Now that much of our written communication takes place with keyboards and touch screens, is handwriting still relevant? Why can’t young children move directly to keyboard skills as they learn to recognize letters? These questions have become increasingly important as many schools de-emphasize handwriting. Recent studies provide some interesting insights into the importance of handwriting, as well as suggestions for teaching it effectively.
What is handwriting?
Handwriting is defined as the physical process of writing letters and words. To avoid confusion, the process of putting together words and sentences to convey information or record ideas will be called simply writing in this post. Handwriting may be done in manuscript (print) or in cursive. Since young children usually learn to print first, most of the research mentioned in this post refers to manuscript, rather than cursive.
What does the research show?
A number of recent studies have shown that handwriting has important benefits for young children. These studies fall into two general categories: scans of brain activity and long-term evaluation of reading and writing skills. In one brain scan study, it was discovered that drawing a letter freehand produced increased activity in the same areas of the brain that are activated when adults read or write. The scans showed much weaker brain activity when letters were traced or typed. Tests of adults showed that the physical act of writing by hand activated the region of the brain that filters and focuses information differently than typing on a keyboard. In fact, printing, cursive, and typing all produce different patterns in the brain.
Researchers also looked at how children’s skills in reading and writing developed over time. They discovered that children who had learned handwriting also learned to read more quickly and were better at remembering information and coming up with new ideas to write about. The concentration and muscle skills required for handwriting laid a solid foundation for more advanced skills and affected the child’s success in many different subjects.
How can I help my child develop good handwriting?
Many parents are convinced that handwriting is important but find it difficult to teach effectively. The first step to consider is readiness. Young children develop large muscle skills first, learning to sit and walk while still grasping most toys with a fist grip. Handwriting requires a rather sophisticated three-finger grip that does not come automatically. Before attempting to teach handwriting, encourage play activities that develop these fine-motor skills, especially those that require grasping small objects with a pincer grip. Examples are dressing dolls or stuffed animals, building with blocks and construction sets, and sorting small objects. Dr. Marianne Gibbs, an expert in teaching pre-handwriting skills, suggests storing small objects in a plastic bag with a sliding tab for opening and closing the top. Using the tab requires the same three-finger grip recommended for holding a pencil.
When children are ready to write letters and words, continue to provide plenty of support. Using short crayons, pencils, and pieces of chalk encourages a three-finger grip instead of a fist grip. Fine motor skills continue to develop for several years, so keep practice sessions short. Some older students may have developed an unconventional pencil grip. As long as they can write comfortably, there is no need to make them change. As handwriting gradually becomes more automatic, your child will be able to concentrate on the ideas he wants to record, rather than the process of handwriting itself.
Is it important to learn cursive as well as printing?
Schools have increasingly dropped the teaching of cursive, even though studies show that writing in cursive develops connections between the left and right sides of the brain and helps students think of words as whole units. Some educators believe that using cursive is particularly beneficial for dyslexic students. A child who is comfortable with using a pencil should be able to learn cursive handwriting as well as print, although educators differ as to when it should be taught. Several programs for teaching cursive are available, so, if you decide to teach cursive, you may want to do some research to see which program is best for you and your child.
Clearly, keyboarding is an important skill for our children to learn, but it should not replace handwriting, which research has shown to be a critical tool for developing fluency in reading, writing, and thinking. Teaching manuscript or cursive handwriting does not need to be a stressful experience. Begin by helping the young child develop the appropriate fine motor skills, provide plenty of support for early writers, and gradually increase the time spent on task as the child matures. The result will be a solid foundation for further learning and a skill that your child can use with satisfaction for the rest of his or her life.