Technology is an undeniable fact of everyday life and can support students’ learning. But there are limits to that: Completely replacing handwriting instruction with keyboarding instruction in elementary school can be detrimental to students’ literacy acquisition. Why are handwriting and letter formation so important?
Research has demonstrated a correlation between letter-naming and letter-writing fluency, and a relationship between letter-naming fluency and successful reading development. There’s a strong connection between the hand and the neural circuitry of the brain—as students learn to better write the critical features of letters, they also learn to recognize them more fluently. This recognition of letters leads to greater letter-writing fluency, which leads to greater overall reading development.
In an article summarizing several studies on handwriting and learning, the writer Maria Konnikova notes, “Not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” When students write letters manually, they learn them more effectively. Switching to keyboarding before students have developed handwriting skills may reduce their ability to recognize letters. Konnikova also cites a study that found that students who wrote by hand—as opposed to on a keyboard—were able to generate more ideas. Students with better handwriting demonstrated “increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks” of the brain.
How to Teach Handwriting
Learning how to print is a developmentally appropriate first step of handwriting instruction for students in grades pre-K to 2, in terms of their fine motor skills. Handwriting instruction does not require a big time investment: Brief lessons and frequent feedback for students can be incorporated in all areas of the curriculum throughout the school day.
There are four main aspects of handwriting instruction: pencil grasp, formation, legibility, and pacing.
Pencil grasp: When it comes to how a child holds a pencil, there are correct and incorrect grasps. The correct grasps—in which the index finger and thumb hold the pencil against the middle finger—result in comfortable and efficient handwriting, while incorrect grasps can cause poor letter formation and fatigue.
A student with a poor pencil grasp may benefit from using tools such as a pencil grip or from wrapping a rubber band around the ring finger and pinkie—not too tightly!—to fold them against the hand. You can also teach the “pinch and flip” trick: The student places the pencil with the writing end facing her, pinches the pencil between the thumb and index finger, and flips the pencil into the correct position.
Formation: This refers to how a student goes about forming letters. Straight lines are easier for students to write than curved ones, so it’s developmentally appropriate to teach students to write capital letters before moving on to lowercase ones.
It’s critical that handwriting instruction be integrated with phonics instruction: As students learn how to write the letters, they should also be learning and practicing the sounds that the letters make. Handwriting and dictation activities are the cornerstone of any multisensory phonics instruction program, as requiring students to consistently practice forming the letters while connecting them to sounds will serve to better embed phonics concepts in the brain.
For students who struggle with letter formation, explicit instruction is particularly important. Students should be taught to start their letters at the top (or middle, as is the case with some lowercase letters), and use continuous strokes as much as possible. Some letters will require them to lift up their pencils, and they should be taught when to do this. Using lined paper is helpful, as is giving students a variety of visual aids: arrow cues for stroke direction, dots for starting points, dotted letters for tracing, etc. Students also benefit from “skywriting” letters—tracing letters in the air with an index finger while holding their arm straight out.
The letters b, d, p, and q are often confused by younger students. Teaching the correct formation of these letters can help diminish the confusion, as they have different starting points—b, for instance, starts from the top, whereas d starts in the middle. Internalizing the motor patterns for these letters can help make recognition more automatic.
Legibility: An important factor impacting legibility is spacing between words. It’s helpful to encourage students to use a “finger space” between words—right-handed students can put an index finger on the line after one word before writing the next one. This technique doesn’t work for left-handed students, who will benefit from using a narrow tongue depressor as a spacing tool.
Pacing: If students are using an appropriate pencil grasp and forming letters correctly, that will often solve any pacing challenges. Another factor to consider when looking at pacing is the press: Students should not be pressing the pencil down on the paper too hard as they write because doing so can lead to writing fatigue and a greatly reduced rate of letter production. But if they press too lightly, it can be a sign of weak muscles or inappropriate pencil grasp. Encourage students to write with a variety of materials (markers, short pencils, crayons, erasable markers on whiteboards) to help them adjust how hard they press.
School days are packed with instructional priorities, and it can be easy to let handwriting fall by the wayside. However, with just a few minutes a day, students’ letter formation skills can improve, leading to positive outcomes for overall literacy development.