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Handwriting Matters

“So, why does my child even need to write neatly? We all type everything now anyway!”
This is a quote from a parent of a second grader who recently contacted me (at the urging of the boy’s teachers), due to illegible handwriting. The boy is struggling in school due to his messy and slowly produced written work. He is feeling frustrated and bad about himself. The teacher does not have time to give him the individual help he needs. The parents were told he wouldn’t qualify for support in the school, because it was “just handwriting”.

In my work as an Occupational Therapist, I have heard first-hand from parents and educators (and even the kids themselves) their assertion that handwriting is becoming unnecessary in this digital age. There is a debate among teachers, parents, and those who develop curriculum around whether or not schools should spend any of their valuable time teaching students to write properly. As a firm believer in the importance of handwriting, I was very excited to see a recent article in The New York Times (“What’s lost as handwriting fades” by Maria Konnikova) highlighting the importance of handwriting for a child’s development. Konnikova provides some very though-provoking information about scientific research which counters the increasingly popular argument that handwriting is no longer needed. It cannot be overlooked that, regardless of what the future classroom may look like, at this point in time and with our current education model, handwriting remains one of the primary means by which students express themselves and demonstrate understanding of what they have learned. Furthermore, the research shows that it is an important part of early literacy for children, and can even continue to help us encode information as adults.

As an OT in private practice, I receive many referrals for students with poor handwriting, starting as early as Kindergarten and as late as fourth or fifth grade. I can honestly say, with over 15 years’ experience in the field, that handwriting does matter. Research has shown that students who write with poor quality are very likely to receive lower grades than a student with neat handwriting, despite compositional quality. Although they try to be objective, it is hard for teachers to separate content from presentation. Not only does handwriting influence how a teacher sees a child’s work, but the kids are judging themselves (and each other). From very early on, kids know who has “nice writing” and who is messy. I have encountered many children who struggle with writing, and it almost always takes a toll on their self-esteem, their confidence as a student, and the amount of writing they are willing to do.

Handwriting is a very complex task. Those of us who are fluent at it do not tend to think of everything that goes into the process of writing. A child must have adequate core strength to maintain an upright posture, shoulder stability to hold their hand in place, wrist stability to hold the pencil, and hand strength to grasp the pencil. And that is just the physical demands! There are also visual demands (converging and tracking with the eyes, perceptually leaving enough space between words, adhering to the margins and baseline), and cognitive factors (memory to recall letters and spelling, sequencing the letters and words, formulating a cohesive sentence). Some students who struggle with handwriting in school may spend so much time on the mechanical aspects of writing that they are less able to express what they have learned. Others have so much to say, but lack the visual-spatial and visual-motor skills to produce it in a way that is legible to others. Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week (according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers).

In my opinion, switching a child with poor handwriting (or any other child) to typing at a young age is not the answer. Not only do we still need to be able to write to function in society, but there are also key learning benefits to the act of writing. Konnikova sites research in her article from two psychologists (Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA). These researchers found that “students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard”. It appears that writing by hand lets a student process a lecture’s contents and reframe it in their notes; and it is this process of reflection and manipulation through writing that can lead to the student’s overall better understanding and improved memory encoding. Konnikova also sited psychologist Karin James at Indiana University whose study found that the “doing” part of drawing letters by hand increases activity in three areas of a child’s brain that adults use when they read and write.
It is my hope that educators will continue to devote instructional time to handwriting (both manuscript and cursive) so that children continue to reap the developmental benefits of writing. As adults, we can reinforce the importance of writing by pointing out to our kids when and where we still need to write by hand (e.g., filling out forms such as the doctor’s office, writing a quick note or grocery list, sending a card or letter to a loved one, signing a check or legal document). If a child continues to struggle with legible writing, despite school and home-based instruction, then an occupational therapist may be able to determine the underlying cause of the difficulties. An OT can evaluate the child and recommend either intervention or more targeted activities/programs for work on at home.

Link to New York Times aricle:

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