Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Handwriting: The Servant of Language, Learning & Development

In this age of SMS messaging, social networking, blogging and cell phones with email and web browser access in your pocket, is there any role for handwriting with crayon, pencil or pen? Adults might rarely have the need to use a pen or pencil these days, but what about children? Are we doing children a disservice by not giving them access to keyboards almost from birth? Is the next step for parents interested in immersing their children in literacy to provide our toddlers access to keyboards rather than paper, crayons and pencils? I want to suggest that this would not be a good idea for at least the following three reasons:
  • There is a complex and interdependent relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning.
  • Research has shown that speed and fluency of handwriting has a direct impact on later writing development and learning.
  • There are many pragmatic and interpersonal reasons why the ability to write with pen and ink is still important.
1. There is a relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning

It is obvious that for the young child writing has its genesis in scribble. Those first attempts to make marks on paper, the walls or in the dirt, are a child's first attempt to experiment with the representation of meaning. While the first strokes of the 9 month-old child may be more about play and experimentation with objects, eventually the child will attempt to represent something. They will look up at whoever is nearby and smile as if to say "Look at me, I made this!" At this point, children have begun to work out how language and meaning can be symbolically represented.

But this early use of crayons or pencils to make marks or signs is not simply a random motor task; it involves a complex blend of cognitive, kinaesthetic, and perceptual-motor abilities. Furthermore, decades of research shows that it isn't just that handwriting requires these things, it has been shown to affect cognitive abilities. For over 50 years researchers have been trying to untangle the complex links between handedness (i.e. the tendency to he left-handed or right handed), gross motor skills and fine motor skills like handwriting. Brain research has also shown us that Binocular vision (the focussing of eyes as they work together) requires the child to use two hemispheres of the brain and that fine motor tasks have a relationship to this emerging ability. Handwriting's demands for complex hand-eye coordination are related to a variety of other forms of sensory integration.  

As well, as the child moves from marks on paper to controlled 'scribble' (see my previous post on early writing HERE) the fine motor demands of handwriting helps the child to:
  • Memorise letter shapes
  • Develop complex concepts of print like left to right movement, the differences between letters and words and sound-symbol correspondence. This is one of the reasons that kinaesthetic approaches have been used for children with early literacy problems for decades
  • Experiment with language as a representational form along with drawing - children's earliest 'writing' will usually combined marks, letters, drawing, colour and pattern.
While there are technology applications that might allow children to do some of this as they get older, their earliest steps towards written language will occur best with crayon, chalk, pencil or a finger dipped in paint or even the dirt as they try to make marks and symbolise something.

2. Handwriting speed and fluency has an impact on writing and learning

The second reason is the relationship between the speed and fluency of handwriting and the ability to write and think. Speed and fluency are important for all aspects of language - listening, speaking, reading and writing. The faster the brain processes the data, the more effective the language user. This is true of early reading and writing. There is strong evidence to show that if children are slow as they form letters then language processing may be affected at higher levels (e.g. forming words, expressing ideas, sentence patterns etc).

Researchers like Professor Stephen Peverly at Teachers' College, Columbia University have found that for children (and adults), speed and fluency of handwriting is very important if they are to express themselves well through writing.  Others like Occupational Therapist Emily Knapton have developed complete programs to help children develop the handwriting fluency and help to overcome a variety of learning difficulties.

Professor Steven Graham expresses the importance of speed and fluency in a recent article for American Educator:
"As handwriting skills become more automatic and less cognitively demanding, attention and resources for carrying out other writing processes, including those involving more reflection and careful composing, become available."
While we don't need a return to the days of daily handwriting lessons for 20-30 minutes, there is a need to give some priority to handwriting support. This might be as basic as helping a 1 year-old how to hold a crayon and pencils to reduce physical discomfort and aid fluency, but it may well extend later to help with letter formation, pattern formation exercises, line cards systematic introduction to the faster cursive forms of writing in primary school and so on. In this way, children's early literacy will be supported and the groundwork will be established for later writing on keyboards and other electronic devices.

3.  Pragmatic and interpersonal reasons

While the most significant argument for why handwriting is still how it relates to later writing, spelling, reading and find motor development, there are also strong practical and interpersonal reasons for some attention to handwriting.

Pragmatically, the majority of writing and note making at school still occurs on paper.  While this may change, until it does, children will learn more effectively if they can write fluently and neatly.  As well, it would seem highly likely that the humble note pad, diary, post-it sticker, magic sketcher or notice board still has a place in communication (at least for a while).

In terms of interpersonal writing, it is also difficult to see us losing completely the handwritten birthday card, gift tag, special letter and so on. There is still something very special about receiving a letter or card that combines careful choice of paper, design, words, images and sometimes personally drawn graphics. This is also a legitimate reason to offer some support for handwriting.

4. Summing up

As we head even further down the digital path we need to be careful that in ignoring handwriting that we do not deprive children of vital cognitive, kinaesthetic and perceptual-motor abilities and skills.

Other resources

Steven Graham (2009). Want to Improve Children's Writing? American Educator, Winter 2009-2010.
'The Writing on the Wall' (2007), Newsweek.
'Your Child's Handwriting', Kids Health.
'Handwriting Instruction: What Do we Know?' (1986), ERIC Digest


PlanningQueen said...

Excellent post Trevor. I still love to scribble a bit myself and nothing beats a handwritten "to do list"!

Marita said...

Fantastic post. From what I have read the school exams are still done in written format so kids really do need to be comfortable with handwriting.

Trevor Cairney said...

Nice to hear from you Nicole and Marita. Glad you liked the post. Yes, there are still lots of reasons to use handwriting. Trevor

Nancy Holt said...

Recent research this year indicates that handwriting is crucial because it helps the brain learn. Many excellent programs are available to teach handwriting but many require the use of a special manufacturer's device and others are not use in schools so that consistency is not always provided. The Steps4Kids dvds were released starting in 2007 to teach handwriting at home and in schools. The dvds use video modeling to teach upper and lowercase letters. Printing and cursive dvds are available that may help some of your readers. We would love for everyone to take a look!

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Nancy. Yes, handwriting is important for learning. Trevor