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June 17, 2022

Why We Need to Save Handwriting

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Handwriting can play an important role in students' cognitive skills and writing development.
Instructional Strategies
Is Handwriting Dead?
Credit: Volodymyr-Nik / Shutterstock
Handwriting just doesn’t get the attention it used to—even though I think it should. Standardized testing and the rise of technology have diminished the importance of handwriting, and studies offer conflicting reports on the efficacy of typing over writing. More than 75 percent of schools in the U.S. no longer prioritize writing skills in their literacy lessons (Doug, 2019). So, the question must be asked: Is handwriting essential anymore?  
In my first few years as a kindergarten teacher, I felt more prepared to prioritize reading instruction over writing, and even when teaching writing, to focus on the content over the quality of letter formation. My training focused much more on phonics than teaching handwriting, and at the time, I didn’t understand the important relationship between handwriting, the brain, and early literacy skills. I fear many educators have had similar experiences, learning—either directly or inadvertently—that handwriting doesn’t matter. But in my experience and research, I have found that handwriting plays a significant role in developing students’ cognitive skills (more to follow) and writing development. It deserves daily time for explicit instruction, guided practice, and individualized feedback in all elementary grades. 

Why Should We Prioritize Handwriting? 

1. Poor Handwriting Has Consequences 

Handwriting is a foundational writing skill. Research professor and handwriting expert Steve Graham argues that children with poor handwriting often become poor writers (2018). If students struggle to form letters or master the skill early on, they will often develop a negative view of writing—and try to avoid it.  
Poor handwriting can make it difficult for students to persevere on writing assignments. I’ve found in my classroom that if students have to spend a great deal of time concentrating on letter production, they often don’t have the cognitive energy left to focus on the structure or content of their writing.  

2. Handwriting Can Improve Cognitive Capabilities 

Handwriting can also aid in overall learning and cognitive development. Doug found that countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore “rely on handwriting as a key discipline for providing a structured mind, cognitive skills and the ability in pupils to possess and retrieve textual information” (p. 180). Handwriting has been shown to improve memory, too. Doug explains, “the physical movement of the hand with the pencil is neurological; it connects with the part of the brain that records the shapes and letters with automaticity” (p. 179).  
As a student, educator, and researcher, I have experienced firsthand how taking physical notes helps me remember information. As studies have shown, improving handwriting could play a critical role in helping students build and retain early literacy skills such as letter names, sounds, and word recognition. Research clearly demonstrates that high-quality handwriting instruction can improve students’ cognitive capabilities to master foundational skills in reading and writing. 

Individually scaffolding support and providing specific feedback helps students understand which handwriting habits to alter and which to continue.

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Caroline Selness

3. Handwriting Helps Teachers Personalize Instruction 

Students often express their individuality and unique skills through their handwriting. This can help educators tailor instruction to meet student needs and examine how they form letters and words. According to Doug, handwriting involves the coordination of a variety of skills such as “fine motor control, in-hand manipulation, visual perception, sustained attention, and sensory awareness” (p. 179). As such, handwriting has the potential to reveal important information about students’ hand-eye coordination and other behaviors that might be related to dyslexia and ADHD (such as sloppy, large writing and poor pencil grip).
Poor handwriting can also have a negative impact on students’ self-esteem and motivation. A handwriting intervention may be a gateway to helping students develop a stronger foundation of literacy skills and, in turn, a more positive perspective on writing and reading. 

What Can We Do to Support Handwriting Development? 

Two components of effectively teaching handwriting are 1) explicit instruction in the 4 R’s and 2) individualized feedback. In my own K-2 teaching experience, these instructional strategies have supported an increase in students’ self-awareness and attention to detail in their letter formation. This has led to greater rates of achievement and self-confidence in students’ handwriting as well as their overall literacy development. 

1. Explicit Instruction in “the 4 Rs” 

According to a 2021 study on a whole-class kindergarten handwriting intervention, Write Start–K, the four most important factors of fluent handwriting are recall, retrieval, reproduction, and repetition.  
  • Recall involves creating a mental representation for a letter. Helping students build strong grapheme-phoneme correspondences (an understanding of the visual representation of a spoken sound) is a foundational element of automatic handwriting.  
  • Retrieval occurs when the student accesses the system of movements associated with the letter. Graham, as well as other researchers, have found that numbered arrows describing the strokes for letter formation are helpful in aiding the retrieval process. 
  • Reproduction is the interaction of skills such as fine-motor, visuomotor, visuo-perceptual, and kinesthetic abilities. Modeling and teaching strategies for how to hold a pencil and place the paper can support the process of reproduction.  
  • Repetition is intensive practice over time. It is recommended that direct handwriting instruction at the elementary level should occur for a minimum of 75 to 100 minutes a week in grades 1-4 (Graham, 2018). 
To support elementary students’ handwriting, we need to implement strategies that aid each of these “four Rs.” 

2. Individualized Feedback 

Teaching handwriting requires that we provide specific positive and corrective feedback. Part of this process includes giving students opportunities to evaluate their own handwriting as well as that of their peers. As a kindergarten teacher, I asked students to put a star next to two or three letters they thought were their best demonstrations. During independent practice, I also let students take turns being the “expert” and place stars next to exemplary letters on their peers’ papers. This helped students understand and utilize the criteria for proper letter formation that I would use as the basis for my feedback during close monitoring.  
In my experience, individually scaffolding support and providing specific feedback helps students understand which handwriting habits to alter and which to continue. For example, if a student writes the letter “S” backward and is not corrected or supported, the incorrect formation will quickly become an automatic habit. While it may not seem like a big deal, often these incorrect letter formations can be difficult for students to unlearn, leading to development of incorrect grapheme-phoneme correspondences. We should consistently monitor and support students’ letter formation, praising their efforts on the letters they formed correctly and giving specific next steps for improvement when necessary. 

Handwriting Isn’t Dead 

As educators, we cannot let handwriting get pushed under the table. When we help students strengthen this foundational skill, we are setting them up for lifelong success in writing and learning. Through explicit, direct instruction, repeated practice over time, and individualized feedback, we can help each student develop strong handwriting skills.  

Caroline Selness is a K-5 literacy interventionist in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. She received a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Luther College with endorsements in reading and ESL and is working toward her Masters of Literacy Education at Concordia University, St. Paul.  

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