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October 16, 2019

Write it Down: Handwriting’s Impact on School Performance

Handwriting may seem like a dying art, but it’s a skill that has far-ranging cognitive benefits.

As technology advances and keyboards reign supreme, the focus on teaching traditional skills such as handwriting and penmanship has been on the decline. In fact, handwriting instruction ceased to be part of the Common Core curriculum in 2012, but it has been added back over the years in at last 15 states.

However, handwriting has an impact beyond the reader’s ability to decipher what’s been written. The actual act of writing information down has cognitive benefits that support learning. Teaching children the skill of handwriting can have a lasting positive impact on academic performance and comprehension.

The importance of handwriting

The efficiency and convenience of typing on a keyboard have made handwriting seem like a relic of the past, but writing is still an important skill for children to learn from an early age for many different reasons.

Children who labor while writing often expends their mental resources on the mechanical process of forming each letter instead of being able to focus on the message or material they’re trying to convey. When handwriting is a challenge or feels physically awkward to accomplish, children are less likely to approach the task with the enthusiasm that inspires creativity or efficient organization of ideas. Writing isn’t just limited to language arts class, either — it’s an essential component of almost every subject, from note-taking to essay writing.

The process of learning to write is a teaching tool in itself. The physical gesture of creating a letter helps reinforce the shape of that letter in your brain, and the initial messy attempts to write that letter enable the brain to recognize it in any form.

A 2012 study by psychologists at Indiana University asked children who had not yet learned to write to reproduce a shape or letter on an index card by either tracing it, typing it, or drawing it on blank paper. The researchers then performed brain scans on the children as they showed them the letters again.

The children who drew the letter freehand had increased activity in areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write, even though the children did not yet know how to do either. The children who typed or traced the letter did not experience these effects. The results indicate that handwriting may have a positive impact on a child’s ability to learn to read.

How to teach handwriting

Early childhood is the ideal time to teach handwriting basics; poor letter formation or pencil grasp is harder to undo in later years. Investing even small amounts of time each day in handwriting instruction may pay off for years to come. Keep these three suggestions in mind as you teach children how to learn to write:

1. Focus on the pattern, not perfection

Young children are often still developing motor skills, which means legibility and size are challenges when learning new letters. Encourage them to use large movements when learning to form a new letter, such as using their entire arm to create the shape in the air. Familiarity with the general shape and how making that shape feels to their body is a helpful first step to learning the lines and curves of that letter.

2. Teach some letters together, others apart

Letters such as “b” and “d” are easy to confuse due to the similarity of their shapes. Introducing these letters at separate times, with adequate space between, can help reinforce them as separate entities. Another strategy to help differentiate similar letters is to teach their formation differently. For example, start writing a “b” at the top of the line, and a “d” at the top of its loop.

On the other hand, when it comes to letters that look different but require the same basic shape, such as “c” and “e,” it can be helpful to teach those letters as a group.

3. Use continuous strokes and written arrow cues

Consistency helps reinforce the physical sensation associated with forming certain letters. For letters that don’t require lifting the pencil off the paper, teach children to write them using one continuous stroke as they’re beginning to learn.

Using written arrow cues on worksheets or visual aids that help children recall the direction of letter formation can help prevent repeated mistakes that could become habits.

The best teaching tool for writing is simple repetition. Find new and creative ways to practice letter formation and offer handwriting lessons consistently. Everyday practice can result in a lasting impact on a child’s future. The ability to write fluidly is an important skill that can help children read, remember, and express themselves throughout school and life.

Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families.

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