This past fall the Illinois General Assembly passed a mandate requiring public elementary schools to provide cursive instruction beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year. Some wonder why handwriting, especially given the trend in many school districts to move towards 1:1 technology, has become such a priority. While the need to become proficient and adaptable technology-users remains, handwriting is more tied to learning and academic achievement than many realize.
Showing What You Know
The primary purpose of handwriting is communication and, more specifically in educational settings, to convey one’s knowledge to teachers. Almost half of a kindergarten student’s day is spent doing writing tasks. As children advance in school, the expectations for writing increase. For example, by third grade, children’s writing is expected to become more complex and they are required to write informative and explanatory texts, narratives, and research reports.
Some children appear to be innate handwriters. When provided with crayons, markers, or pencils, these children hold them correctly and see to know to draw a line from the top of the page down to the bottom and to make a continuous curved line in counterclockwise fashion to produce a circle. Innate or automatic handwriters are able to draw complex shapes and write their names before they head off to preschool. Once they get to school, automatic handwriters are able to copy words and fill up journal pages without much support. However, it can be difficult for parents and early childhood teachers to discern which students will pick up handwriting easily and which ones will need more instruction.
It sounds simplistic, but handwriting needs to be explicitly taught to all children, and particularly to those that aren’t automatic handwriters. Even children who are skilled with drawing shapes and copying their names in preschool benefit from direct handwriting instruction to learn how to properly form letters. Proper letter formation is more efficient than “drawing letters” and this skill will help students write quickly in the future. However, not all children will learn handwriting quickly. It’s estimated that approximately 10-30% of elementary school students have difficulty with automatic handwriting. Students that struggle with handwriting often have to choose between producing legible text and getting their ideas on to the page. Handwriting has also been linked to the development of literacy skills, such as spelling and sight word reading. In fact, the physical act of handwriting has been found to light up regions of the brain that are associated with literacy and supports reading skill acquisition, particularly letter naming and recognition.
Quality handwriting writing instruction is more than providing students with worksheets and asking them to copy letters on a page. Handwriting instruction should begin with the selection of a handwriting curriculum. Systematic instruction of handwriting that follows an intentionally sequenced curriculum has been found to support students in achieving better legibility, faster writing speed, and fluency. Some common elements of effective handwriting curricula include progressing students from imitating and copying letters to writing letters from memory, the use of verbal and visual cues for proper letter formation, and writing on lines to assist with letter sizing and placement. Some examples of handwriting curricula that include these elements are:
Practice Makes Perfect
Some children will need additional assistance to develop automatic handwriting skills. In the past, many interventions focused on developing the child’s fine motor skills, adjusting how the child held his or her pencil, or improving the child’s hand strength. However, there appears to be no evidence that these interventions are effective or consequential in improving a child’s handwriting speed, fluency, or legibility. Rather, a cognitive approach to addressing handwriting that emphasizes practice, is based in the principles of motor learning, and includes self-regulated learning strategies is preferred. Through guided practice, instructor feedback, and the process of self-appraisal and strategy identification, children can develop more automatic handwriting skills and become efficient writers.
Some children will continue to struggle with handwriting despite receiving formal instruction and getting extra help. Occupational therapists are able to provide services to children with handwriting difficulties in school and in private clinics. Prior to beginning intervention, an occupational therapist will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to determine the underlying causes of the handwriting difficulty. This evaluation may include an assessment of the following: handwriting speed, letter legibility and formation, perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination skills, volition or motivation to complete handwriting tasks, and the influence of the environment on task performance. Depending on the child’s unique needs, the occupational therapist might also evaluate sensory processing, postural stability and control, and vision. After the comprehensive evaluation, an individualized intervention plan is developed by the occupational therapist and recommendations associated with the frequency and duration of treatment, as well as strategies to try at home and at school will be provided. Because handwriting success is so tied to how children, particularly those in younger elementary grades, learn and feel about school, parents are encouraged to seek help quickly.