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What’s The Use Of Handwriting?

Handwriting is an important part of writing composition, and a language act, rather than just a motor act used to record writing...

  • What’s The Use Of Handwriting?

It has become commonplace to say that handwriting is in general decline.

According to a survey of 2,000 people conducted by the UK printing and mailing company, Docmail, one in three people had not written anything by hand in the previous six months. On average they had not put pen to paper in the previous 41 days. This issue, however, is not restricted to adults but is also apparent in our education system.

For example, in the United States, education authorities appear to have accepted this decline, with cursive writing being dropped from the Common Core Curriculum Standards, following the evidence that email and texting have more or less replaced “snail” mail, and that students tend to take notes on their laptops, rather than via handwriting.

Why has the role of handwriting, and by extension, its teaching, become so diminished?

The decline of handwriting

This position is also reflected in the UK, where handwriting has quite a low status in literacy education. The National Curriculum does set mandatory requirements related to handwriting, for Year 3 and 4 but no formal tests of pupils’ progress include an assessment of handwriting.

In the face of such decline, what are the arguments for continuing to teach handwriting in schools? Why does handwriting matter?

Handwriting and memory/cognition

Does writing by hand help us to remember and think about ideas? Recent insights into this question have come from research at both ends of the educational spectrum: with very young children, and with college / university students.

These suggest that there is something particular about handwriting which works to develop thinking / cognition, and helps to fix ideas in the learner’s mind (memory).

In a study with four- and five-year-old children, James and Engelhardt (2012) used magnetic resonance imaging technology to observe the effects on brain activation of children engaging in a variety of writing-like activities, such as writing letters by hand, tracing letters and typing letters.

They found that areas of children’s brains previously associated with reading were activated when the children wrote letters to a much greater degree to when they engaged in other forms of sensorimotor activity, including typing of letters.

The extent to which such activation influences children’s development is not clear – we are still in the early stages of an understanding of neurological influences on literacy skills, but a reasonable conclusion might be that writing letters by hand has an effect in the development of reading in young children.

It has also been shown that writing skills developed before children enter formal schooling can predict their academic achievement years later.

Dinehart and Manfra examined the links between the fine motor skills of over 3,000 preschool children and their academic achievement two years after starting school.

The results suggested that those children who were more adept at fine motor writing skills were seen to have higher achievement in reading and mathematics in later years.

Research such as this is as yet in its infancy but these results are promising in that they confirm a need for some direct teaching of the skills of letter formation in the early years.

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that college students who took notes on lectures using handwriting remembered more about these lectures than their colleagues who used a laptop to take notes, and the study of Mangen et al supports this, finding that college students who wrote down lists of words by hand recalled them more effectively than did students who used laptops or iPads.

Handwriting and composition

There has been a substantial body of research on the writing process over the past 20 years – which, somewhat surprisingly, has had little impact on classroom practice – that suggests that fast, automatic handwriting may have a significant effect on children’s composing.

It shows that for writers who do not produce letters swiftly and automatically, the actual production of written letters may interfere with their ability to compose text.

Handwriting is not just about training the hand; it is about training the memory and hand to work together to generate the correct mental images and patterns of letters and translate these into motor patterns of letters – automatically and without effort!

If young writers have to devote large amounts of working memory to the control of lower-level processes, such as handwriting, they may have little left for higher-level processes.

Thus handwriting is an important part of writing composition, and a language act, rather than just a motor act used to record writing.


Conclusion

Some key lessons from research into handwriting, its place and function.

  • It is not simply a motor skill but a significant element of literacy in its own right – and has been shown to be an effective predictor of achievement in mathematics as well as English.
  • Fluency and automaticity in handwriting are key contributors to quality in composition.
  • The physical movements involved in writing by hand are part of the thinking process in writing.
  • Handwriting is in many ways more effective as a medium for learning than digital text entry.
  • Many of the research insights now available to us concerning handwriting are not widely known to teachers.
  • This shows us very clearly that a good deal of professional development is required in this area, as are new resources and tools which equip teachers to help children develop this essential skill more effectively.

This feature is an extract from What’s the use of Handwriting? by Jane Medwell and David Wray. Professor Jane Medwell is director of teaching and learning in the School of Education, University of Nottingham, and Professor David Wray is a professor in literacy at the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. You can download the full white paper here.


You can find out more about the practical ways in which mark-making and letter formation can be developed in early years’ settings and at home at writeyourfuture.com where you can also find free resources created around this research.

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