Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How HANDwriting feeds Language, Literacy, Learning & Creativity


In this digital age of SMS messaging, social networking, blogging and cell phones in your pocket with email, notebook and web browser access, some ask "is there any role for handwriting with crayon, pencil or pen?" Handwriting seems so out of place and inconvenient. Shouldn't we just bypass this stage with our kids and teach keyboard skills to our toddlers?

I want to suggest at least five good reasons, why the answer to this question is NO!

  • First, there is a complex and interdependent relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning.
  • Second, research has shown that speed and fluency of handwriting has a direct impact on later writing development and learning.
  • Third, handwriting offers a means to experiment with letters and words that can intersect in a unique way with drawing, composition and thinking.
  • Fourth, handwriting facilitates risk taking in learning as well as creativity and problem solving.
  • Fifth, there are many pragmatic and interpersonal reasons why the ability to write with pen and ink is still important. 
1. There is a relationship between scribble, drawing, fine motor skills and learning

It is obvious that for the young child writing has its genesis in scribble. Those first attempts to make marks on paper, the walls, or in the dirt, are a child's first attempt to experiment with the representation of meaning. While the first strokes of the 9 month-old child may be more about play and experimentation with objects, eventually the child will attempt to represent something. They will look up at whoever is nearby and smile as if to say "Look at me, I made this!" At this point, children have begun to work out how language and meaning can be symbolically represented.

But this early use of crayons or pencils to make marks or signs is not simply a random motor task; it involves a complex blend of cognitive, kinaesthetic, and perceptual-motor abilities. Decades of research shows that it isn't just that handwriting requires these things, it has been shown to affect cognitive abilities. For over 50 years researchers have been trying to untangle the complex links between handedness (i.e. the tendency to he left-handed or right handed), gross motor skills and fine motor skills like handwriting. Brain research has also shown us that Binocular vision (the focussing of eyes as they work together) requires the child to use two hemispheres of the brain and that fine motor tasks have a relationship to this emerging ability. In short, handwriting's demands for complex hand-eye coordination are related to a variety of other forms of sensory integration.  

As well, as the child moves from marks on paper to controlled 'scribble' (see my previous post on early writing HERE) the fine motor demands of handwriting helps the child to:
  • Memorise letter shapes
  • Develop complex concepts of print like left to right movement, the differences between letters and words and sound-symbol correspondence. This is one of the reasons that kinaesthetic approaches have been used for children with early literacy problems for decades
  • Experiment with language as a representational form along with drawing - children's earliest 'writing' will usually combined marks, letters, drawing, colour and pattern.
There are some technology applications that might allow children to do some of this as they get older, and some writing apps that allow the child to use their finger to scribble and form letters. But their earliest steps towards written language will occur with crayon, chalk, pencil or a finger dipped in paint, or even the dirt as they try to make marks and symbolize something.

2. Handwriting speed and fluency has an impact on writing and learning

The second reason is the relationship between the speed and fluency of handwriting and the ability to write and think. Speed and fluency are important for all aspects of language - listening, speaking, reading and writing. The faster the brain processes the data, the more effective the language user. This is true of early reading and writing. There is strong evidence to show that if children are slow as they form letters then language processing may be affected at higher levels (e.g. forming words, expressing ideas, sentence patterns etc).

Researchers like Professor Stephen Peverly at Teachers' College, Columbia University have found that for children (and adults), speed and fluency of handwriting is very important if they are to express themselves well through writing.

Professor Steven Graham expresses the importance of speed and fluency in a recent article for American Educator:
"As handwriting skills become more automatic and less cognitively demanding, attention and resources for carrying out other writing processes, including those involving more reflection and careful composing, become available."
While we don't need a return to the days of daily handwriting lessons for 20-30 minutes, there is a need to give some priority to handwriting support. This might be as basic as helping a 1 year-old how to hold a crayon and pencils to reduce physical discomfort and aid fluency, but it may well extend later to help with letter formation, pattern formation exercises, line cards systematic introduction to the faster cursive forms of writing in primary school and so on. In this way, children's early literacy will be supported and the groundwork will be established for later writing on keyboards and other electronic devices.

3. A Stimulus for Drawing and Composition

It is important to understand that when the one year old 'scribbles' or draws, that they are trying to make meaning. My youngest grandchild is just 18 months old and one of Lydia's favourite activities lately is deliberate and quite fine drawing. As she sits for ages making deliberate marks on paper she often says 'Draw flower'. She loves flowers and she is already experimenting with how to represent them. As she chooses her paper and pen, Lydia makes choices about which colour, where she will position her drawing on the paper and she shares her work others ('Mum, mum, mum, draw flower'). Even in a child's earliest efforts at drawing and scribble, we begin to see the emergence of composition and meaning making on paper.

Diagram of Sam's Medical Diagnosis
The drawing to the right was done by Sam another grandchild, who is in his first year of school (Kindergarten). He did it while he was playing doctors with his sister at our house. His 4 year old sister was the mother and her dolls were the child patients. The ritualised game involved mother taking the doll (Sophie) to the doctor and explaining the problem. Dr Sam would diagnosis the problem, each time using a diagram to show the seat of the problem, before explaining the cause and his treatment. In this case Sophie presented with a pain in the stomach. Sam drew the picture and explained the problem to the worried mother:

"See this, that's her brain"
"And you see that black spot? It's because of not enough water."
"It's because of not enough water, it's not her stomach!"
"Give her lots of water and she'll be okay."

