Why teaching handwriting is still important
Handwriting is a modality of language production whose neurological basis is poorly understood despite there being a growing body of evidence that postulates the role of specific areas of the brain. In an age of ever increasing technology, the move to replace handwriting with keyboards is a question that is being raised, despite the growing body of neuroscience research that shows a higher level of connectivity in the brains of those that that are competent in writing compared to the brains of children that have poor writing skills (Richards et al., 2011) and improved word reading even when the word reading is not directly taught (Berninger, Dunn, Lin & Shimanda, 2004; Berninger et al., 1997, 2006; Dunn and Miller, 2009). This is because the visual representation of letters is strengthened when letters are trained by writing them repeatedly (James 2010.; James and Englehardt, 2012)
Learning to write is a complex process, it relates to the simultaneous acquisition of the motor and linguistic skills, however it does more than that. Intuitively we know that learning to write has consequence not only on the organisation of the brain, but also on the functioning of other skills such as reading.
Letter recognition at the sub-word level contributes to writing skills at the word level (spelling) and text level (composing) as well as reading (Berninger, Fayol & Alamargot, 2012). Berninger and her colleagues found positive effects of teaching legible and automatic letter writing close in time with writing activities at other levels of language. Writing involves the cognitive processes such as ideas flow (Kellogg, 1994) and strategic planning for composing (Hayes, 2006) and not just language (Richards et al. 2015).
The neuroscience research (Richards et al., 2011) informs us that when children are learning to write a new letter their brain activation centers around the premotor and parietal cortices, the cerebellum and the fusiform gyrus. However, more importantly, the brain patterns differ between competent and poor writers in as much as that the competent writer showed a more restricted and focused brain network whilst the poor writers showed a diffuse pattern.
In fact, the poor writers were noted to over activate the visual systems and extra parietal and cerebellar regions. Contrary to popular belief, handwriting is not just a motor skills or movement skill – it also involves written language at the letter form level.
Whilst technology is on the rise, it is important to consider what would the impact be of not teaching children to write on the development of the brain?
Specialist Clinical Occupational Therapist
Director of Hemispheres Movement for Learning Ltd
and Hemispheres Think Write Limited
Richards, T., Berninger, V., Stock, P., Altemeier, L., Trivedi, P. & Maravilla, K (2011) Differences between good and poor writers on FMRI contrasts for writing newly taught and high practiced letter forms. Reading and Writing 24(5), p.408-421
Berninger, V., Dunn, A., Lin, S. & Shimada, S. (2004) School evolution: Scientist Practitioner educators creating optimal learning environments for ALL students. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 37, p.500-508
Berninger, V., Rutberg, J., Abbott, R., Garcia, N., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., Brooks, A. & Fulton, C. (2006) Tier 1 and tier 2 early intervention for handwriting and composing. Journal of School Psychology 44, p.3-30
Berninger, V., Fayol, M. & Alamargot, D. (2012) Learning to spell words with the pattern analyzer, oracle, scribe and silent orthographer. In Fayol, M., Alargot, D., & Nerninger, V. Translation of Thought to Written Text While Composing: Advancing Theory, Knowledge, Methods and Applications. New York: Psychology Press, p. 71-93
Berninger, V., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., Rogan, L., & Graham, S. (1997) Treatment of handwriting fluency problems in beginning writing: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology 89, p.652-666
Dunn, A., & Miller , D. (2009) Who can speak for the children? Innovations in implementing research-based practices in school settings. In: Rosenfield, S. & Berninger, V.W (eds) Implementing Evidence-Based Academic Interventions in School Settings. New York: Oxford University press, p.385-414
James, K.H & Engelhardt, L. (2012) The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1, p.32-42