Handwriting skills may seem unnecessary in an age of ubiquitous keyboards. Handwriting tends to be valued less than ever before, as typing has replaced handwriting in most settings and for most purposes. For this reason and many others, educators feel pressure to spend more time on subjects like math and science, often at the expense of practicing skills like handwriting.
But for young students, learning to write by hand acts as a powerful facilitator of growth in other important areas. Despite a widespread shift away from the need for handwriting skills, scientific research consistently shows that penmanship remains critical to many areas of intellectual development, and studies repeatedly demonstrate that writing by hand can dramatically improve memory in students. Far from being a trivial or antiquated skill, handwriting remains valuable today for many reasons. In this article we’ll look at some of the major ways handwriting skills support many facets of education and development in young students.
What is handwriting and where did it come from?
A system of codified, standardized symbols, writing is an agreement that certain shapes represent ideas. Handwriting involves creating those symbols by using an instrument, like a pencil, held in the hand. Each person’s style of handwriting is unique to them.
Originating more than five thousand years ago, handwriting was first perfected by the Egyptians, who used reed brushes on papyrus, and by the Sumerians, who used a sharp reed in wet clay. Over the centuries, handwriting became a highly valued skill across the globe, with status attached to penmanship abilities, evolved tools, and special schools for teaching techniques unique to each culture. Nowhere is penmanship more valued than in China, where handwriting is considered an art and prized more highly than in any other culture.
Integral within education at every level throughout history, handwriting has always been directly connected to knowledge; to this day many examinations are still handwritten, and throughout society, those who can’t write legibly will find themselves at a severe disadvantage.
Why are handwriting skills important for reading?
A critical element of early childhood education, handwriting drives growth in crucial cognitive areas like phonics. A student who is writing a word must be able to connect the word’s sounds with written letters. This understanding of phonics works in combination with handwriting to build essential reading abilities, allowing the phonological decoding of increasingly complex words. As their ability to write by hand becomes automatic, students are gaining vocabulary while learning about the ways words connect with each other within sentences.
As unique to each individual as their fingerprint, handwriting is an expression of its writer unlike any other, and a priceless lifelong tool.
Does handwriting build motor skills?
Equally critical are the motor skills built by the practice of writing. To form letters while arranging them correctly across a page requires the highly complex coordination of many joints, muscles, and senses, from the eyes to the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, fingers, and skin. With practice, this complexity can become automated through motor memory and internal modelling.
When most young students first begin to write, they’re unable to even hold a pencil correctly much less use it on paper to create letters or words. But after they spend time practicing, these same students can acquire strong penmanship abilities, which translate into enhanced motor planning, fine motor dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and more.
How can teachers incorporate handwriting into daily instruction?
Because students can easily become frustrated or bored by focusing on practical skills like handwriting or spelling, it can be highly beneficial to simply integrate those skills into something else that students may enjoy more, like creative writing exercises. If educators can keep students engaged in the learning process while building core writing and handwriting skills, they’ll ensure meaningful improvements in reading, spoken language, and critical thinking.
Good writing instruction delivers instruction in mechanics and the writing process while allowing students to exercise their creativity (Johnson, 2014). Educators utilizing programs like Words I Use When I Write (Grades 1-2) and My Word Book (Grade K) help students use new vocabulary words to build their own original compositions. Work like this helps young readers comprehend alphabetic principles, develop phonological awareness, and guide their own learning and writing via metacognitive strategies (Cimochowski, 2014).
Does instruction in handwriting support student achievement?
Handwriting in the earliest grades aids in cognitive development and is directly linked to basic reading and spelling achievement, so educators must continue to prioritize these skills, but they may find it challenging to engage young struggling readers. Encouraging them to participate in fun writing exercises can provide a wealth of opportunities for them to be creative while learning key skills like handwriting.
Even modest investments of instructional time devoted to handwriting, as little as 15 minutes daily, can be powerful in preventing a wide range future writing problems and in laying strong foundations for higher-level composition skills.
What are some activities for engaging students in handwriting practice?
It may not always be easy to teach students the skills they need to write, but it can still be enjoyable. Try any of these handwriting activities to make practice more interesting, entertaining, and effective.
- Form letters and words with gross motor play, like writing on posterboard with big arm motions.
- Try multisensory trays for proprioceptive input. Write using fingers or tools in trays or plates full of shaving cream, cornmeal, pudding, etc.
- Draw letters on the driveway with sidewalk chalk to walk or dance across.
- Grab window markers for big writing on a mirror or on the windows.
- Use a paintbrush to water paint letters outside on the sidewalk or driveway.
- Write letters or stories and “send” them in class so students can practice handwriting skills while sharing their writing.
- Write in fog on the window.
- Trace existing letters with a pencil or paintbrush.
- Write on a chalkboard (the vertical surface and pressure on the chalk is good practice).
- Do pencil control exercises that help young hands build the strength to stay steady and use writing tools.
As unique to each individual as their fingerprint, handwriting is an expression of its writer unlike any other, and a priceless lifelong tool. When educators help students build handwriting skills, they’re putting power directly into their students’ hands.
Want some great handwriting programs? Consider these for your classroom today!