In this language story, Sam uses drawing, spoken language and written language to create an explanation and narrative for the creative play that he engages in with his sister.

4. Risk taking, creativity and problem solving

Sam says 'I like the CD of the wedding' they went to
Sam has loved school and made good progress in early reading. And in recent weeks he has suddenly taken off as a writer. When I was staying at his house a few weeks ago we spent at least two hours one morning playing post office while his parents were at a wedding. The game was Sam's idea and involved me (at his suggestion) writing letters to him, as well as to his sister, Nanna, Mum and Dad. This kept me busy! His job was to deliver the letters to assigned mailboxes in the house. Others got to read them and await the next delivery. After an hour or so I suggested that he might write some letters. He replied, "No, I can't write properly". His mother had just arrived back from the wedding and overheard him and said, "but your teacher says you're doing lots of writing at school". To which he replied, "no, but I don't know all the letters".

Like some 'pancakes, cream, strawberry milk, sandwiches....?'
I placed a piece of paper in front of him and said, "that doesn't matter Sam, write one for me and you can read it to me, I'd love to get a letter from you". He replied, 'okay' and proceeded to write one to me and then one to his mother. This was followed by a flurry of letters to others. A week later when he came to stay with us, the game was repeated with Nanna. This time he became the letter writer from the start, and Nanna delivered the mail. He also planned the rest of the day with writing taking on a key role. He wrote a timetable for the day's activities, recorded the events, and used writing in every activity. When he created a zoo in our lounge room with cages and plastic animals he decided he needed tickets, signs to direct people to them, and of course a cafe, which in turn needed a menu. Sam was engaged in a frenzy of writing linked to his creative explorations, play and problem solving. Writing was feeding and supporting learning.

5.  Pragmatic and interpersonal reasons

As well as the above reasons for the importance of writing, there are also strong practical and interpersonal reasons for some attention to handwriting.

Pragmatically, the majority of writing and note making at school still occurs on paper.  While this is changing (especially for adults), it won't change quickly for children, who will learn more effectively if they can write fluently, and to some extent neatly.  It would seem highly likely that the humble note pad, diary, post-it sticker, magic sketcher or notice board will still have a place in communication (at least for a while).

In terms of interpersonal writing, it is also difficult to see us losing completely the handwritten birthday card, gift tag, special letter and so on. There is still something very special about receiving a letter or card that combines careful choice of paper, design, words, images and sometimes personally drawn graphics. This is also a legitimate reason to offer some support for handwriting.

4. Summing up

As we head even further down the digital path we need to be careful not to ignore handwriting, and in the process deprive children of vital cognitive, kinaesthetic and perceptual-motor abilities and skills that are vital for learning and development.

Other resources

Steven Graham (2009). Want to Improve Children's Writing? American Educator, Winter 2009-2010.
'The Writing on the Wall' (2007), Newsweek.
'Your Child's Handwriting', Kids Health.
'Handwriting Instruction: What Do we Know?' (1986), ERIC Digest

This is a revised version of a post I wrote in June 2010

9 comments:

Iris said...

Thanks for your excellent, well-written article. Handwriting improves academic success and is a valuable life-long skill.

Iris Hatfield, Handwriting Coach
Author, New American Cursive
Penmanship Program
www.NewAmericanCursive.com

American Handwriting Analysis Foundation said...

Thanks for your important contribution, which I would like to link to www.campaignforcursive.blogspot.com This blog is sponsored by the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, and we are looking for partners like you, who are already spreading the word about why cursive handwriting is so important.

Anonymous said...

GREAT blog and reminded me that yesterday a new book came out called "Teach It Write...Now" by Treyce Montoya. You can view it at www.e-junkie.com/handwriting (ebooks) or http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?contributorId=805275 for paperback until it's available in retail like her other ones.

Dennis R., Cincinnati, OH

KateGladstone said...

Re the comment by "American Handwriting Analysis Foundation" — Exactly how is the article on this page (which never mentions cursive, never even depicts cursive) describable as "spreading the word about why cursivehwg is so important"?

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Of course Kate is quite right, my post had little to do with cursive. While there are still benefits in children learning to write cursive (I'm not fussed on how), my post was saying MUCH more than this. Glad you got what I was on about Kate. Trevor

Lei @ Pofuff said...

Excellent article. We have been encouraging our child to scribble/draw and write more because we have noticed that she is spending more and more time with tech gadgets.

KateGladstone said...

Trevor — did the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation ever dare to respond to your accurate comment about their comment's inaccuracy?

For what it's worth, here are other (and, I believe) accurate informational sites on handwriting and how to better it: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Kate, but to be honest, the links you provide seem concerned with cursive and handwriting as ends in themselves. My point was that handwriting (while of some worth in its own right) has an important and close relationship to writing (i.e. composition), literacy and learning.

KateGladstone said...

Sure — I meant to query the association of handwriting exclusively with cursive.