Does Handwriting Really Matter in School?

My state has released new literacy standards.  They’re actually really pretty good.  But one standard surprised the heck out of everyone–handwriting.  Teachers all had the exact same quizzical look on their faces when they saw it.  Why, they all asked.  Why does handwriting even matter? Followed immediately with how are we supposed to fit this in, too?

In this age of computerized everything, it does seem a bit weird to return back to a focus on a basic skill like handwriting.  

So is there validity in this?  Does handwriting actually even matter, or is my state a little backwards?

My state is not backwards (well, not in this topic, anyway).  Turns out, handwriting does actually matter, and there’s a lot of good reason to bring attention to it.  There’s actually a LOT of research about it, too.  There’s even research about the effects of the diameter of the pencil!  I went down a fascinating handwriting research rabbit hole, and discovered that this has been an issue in discussion since the 1940s!  

Here are just a few relevant points about handwriting that research has shown:

1. Handwriting is good for the brain.  It involves multiple areas:  thinking, language, and working memory.  That’s why the act of writing something down helps us remember it better than if we typed it.  According to researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt (2012), the act of handwriting “the reading circuit is recruited” after kids engaged in handwriting–which did not happen when they typed.  (Here is an incredibly interesting article all about the effects of handwriting vs typing for much more about this).  

The brain’s “reading circuit” of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during handwriting, but not during typing. 

Dr. William Klemm, Psychology Today (2013)

2. Handwriting helps to develop fine motor skills.  Just learning to hold a pencil correctly is a fine motor feat for many kids (and even adults!).  The subsequent letter formation involved with handwriting is nothing but fine motor development.  And that, of course, is a very needed life skill.  Holding eating utensils, using tools of any kind, tying shoes, playing an instrument, and yes, even developing typing skills later all require fine motor skills.  

3.  Handwriting also reinforces speed of letter recognition, which then helps the development of reading skills. The act of forming letters helps kids better understand and remember letter shapes, sizes, and orientation more quickly, which then of course directly relates to  learning to read. (Peverly, 2006)

4. Medical researchers Feder and Majnemer (2007) found that lack of handwriting skills affects anywhere from 10-30% of children. It can even lead to lower self-esteem because their poor handwriting can so greatly affect their success in school.  I know I’ve seen this time and again–the frustrated child who cannot write well, give up or only do the bare minimum because the handwriting part of a task is just too hard.  

Image from @Ridofranz via Deposit Photos

5. It goes without saying then, on the self-esteem flip side, a child’s confidence–and therefore self-esteem–grows when their handwriting is better.  (Today’s Modern Educator, 2018).  When they’re better at handwriting, kids  can pour more energy into word choice and voice into their work rather than being held back by the laboriousness of letter formation.  (Graham and Weintraub, 1996).  Handwriting has even been linked to emotional and psychological well-being. Writing by hand can have a calming effect. It reduces stress levels, and can enhance focus and concentration, which are all essential for academic success. There’s a reason writing therapy is a thing.

Pretty interesting, right?  So it turns out, handwriting really does matter, and teachers would be wise to focus on it.  In my rabbit hole of digging through the research, it became clear that daily instruction and practice is the key.  Not handing kids a handwriting workbook and assigning them a page to work on while we go do something else, but actual, explicit instruction.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

If your curriculum doesn’t have a verbal path (oral directions that match letter strokes) to teach letter formation, start there.  Fountas and Pinnell have a great one, for both upper and lowercase letters.  This is easy to Google, but I won’t link it here because it’s technically part of their assessment kit so linking it without permission is a legal no-no–but I won’t tell anyone if you find it on your own!  

Model, model, model.  It’s so important that you model letter formation as you say the words to the verbal path.  Kids have to see you do it.  Some phonics programs, like UFLI, also have a digital version of this to display.  Just be sure your students have the same kind of handwriting paper as what the model uses, or it won’t transfer as well.

Practice–with feedback.  As you watch kids practice, provide them the feedback (and coaching) they need:  pencil grip, where to start the letters, size, spacing, and formation all matter.  Without immediate and ongoing feedback and subsequent correction, bad habits set in.  And if you’ve ever tried to correct the handwriting of any child older than about 2nd grade, those habits are almost impossible to break.  The earlier they learn, the better.

Don’t silo it.  Handwriting cannot be relegated to a 10 minute “handwriting time” of day.  That’s just the explicit instruction time part.  In order for your teaching–and all that practicing–to really transfer, we have to continue to provide feedback and hold kids accountable all across the day.  If you see a child incorrectly forming letters you know have been explicitly taught when they write their answer to a math problem, offer corrective feedback and then expect them to fix it right then and there.  

Image from @iCreative3D via Deposit Photos

It’s super easy to do it correctly in the isolated, contrived practice that something like a handwriting workbook provides.  It’s a whole different beast when kids’ cognitive load is much bigger.  This is especially true of real writing, where kids compose a story, opinion, response, or information writing.  The cognitive demand there is enormous, so things that aren’t yet solid, like handwriting and punctuation, tend to go out the window.  In order to build handwriting skills to the point of automaticity and fluency, we have to be diligent about holding kids accountable for what we’ve taught all across the day, all across the year, every year.

So there you have it.  Handwriting does matter. It might be one more thing for us to think about, but because the school day offers so many opportunities for kids to write, we have tons of natural opportunities to help them get it right.  Aside from a few minutes of dedicated modeling and practice each day, this is a very doable thing, especially considering the far-reaching benefits it can have.  

If the thought of fitting in even a few minutes of dedicated handwriting instruction gives you anxiety, I have help!  Access my free guide, Hidden Time Sucks You Can Avoid.  In it, I share 12 very common time sucks.  They’re all totally preventable but also happen without our even realizing it.  Learn to avoid them and you’ll gain back a great deal of time in your day….so you can easily fit in a little bit of handwriting instruction without the sense of overwhelm.  

I’d love your thoughts on this post!  Share a comment below, send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or send me an email!

Add A Comment