom, manuscript in general has been given a bad rap as keyboarding takes center stage in our children’s educational and social arenas.
The benefits of handwriting mastery extend past a pretty signature. Hidden in the learning of printing or cursive are the underlying skills needed to read and write:
– recognizing letters, recalling them correctly and consistently, and connecting them efficiently in order to create a word.
– scanning, tracking, and accommodation.
Fluid handwriting is automatic, allowing the writer to push the pencil along and record thoughts without having to concentrate on the formation of letters, or words for that matter. Writing is one of the primary ways that teachers evaluate a student’s learning. And as he progresses through the grades, the volume and complexity of reading and writing gathers speed. If he has poor reading and writing skills, he is most likely to be “left behind.”
The argument is being made, as we speak, that computers will fix all of this handwriting “mumbojumbo.” Each student will receive an electronic device as they enter Kindergarten (preschool, maybe!) and then no one will ever have to utter the word “handwriting” again! I think we’ve forgotten that handwriting is a cognitive, visual-motor, and sensory experience. (3) It involves more areas of the brain than any other activity, barring speech.
University of Washington professor, Virginia Berninger, (4) reported study results revealing that keyboarding isn’t as effective as handwriting in producing efficient “transcription” skills. Transcription is a “basic cognitive process involved in writing that enables a writer to translate thoughts or ideas into written language.” Handwriting, as well as spelling, is a transcription process. Keyboarding doesn’t provide the essential visual-motor involvement that comes from engaging the hand in forming letters. Berninger also reported that brain imaging showed that sequencing the fingers during handwriting may engage the thinking processes for children.
For some students, handwriting is a piece of cake. It just “comes to them.” For others, they require special accommodations in order make it happen. And sometimes those accommodations come in the form of a computer. Sandwiched in between these two groups are the children that need just a bit of help. They don’t “just get it” but they don’t qualify for services, either. But without some additional attention, they will find themselves falling further and further behind in their schoolwork because handwriting skills are utilized across the subject areas. For those children, it is important to get a Handwriting Assessment to determine the level of remediation that he will need to master handwriting.
So often, the children who are struggling with handwriting will try to tell us they need help by saying, “I don’t like handwriting!”
Instead, let’s take a look at some fun ideas for encouraging the development of handwriting skills that have been shared on the internet:
Education.com provides free, downloadable worksheets that focus on letters (printed and cursive) with creative ideas for building hand strength, coordination, and cognitive skills.
Teachers Pay Teachers offers downloads, some for free and some for a fee, that span the subject areas. They include creative writing activities that can enhance handwriting skills.
John Hancock would have been 272 years old this year. His signature was so distinctive that we still say, “Put your John Hancock here.” Wouldn’t it be nice if someday people were using your child’s name? I have to admit, “Put your Katherine Collmer here” has a certain ring to it!
I hope you’ve found some useful information here that with help your children to enjoy handwriting for the rest of their lives!