Handwriting Without Tears Research Review

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Research Review

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Why Is Handwriting Important?Handwriting is an essential skill for both children and adults (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Even in the age of technology, handwriting remains the primary tool of communication and knowledge assessment for students in the classroom. In addition, greater writing speed lessens the burden on working memory, enabling children and adults to create good reader-friendly prose (Peverly, 2006). Children spend a majority of their days using handwriting skills. In addition, the demands for handwriting increase with age. The demands for handwriting in the classroom do not always match childrens developmental skills. According to a study published in 1992 (McHale & Cermak), 85 percent of all fine motor time in second-, fourth- and sixth-grade classrooms was spent on paper and pencil activities. A more recent study (Marr, Cermak, Cohn & Henderson, 2003) found that children in kindergarten are now spending 42 percent of their fine motor time on paper and pencil activities during the school day. These studies advocate the value of children learning handwriting skills. The addition of handwritten components to many state standardized assessments and of a handwritten essay to the College Board SAT in 2005 further emphasize the importance of handwriting. Furthermore, good handwriting is important long after graduation. In Script and Scribble (2009), Kitty Burns Florey writes, judging handwritten applications for writing positions, I found myself drawn to those with legible handwriting and prejudiced against scrawlers; in every case, the better handwriters turned out to be better writers as well. She also notes: Like it or not, even in our machine-driven world, people still judge you by your handwriting. Studies have estimated that between 10 to 30 percent of elementary school children struggle with handwriting (Karlsdottir & Stephansson, 2002, as cited in Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Research literature extensively documents the consequences of poor handwriting on academic performance. Graham, Harris and Fink (2000) suggest that children who experience difficulty mastering this skill [handwriting] may avoid writing and decide that they cannot write, leading to arrested writing development. Other experts claim that illegible handwriting has secondary effects on school achievement and self-esteem (Engel-Yeger, Nagakur - Yanuv & Rosenblum, 2009; Malloy-Miller, Polatajko & Anstett, 1995).

Children in kindergarten are now spending 42 percent of their fine motor time on paper and pencil activities during the school day.

2009 Handwriting Without Tears


Children with poor handwriting skills will also have difficulty in other academic areas. Recent research implies that handwriting is critical to the production of creative and well-written text (Graham & Harris, 2005). Handwriting affects both fluency and the quality of the composition. Christensen (2005) demonstrated how children enrolled in an eight-week handwriting intervention program outperformed their peers in all measures of writing, achieving a 46 percent improvement in the quality of written text beyond the journal [control] group (as cited in Medwell & Wray, 2007). These studies, along with others (Berninger, Vaughn, Abbott, Abbott, Rogan, Brooks, Reed, & Graham, 1997; Graham, Harris, & Fink, 2000b; Graham & Harris, 2005; Jones & Christensen, 1999) offer strong evidence that structured handwriting instruction leads to improved writing performance, academic success, and overall student self-esteem.

Handwriting Instruction: Who Teaches It?Though experts agree that specific and direct handwriting instruction is important, who teaches handwriting to our children is just as important. Many individualsfrom parents to preschool teachers to elementary educators direct handwriting instruction. This means that children receive varying handwriting instruction. How do these individuals learn to teach handwriting? A national survey conducted by Graham, Harris, Mason, Fink-Chorzempa, Moran and Saddler (2007) revealed that only 12 percent of teachers rated their formal preparation to teach children handwriting as adequate. Furthermore, teachers overwhelmingly responded that handwriting should be a separate subject. Thankfully, the days of drilled penmanship are gone, but explicit handwriting instruction is necessary and should be part of the regular class schedule (Asher, 2006; Sheffield, 1996; Ste-Marie, Clark, Findlay & Latimer, 2004). In addition, supplementary formal preparation, in the form of professional development, should be available to close the gap in preparing teachers for handwriting instruction (Graham et al., 2007).

Thankfully, the days of drilled penmanship are gone, but explicit handwriting instruction is necessary and should be part of the regular class schedule.


2009 Handwriting Without Tears

What Are Best Practices in Teaching Handwriting?Handwriting education is available through various methods and commercially available programs. Given that handwriting is a crucial skill for children, which method provides the best outcome for classroom performance? The answer lies in teacher implementation, the choice of curriculum, and in student abilities. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that newborn to eight-year-old children learn best from methods that are consistent with developmentally appropriate practice (1996). Their guidelines include using methods that incorporate established, tested practices of child development and learning. Handwriting curricula must adhere to developmental principles to ensure success for all children. Daly, Kelley and Krauss (2003) recommend that professionals consider the variations in maturation and skills among kindergartners when implementing a handwriting curriculum. It is crucial that all young children learn to write well. To meet this goal, educators rely on research and experience to guide their curriculum-based interventions. The use of developmentally appropriate practices has become more important as more young children face higher academic standards each year. Because children are now spending more of their school day writing, it is important to teach a handwriting style that is easier to learn and easier to read. Researchers tested legibility and found that children using a vertical manuscript outperformed those using a slanted version (ERIC Development Team, 1997). They recommend that it is beneficial and logical to teach children to write letters that are similar to letters they are learning to read. Children learn the vertical stroke before the slanted stroke as they develop copying skills (Gesell, 1940). The tendency to write vertical letter forms is a natural occurrence in young children. Teaching a special [slanted] alphabet means that children will have to re-learn many letters that they can already write when they enter school. Furthermore, Berninger, Graham and Weintraub (1998) concluded that slanted manuscript letters are no more

52 percent of third grade teachers today noted uniformity of slant as a problem.

2009 Handwriting Without Tears


successful than traditional manuscript letters when transitioning students to cursive writing. They also found that slanted writing does not improve the overall legibility of students manuscript letters. In other words, there is no support to claims that slanted forms of the alphabet facilitate transition from manuscript to cursive writing (ERIC Development Team, 1997; Graham, 1993). In fact, 52 percent of third grade teachers today noted uniformity of slant as a problem (Graham et al., 2007). Graham suggests that this problem is likely due to a change in the type of script taught. Graham et al. (2007) along with Armitage and Ratzlaff (1985), agree that this difficulty arises when children who learn a vertical style of print are required to learn a slanted style of cursive. Armitage and Ratzlaff (1985) recommend that initial instruction of cursive should include a vertical style of letter formation, allowing students to transition to a slanted style after the letter forms have been mastered. Graham (1992) also found that individuals learning a slanted style of writing tend to misshape letters, extend the strokes above and below the guidelines incorrectly, and have consistent letter size. In 2006, Asher found that nine teachers who taught handwriting in one school district used a variety of commercial handwriting programs and instructional methodsas many as six. Teachers reported that under these circumstances, students did not develop fluent handwriting skills. As a result, these students needed subsequent review and handwriting instruction. Asher suggests using a consistent curriculum from kindergarten through primary grades to ensure all teachers are using uniform instruction and language. This would enable children to master writing more easily. Quality handwriting instruction addresses posture, grip, and correct positioning in the classroom. Non-proficient writers often display inferior biomechanics [posture, grip, and positioning] to those who are proficient (Rosenblum, Goldstand & Parush, 2006). Likewise, Smith-Zuzovsky and Exner (2004) commented that complex hand skills [such as those used in handwriting], are affected by the quality of a childs seated position. Therefore, it is important to include instructions for correct positioning in manuals for professionals. Deciding on a curriculum to meet the diverse learning needs of all students is challenging. When choosing an effective handwriting program, it is necessary to use information from literature and exercise professional wisdom and experience.

Quality handwriting instruction addresses posture, grip, and correct posit