Tamara McEachern, Hon. B.Sc., MA and Dr. Jan C. Frijters
Handwriting is a functional yet complex task in which lower-level, perceptual-motor processes and higher-level cognitive processes interact, allowing for communication of thoughts using a written code (Abbott & Berninger, 1993; Overvelde & Hulstijn, 2011). It is a skill that is required for full participation in school activities since children spend up to half of their classroom time engaged in paper and pencil tasks daily (Kushki, Schwellnus, Ilyas & Chau, 2011). Thus, graphomotor (handwriting) difficulties have a profound impact on a child’s academic success and self-esteem (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Proficiency in handwriting is significantly correlated with academic achievement and is a predictor of general learning abilities (Kushki et al., 2011).
Approximately 10-30% of children have difficulty mastering the skill of writing and problems are most common among children with various disorders, such as ADHD, learning disabilities (LDs), and speech and language difficulties (Graham & Harris, 2005). Dysgraphia is the term used by some professionals to describe this disorder of written expression and incorporates various aspects, including spelling and handwriting (which includes both printing/manuscript and cursive writing) (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2011). Even when provided with an appropriate amount of instruction and practice, children with dysgraphia fail to progress typically in the acquisition of handwriting (Smits-Engelsman & Van Galen, 1997). Dysgraphic handwriting lacks consistency and is variable in size, form and orientation across several trials. Nicolson and Fawcett (2011) have demonstrated, through extensive research, that dysgraphia reflects a lack of automaticity at the cognitive level.
The Simple View of Writing
A model of writing, developed by Berninger et al. (2002b) to address the developmental processes of how children learn to write, is referred to as the “Simple View of Writing”. It is illustrated as a triangle where transcription (handwriting and spelling) and executive functions (conscious attention, planning, reviewing, revising, strategies for self-regulation) are represented by the angles at the base and text generation (words, sentences, discourse) is positioned at the vertex of the triangle. Working memory (activating short- or long-term memory depending on the writing task) is considered to affect the whole writing process and this is represented by it being shown inside the triangle (Berninger & Amtmann, 2003).
Figure 1 Simple View of Writing Model ( Berninger & Amtmann, 2003)
This model states that in the early stages of writing development, the transcription processes are foundational and both handwriting and spelling are the basis from which the writer can translate the ideas he/she has into written text. The executive functions are regulated by assistance from teachers, parents and peers in these beginning phases of learning how to compose. However, as the writer matures he/she will become better able to self-regulate and so the various executive functions will transition into playing a more significant role in the writing process as transcription becomes more automatic (Jones & Christensen, 1999).
Handwriting as language by hand
Over the last fifteen to twenty years a group of researchers in the United States have investigated the role of handwriting in the process of writing (Berninger et al, 1997; Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000). Interestingly, they have established that handwriting is not purely a motor act but rather it is “language by hand” (Berninger et al., 2006). By conducting cross-sectional, longitudinal, and instructional studies, these researchers examined how language works with sensory and motor systems to produce and receive language (Berninger, 1999; Berninger & Abbott, 2010; Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, Graham, & Richards, 2002a).
A considerable amount of time has been spent examining the four separate and interacting functional language systems:
- language by ear (listening comprehension),
- language by mouth (oral expression),
- language by eye (reading comprehension), and
- language by hand (written expression).
Of significance for the purpose of the present discussion, handwriting has been shown to be an integration of orthographic codes (letter forms), phonological codes (letter names and sounds), and graphomotor codes (written shapes) and this is why it is referred to as language by hand (Berninger et al., 2006).
The concept that handwriting is not merely a mechanical or motor skill is further supported by Richards et al. (2011) who claim that it is rather a “brain-based skill that facilitates meaning-making as writers externalize their cognitions through letter forms, the building blocks of written words and text” (p. 512). Similarly, Christensen (2005) suggests that handwriting is not just about training the hand (motor skill); but it is about how memory and orthographic processes must work together to be able to recall the letter shapes and translate these patterns onto the page automatically. This skill is termed orthographic-motor integration and it has been shown to contribute more to handwriting than to motor skills (Berninger & Amtmann, 2003). Thus, handwriting as a language act is an important part of writing and not just a motor act that is used to record writing (Medwell, Strand & Wray, 2009).
Handwriting & Written Expression
Handwriting contributes directly to compositional fluency and quality for both beginning (primary grades 1 to 3) and developing (junior grades 4 to 6) writers (Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott & Whitaker, 1997). Graham and his colleagues (1997) used multiple-group structural equation modeling to analyze the relationships between transcription (handwriting and spelling) and composition in 600 students, grades 1 to 6, who were virtually all general education students (N = 599) and right-handed (90%). After implementing two, timed handwriting fluency measures (alphabet and copy task), three spelling measures (dictation and assessment of spelling in separate writing samples), and two composition measures (narrative and expository) the researchers developed two structural models.
