When we think about literacy, handwriting instruction isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. But research shows us just how important handwriting is to both writing and reading development.
The connection between handwriting and literacy
When a child begins to form letters by hand, their ability to recognize and remember these letters improves. They become more familiar with the features of the letters and begin to make the connection between letters and the letter sounds that they’re learning and practicing. A 2017 study demonstrated the correlation between handwriting and letter recognition in kindergarten, which in turn leads to more successful reading development. In addition, internalizing the fine motor movements needed to form letters allows for greater automaticity in writing. Just as we aim for fluency with reading, we also want students to be able to form letters fluently when they write. That way, they can focus their energy on what to write, rather than how to write it.
Handwriting and the brain
You may have heard that taking notes by hand is better than typing them. When we write by hand, we are linking the visual and motor systems in the brain and are also activating the left hemisphere of the brain, the part that is responsible for language processing. The importance of this is seen in our youngest learners. Karin James’ 2017 research examined fMRI scans of the brains of six-year-old children as they were learning cursive. Students watched a teacher write the letters and then they wrote the letters themselves. Results showed that parts of the reading brain were only activated when students wrote the letters themselves — and this activation is important in forming the lasting connections between letters and sounds that we rely on to read fluently. Interestingly, it didn’t matter how well the children formed the letters, but simply that they engaged in printing them manually.
There are generally accepted developmental milestones to follow for handwriting instruction. Most children are developmentally ready to begin learning and practicing handwriting by the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade. Before then, it’s important to work on fine motor skills to help strengthen their hand and arm muscles. Once students are ready, teaching them the correct pencil grip can reduce shoulder pain and tiredness in writing.
The next step is having students practice the correct path for letter formation. One helpful tool for teaching letter formation is by using a verbal path for letter formation (i.e., saying each letter’s formation instructions out loud while they are writing). Muscle memory is key to letter formation, and internalizing the different paths for similar-looking letters (like lowercase b and d) will help students develop automaticity.
If you’re looking for further support in handwriting instruction, our Emergent Writing self-paced course offers more information on how to support our youngest writers with fine motor activities, handwriting, and the writing process.