Handwriting Practices for Struggling Writers
How should we teach our kids handwriting in the digital age?
It becomes ever more difficult to make a case for good handwriting because there are many more ways we can communicate in the digital age.
In fact, many more educational institutions, with few exceptions, are asking the question, “Is legible handwriting even necessary?” (Source; page 2) Why should responsible homeschooling parents endeavor to wrestle with the beast of handwriting when institutions are saying, “Just keyboard”?
What are the issues concerning good handwriting instruction, what kinds of concerns should parents consider when addressing handwriting with their children, and most importantly, what is a plan of good handwriting instruction?
Dr. Karen Holinga
I am indebted to Dr. Karen Holinga for the information I am going to share with you today. Dr. Holinga is a reading specialist with a doctorate from The Ohio State University in Developmental Reading, Curriculum, and Professional Development. She is Reading Recovery trained and is currently in practice as The Reading Doctor, Inc. where she works full-time tutoring children with reading problems and counseling homeschool families in curriculum options; Dr. Holinga does hundreds of student assessments each year. Given that she homeschooled her own children, she has a thorough understanding of what it means to be a homeschool mom in the trenches, trying to create competencies in our children.
in 2014, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Holinga speak on the subject of handwriting at the Florida Parent Educators’ Association Special Needs Conference, and the room was packed; I am not alone in wondering why this can be such a complex and difficult issue to address with our children. According to Dr. Holinga, “Labored handwriting creates a drain on mental resources. Without automatic handwriting, the system for learning shuts down.”
Why Do We Teach Handwriting?
According to Dr. Holinga, research shows that incorporating ten minutes a day of handwriting copywork can double the increases in reading levels. And the research further indicates that 10-30% of children will struggle with handwriting at some point in their development.
Why would it make a difference to write, as opposed to using a keyboard? In the October issue of Reader’s Digest, Fred Barbash wrote of a study investigating whether taking notes by hand was more valuable than taking notes on a computer, saying:
All students received the same lectures, but some used laptops, and others took notes by hand. When it came to learning the concepts, the handwriters won. When it came to retrieving facts, the groups were comparable, except when given time to go home and look at their notes, at which point the handwriters did even better.” (Barbash, Fred. “Want to Learn? Lose the laptop.” Reader’s Digest October, 2014: pgs. 44-45)
According to Dr. Holinga, the act of handwriting serves us in a variety of ways, to include enhancing our comprehension and memory, “lighting up” memory centers of our brain, and is a predictor of academic success.
We can misunderstand legitimate handwriting struggles and think they show laziness or carelessness. We can unknowingly create more of an issue by making handwriting a daily struggle. There are strategies to help our children create those competencies, without enabling them.
3 Ways to Help Struggling Writers
1) Use a Recording Device
Giving them permission to speak their composition assignments into a recording device. This removes the pressure of having to remember the idea while attempting to put that idea on paper.
2) Use a Keyboard
Allow them to keyboard their thoughts, with the intention that their final product will be produced by hand. The keyboard draft is exactly that – no emphasis on capitalization or punctuation – the goal is only to capture their thoughts.
3) Be Their Scribe
You be their scribe – allow them to dictate to you. The difficult part in this enterprise is not to engage in editing while they are thinking. Let them talk through their ideas. Editing is for later.
Their final draft should be their own, in their own handwriting.
Neurologically, Dr. Holinga reminds us that handwriting orders the brain and thinking processes. It helps our children focus their thoughts. This is a discipline that has to be practiced to be gained. In fact, in the process of creating muscle memory for the written word, a child may need to engage in literally hours of practice.
My Taekwondo instructor used to say that we would have to practice a single move up to 2,500 times to make it part of our “muscle memory.” As a parent, don’t do your children an injustice by giving in too soon. Winning the war may just be over the next hill.
But how do I know this is a mountain worth trying to win? What is enough struggle and what is too much? There are things you can do to ameliorate the struggle.
8 Ways to Help Develop Good Writing Skills
1) Hand Dominance
If your children have not chosen a hand by school age, assist them in choosing one. This may mean observing them carefully and watching things like, which hand do they choose to throw a ball with, or hit with a bat, or which eye do they cover in the bright sun – the hand they use most, when they are not thinking about it, is the hand that is likely dominant.
2) Pencil Grips
Find pencil grips that work for you; there are many out there. A pencil grip is designed to help foster a proper pencil grasp, and is a little piece of rubber or plastic that slides onto the pencil. This is trial and error, but worth the effort.
3) Letter Formations
Help them create consistent formation of letters – Dr. Holinga says that letters constructed from the top down are less neurological work than bottom up, but some children are “builders” and may tend to form letters from the bottom to the top. Help your children create handwriting with as much single-stroke letter formation as possible. The research tells us that consistent letter formation is the key – don’t fret if you have a “bottom to top” kind of kid. As long as they do it consistently, you are on the right track.
4) Similar Letters
Teach similar letters together (r,m,b,h). These should be single-stroke letters.
5) Reversible Letters
Separate reversible letters like b and d – teaching them at the same time can cause letter “confusion.”
6) Handwriting/Sound Integration
When you write the letter b, say the “buh” sound. Any time you can incorporate a multi-sensory approach to handwriting, you increase the ability for the child to master it.
7) Use Whole Arm Movements
Practice letter writing with whole arm movements – the smaller letter formation will evolve. Use dry erase boards for practice. They can write as large as they want, and eventually the letters will become consistently smaller and more uniform.
8) Good Posture
Encourage good posture and good tripod pencil grip.
Remember, doing just ten minutes a day of copywork has been proven to improve handwriting significantly. But bear this important principle in mind – copywork must be done in PRINT, because we read in print. If you want to work on cursive handwriting, use the previous week’s copywork. This way the passage is familiar and children can focus on letter formation. ALWAYS start with print. Cursive is important and faster and easier for note taking and study, but if you have to choose one, choose print. And remember, spelling words should ALWAYS be studied in PRINT.
Do not engage in a handwriting enterprise while a child is in the process of forming their thoughts, as in the draft of a composition. Neurologically, it is too difficult for a child to focus successfully on both the act of letter formation AND the creativity required for composing their thoughts.
Above all, remember to PRAISE THE EFFORT. You might not be seeing progress, but praise and encouragement build emotional confidence in your child, and eventually you will see successful output from them.
It can be a long road to the successful creation of a confident, penmanship-praiseworthy student. We all have to start somewhere. As parents, the biggest struggle for us may be remembering to be encouraging and affirmative as we see our children grow and change. Remember, the days can be long indeed, but the years pass swiftly. Celebrate your child’s small handwriting victories, and when you look back, the struggle will fade over time. Not long after one of my struggling handwriters graduated from college, he said, “Mom, thanks for not giving up on me, or giving in to me. You showed me I could do it. It just took me a long time to believe that for myself.” I pray it will be the same for you.