Handwriting—Is that still important?

If handwriting were just for recording language, computer audio recording and speech-to-text applications might replace it in the next ten to fifteen years—and as computers continue to multiply, perhaps typing might take up the slack in the interim… if handwriting were just for recording language.

Handwriting, however, is not just for recording language. Just as the alphabet transforms sounds of language (called "phonemes") into written text, so also handwriting transforms representations of sounds in letters and combinations of letters (called "graphemes") into physical patterns we internalize through repeated practice. Handwriting is physical language so important that if a child were to go directly from crib to computer, handwriting skill would still be crucial.

According to Hans Leo Teulings, a leading neuro-graphonomics researcher, “Handwriting movement patterns provide a bridge that is essential in the development of fluent brain function as children decode, encode, and process written language. Even if a child would never use a pencil for communication, going directly to a word processor, the movements used to build letters using efficient muscle patterns provide learned pattern modules essential for processing symbolic language.” Learning to read helps children to spell as they gain visual familiarity with patterns of letters that combine to make words. Learning to write helps children read and spell as they practice the sequences and orientations of strokes, which combine to make letters.

It Matters How Handwriting Is Taught.

Just as well-taught writing can help students' reading, poorly taught writing can hinder students' reading. Poorly taught writing can contribute to

  • Visual-Perceptual Problems: When children are allowed to place the paper in whatever position they want, or when they are encouraged to place paper for writing in the same position as paper for reading—upright and directly in front of them— their hand is forced to enter from the side of the paper. In this position, it becomes easier for right-handed students to make letters from the right to the left (backward)—to make the “d” with the stick first, for instance, or to make the “n” backward. Poor writing position, then, is one cause of letter reversals. In fact, writing the “n” backward is almost always caused by poor hand position relative to the paper.
  • Vision Problems: It is common in classrooms to see children with tight pencil grips lean toward their papers to see around their hands, which blocks their vision of what they are writing. According to optometrist and early optometric researcher Ernest Kahn, children who hold their pencils too close strain the binocular muscles of the eyes while writing and tend to develop myopia sooner. Regardless, when students who hold their pencils too close to the tip practice a stooped posture and close reading while writing, they are developing poor visual habits that carry over to other academic pursuits.
  • Attention Problems: While it is doubtful that poor handwriting instruction ever causes “attention deficit,” poor handwriting instruction does deprive students of a powerful tool to help their concentration and comprehension. Students who have learned to write with “trace & copy” activities often aren’t really handwriting at all: they’re “hand-drawing.” Each act of producing a letter or word requires effort to match what the student is producing on paper with the student’s mental image of the letter or word. Far from practicing the same movements repeatedly, thereby establishing muscle memory for each letter, students who learn to write with “trace & copy” activities often make each letter differently. For these students, composition involves splitting focus between what they want to convey and how they will “hand-draw” it on paper. Taking notes requires the same—with the added task of paying attention to a teacher’s words and actions. When writing is largely a function of well-developed muscle memories, composition and note-taking are immensely easier, since writing is much more automatic. Peterson Handwriting also helps students with timing, proprioception, and motor control in unique ways.

The Uniqueness of Peterson Handwriting

Peterson Handwriting uses a unique four-step lesson sequence:

  1. Illustrate & Describe: The teacher uses Peterson Handwriting’s copyrighted Color/Rhythm alphabet to illustrate and describe a handwriting stroke with action words. In later lessons, the teacher will illustrate and use action words to describe the sequence of strokes used to make each letter. Basic strokes used to make letters, however, are taught first.
  2. Air-Write with Action Words: With the teacher, students verbalize each stroke, paying attention to starting points, direction of movement, and stopping points as they write each letter in the air. This activity provides students gross-motor practice in which little visual feedback is necessary. In general, gross-motor patterning should precede small-motor patterning. Gross-motor patterns, once learned, do not have to be re-learned when a student wants to do the same pattern with different muscles on a smaller scale. Beginning with gross-motor letter practice thus ensures that a student can retain a kinesthetic map (a muscular "feel") of a letter, which provides guidance later while the student learns to write it smaller on paper. Beginning with small-motor patterns, as is common in many "trace & copy" handwriting programs, delays writing fluency by forcing students to experiment with varying kinesthetic maps without the guidance of a pre-developed gross-motor pattern.
  3. Fingertrace Models with Action Words: In their pupil books, students repeatedly "pretend" they are writing the stroke or letter just studied. The students keep their writing large, using their index fingers as they say the action words with deliberate rhythm and pause points. This activity maps the gross-motor sequences just practiced to visual models of letters. Tracing with fingers, which have bigger “tips” than pencil points, gives students a greater margin of error in tracing. Tracing with fingers also discourages students from focusing on the visual product of their movement process, since fingers don't leave any marks behind. At this point, it is important that students relax so they can internalize the rhythm and movement they are learning.
  4. Write and Say: Finally, students pick up pencils; self-check their pencil grip, paper position, and posture; and then, using unlined paper, write the stroke or letter with their eyes closed. Eyes-closed writing helps students internalize the movement pattern for each letter while also providing opportunities for adjusting the internal model they have of each letter so the letters they make (still large at this point) more closely resemble the models in their pupil books.

Peterson Handwriting uniquely sequences manuscript, slant-print, its own “cursive printing,” and full cursive in a way that emphasizes unique skills students can learn from practicing each and also ensures maximum carry-over from manuscript to cursive. Peterson Handwriting has been refining its system of writing instruction since 1908 and has been on the forefront of graphonomics research since the early 1990s. By teaching handwriting movement, including the importance of proper pencil grip, paper position, and posture, Peterson Handwriting helps students learn physical language, improve reading and spelling, and integrate all of these improvements in their composition and note-taking.

Good handwriting doesn't just happen: it must be taught, and Peterson Handwriting is uniquely suited to the challenge. The McNatt Learning Center, Inc., uses Peterson Handwriting as an integral part of many of its learning programs. Parents interested in purchasing Peterson Handwriting Home School Kits for at-home teaching or remediation are encouraged to visit Peterson-Handwriting.com, as are educators or administrators interested in online handwriting training. Educators and administrators in the Midwest U.S. interested in scheduling a handwriting consultation or simply learning more about Peterson Handwriting and support services available from the McNatt Learning Center, Inc., may also contact us at the email address below. Matthew McNatt, Director of the McNatt Learning Center, Inc., is certified as a Physical Language Specialist by Peterson Handwriting.

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