The results of the model of compositional fluency showed that the relationship with handwriting and spelling were significant in the primary grades but in the junior grades only the relationship with handwriting was significant. In the second model, a model of compositional quality, only the relationship with handwriting was significant for all six grade levels. Spelling only contributed to compositional quality indirectly through its correlation with handwriting.
Overall, the study showed that, due to the large proportion of variance that was accounted for by a combination of handwriting and spelling in compositional fluency (41% in primary grades to 66% in junior grades) and in compositional quality (25% to 42%), the transcription skills necessary for writing affect students written composition throughout elementary school. Their research is supported by others and suggests that orthographic-motor integration accounts for more than 50% of the variance in written language performance in individuals from primary through to secondary school and even into adulthood (Bourdin & Fayol, 2002; Graham et al., 1997; Jones & Christensen, 1999).
Handwriting & Reading
The connection between handwriting and reading is discussed in the reviews by Richey (2008) and Vander Hart, Fitzpatrick, and Cortesa (2010), wherein they point out that learning how to write individual letters and spell words has been shown to reinforce the skills of letter naming, phonemic awareness and word reading.
Interestingly, writing and reading appear to share a close and reciprocal relationship (Graham & Hebert, 2011). This is seen in Abbott and Berninger’s (1993) structural equation modeling approach to analyzing writing skills when they found that oral language and reading contribute uniquely to written composition in early primary school years. In addition, others have found that practicing handwriting is important for the development of early reading abilities because early print exposure is an important component of learning language code (Levy, Gong, Hessels, Evans, & Jared, 2006).
Typically, handwriting development begins at an early age. Between the ages of three and four, the underlying features of handwriting, like directionality and linearity, begin to appear in the scribbles, wavy lines, pseudo-letters, and pictorial representations produced (Beery & Beery, 2010; Graham & Weintraub, 1996). By four to five years of age, letters are beginning to become part of children’s writing, although they often happen along with pictures during the kindergarten years. A child’s ability to copy geometric shapes, specifically the oblique cross, is seen as an indication that the child is ready to write (Beery & Beery, 2010; Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Dramatic changes occur in the early elementary grades with handwriting, progressing from irregular to smooth and consistent output, indicating improvement in legibility. The speed at which children write steadily increases from year to year throughout the primary and junior grades (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Little is empirically known about handwriting development beyond elementary school and more research with older students is necessary to link what is known about the developing capabilities of children to the skilled handwriting of adults (Graham & Weintraub, 1996).
Legibility & Speed
Competence in handwriting is usually described in terms of legibility and speed.
Legibility refers to the readability of the written text (taking into account elements such as letter formation, size, alignment, and spacing) and is often what is judged and seen as a reflection of the writer’s intelligence or capabilities (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). It has been illustrated that, despite similar written content, lower marks were consistently assigned to students with poor handwriting in comparison to those with neater handwriting (Connelly, Campbell, MacLean & Barnes, 2006). As Sassoon (2006) points out, poor handwriting is a demoralizing and constant reminder of failure at any age but especially to those in secondary school and on into adulthood.
Handwriting speed (typically measured as the average number of letters or words written per minute) is another essential measure of handwriting performance since writing needs to be completed within a reasonable span of time to be functional (VanDrempt, McCluskey & Lannin, 2011).
Handwriting Instruction & Intervention
For those involved in handwriting instruction and intervention, it is important to keep in mind that handwriting must be explicitly taught. Berninger and Amtmann (2003) support this claim and they stress the importance of having learning environments that allow students with transcription problems to think of themselves as writers and they encourage daily writing. They argue that if the students are permitted to avoid handwriting then a self-perpetuating cycle is created in which poor handwriting breeds poor handwriting through lack of practice.
The majority of handwriting remediation studies focus on children between five to ten years of age (Feder & Majnemer, 2007; Yancosek & Howell, 2011). An in-depth analysis of handwriting curriculum and instruction in four North American kindergarten classrooms was carried out using both quantitative and qualitative methods (Vander Hart et al., 2010). Below are eight of the most effective, research-based instructional handwriting practices that were outlined in Vander Hart et al’s. (2010) review of the current literature. This review was based solely on primary research in peer-reviewed publications and the following practices are what they determined to be effective and recommended for classroom use.
- Frequent/daily lessons: Research findings have demonstrated that 50 to 100 minutes of handwriting instruction per week with daily practice is optimal.
- Direct and Explicit Instruction: The educator instructs students on how to form upper and lowercase letters in a specific order so that similarities or differences between letters can be emphasized.
- Modeling: The educator demonstrates proper pencil grip, paper position and letter formation.
- Guided Practice: Students trace, copy and use visual cues to learn how to form letters. Then they produce the letters from memory.
- Use of Feedback: The educator encourages students to correct/rewrite poorly formed letters and praises them for correctly formed letters too. Monitoring while the students are in the process of writing is important so that the product is not the only thing being assessed.
