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
Frank R. Wilson writes in his book, The Hand: how its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture,
“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.
Learning through the use of our hands continues to be a vital link for educational success throughout life, with handwriting playing a major role. Efficient fine motor writing skills in pre-kindergarten have been found to be indicators for higher academic scores in second grade. (3) Recent research has uncovered its role in the process of skilled writing, an additional predictor of educational success. Handwriting, with its tactile and visual-motor integration skills, (4) addresses the perceptual and sensorimotor (5) combination of the complex process of writing. (6)
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!
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. 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) 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://18.104.22.168/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.
Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page, 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.
Week 1 in the Series: