With the increasing use of technology in today’s society, the question arises as to whether we still need to teach handwriting to children. Research has indicated that there are benefits from handwriting instruction that go beyond learning to write (Dinehart, 2015). Firstly, there is a strong link between developing motor skills and developing cognitive skills. When children learn to draw letters by hand, their later recognition for those letters is better. As a result, children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. Learning to form letters activates the neural pathways associated with successful reading, thus handwriting forms an important component of early literacy instruction.
Other research has shown that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject. While individuals who rely on word processing using a laptop or other device tend to take notes verbatim, those working with pen and paper rephrase and summarise information as they take notes. The process of note-taking with pen and paper encourages deeper processing of the information.
Dr Virginia Berninger, a prominent researcher in the area, promotes teaching children to be ‘hybrid writers’. This means instruction in print first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and composing. Touch-typing should ideally be introduced in upper primary according to Dr Berninger.
It is recommended that handwriting instruction is addressed in the following ways:
- Initially, the sequence of introduction of letter forms should follow the structured synthetic phonics (SSP) program utilised in the classroom. For example, the first eight letter-sound relationships taught in the Letters and Sounds program are s, a, t, p, i, n, m and d. Once every letter of the alphabet has been taught, appropriate letter formation should be reinforced by practising similarly shaped letters together (eg. a, c and d).
- Handwriting instruction should be part of daily phonics instruction. Integrate handwriting instruction with instruction in letter sounds. Encourage children to say the letter name and sound as they write the letter. An effective way to do this is to follow the procedure outlined in the Letters and Sounds program: 1. Hear the sound (auditory recognition) and say the sound (articulation/pronunciation); 2. See the sound (visual recognition) and say the sound (articulation); 3. Say the sound (articulation) and write the sound (formation).
- Children should learn a highly consistent way to form a given letter every time they write it. For example, teach children to write the letter b by starting at the top with a vertical stroke, then making the loop to the right without lifting the pencil, rather than having children form the vertical line and the loop in separate strokes.
- Teachers should accompany handwriting instruction with a letter formation prompt for each letter. These verbal prompts support the specific shapes used in letter formation and act as memory cues. For example, when learning the letter s, move your finger slowly along the snake from its mouth while saying the letter formation prompt: “Round the snake’s head, slide down his back and round his tail.” (Phase Two, Letters and Sounds).
- Begin by focusing on the learning of the motor pattern rather than perfect legibility or size.
- Ensure that reversible letters such as b and d are taught separately as children appear less likely to confuse visually similar letters if they have learned one letter of a confusable pair well prior to introduction of the other letter of the pair. Evidence-based SSP programs follow a pre-planned sequence or introduction which separates the teaching of letters which are easily confused due to similarities in formation or articulation.
- In addition, it can be helpful to teach children to form confusable letters differently; for example, b starts at the top whereas d starts with the loop.
- Use written arrow cues to help children remember how to form letters and to prevent children from inadvertently practising incorrect letter formation repeatedly.
- Speed should not be emphasised until children can form letters legibly and from memory.
Handwriting problems often arise from a difficulty in automatically remembering and mastering the sequence movements required in writing letters or numbers. If left unaddressed, these difficulties can affect a student’s ability to express themselves in writing. Ongoing difficulties with automatic letter formation often lead to avoidance of writing and therefore reduced practice, which leads to further difficulties. Explicit handwriting instruction in the early years is therefore key to preventing later difficulties.