- Independent Practice: Students should be given lots of opportunity to practice and review handwriting. Having the students self-evaluate their writing (i.e. circle the best formed letter that session) is also a very effective strategy.
- Integrated Lessons: The educator incorporates an integrated method of teaching letter names and letter formation. Teaching handwriting within the context of a writing assignment can help to develop fluency and legibility.
- Writing Materials: It is recommended that several types of paper and writing utensils be available for the students to choose from when first learning to handwrite. Please see the other relevant resource list below for a link that provides examples of handwriting readiness tools.
Technology and Handwriting
Berninger and Amtmann (2003) do not recommend the use of alternative computer-based technologies commonly used to bypass handwriting challenges (keyboarding, voice recognition programs, word prediction software) since these technologies create new tasks for the individual who may or may not be able to handle the varied processing requirements. Berninger et al. (2006) proposed that typing and handwriting are only moderately correlated and use separate neuropsychological processing systems. Surprisingly, there has not been a lot of research to support educational applications of technology-based accommodations on the writing process and it was recommended that they should only be used after explicit handwriting intervention has been implemented and writing challenges are still evident (Berninger & Amtmann, 2003). These studies support the notion that once students have adequate transcription skills or, in cases where this is not possible, an appropriate computer-based compensatory tool for handwriting, they should be encouraged to progress and to gain experience in expressing their ideas through writing.
Occupational therapists, Bartorowicz, Missiuna, and Pollock (2012), from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada were the first to critically review the use of technology for children with LDs who required support in written performance. After conducting a systematic electronic literature search, only 28 peer-reviewed studies of the initial 864 met their selection criteria that included children with LDs, in grades 1 to 12, who used technology for writing. In general, this review indicated that evidence is moderately low to support the use of technology and that a direct link between writing difficulties and the usefulness of a computer-based technology to solve these difficulties cannot be made based on the available research.
Based on a review of the current literature, it can be strongly argued that handwriting is an important, even vital, skill for individuals of all ages and in various settings. Research findings have indicated that handwriting is causally related to both learning to read and learning to write. Studies have shown that handwriting contributes directly to compositional fluency and quality for beginning and developing writers and that automatic letter writing is the single best predictor of length and quality of written composition in younger students (Graham et al., 1997; Graham et al., 2000). Brain-based and applied research evidence lends support to the concept that reading and handwriting are closely linked (James, 2009; Levy et al., 2006; Richey, 2008; Vander Hart et al., 2010).
Thus, it is of utmost importance that educators and therapists who work with those struggling to gain competency in their literacy skills not make assumptions. Ultimately, one should not assume that handwriting instruction is unnecessary or less valuable than reading and writing instruction (Medwell et al., 2009). As the studies have illustrated, even when handwriting is directly taught within short periods of time with little cost or added effort on the part of the instructor, it can lead to great gains in many aspects of academic achievement. Schools need to prepare students to be better handwriters. The emerging literature suggests that the contribution of handwriting to academic achievement and vocational success must be considered.
Summary of Level of Evidence
A search of current published literature was conducted, focusing only on primary research reports in peer-reviewed venues. Among the peer-reviewed journals, most focused on learning disabilities and are highly regarded among researchers and practitioners. The list of instructional and intervention recommendations emerged from a review of the literature. This review, conducted by Vander Hart et al. (2010), was based solely on primary research carried out in many of the leading research centres in the world that focus on writing research.
Related Resources on the LD@school Website
The Handwriting in the 21st Century: An Educational Summit took place in January of 2012. It’s goal was to examine the role of handwriting instruction in the 21st century classroom. Click here to visit the website and view videos and other resources related to the summit.
Dr. David Sortino has written an article for The Press Democrat entitled Brain research and cursive writing. Click here to read the article.
This website offers a number of products that may help students who experience difficulties in handwriting. Click here to view the website.
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Tamara McEachern graduated with an Hon.B.Sc. degree, specializing in Exceptionality in Human Learning, Biology and Psychology from the University of Toronto. She then worked for many years in both the public/non-profit and private sectors within the field of social services. The focus of Tamara’s professional life has been to help children, youth and adults reach their full potential through programs that support their intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being by providing neurodevelopmental remediation and enhancement. After successfully defending her scholarship-funded, Master’s thesis at Brock University in the interdisciplinary Child and Youth Studies graduate program, she recently graduated with the class of 2014. Tamara continues to be involved in evidence-based, literacy program development, implementation, and evaluation.
Dr. Jan C. Frijters is an Associate Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. His research interests are in the role that motivational, volitional, and relationship factors have in learning to read, specifically in the interface between academic skills and non-cognitive determinants of skill growth. His work extends into the area of learning disabilities, investigating how struggling readers' motivation, self-regulatory skills and alliance with teachers help them benefit from remedial reading instruction. Other aspects of his work focus on reading skill measurement, modeling of treatment outcomes, and the individual cognitive and motivational variations that influence intervention response among struggling readers.