kitchen table math, the sequel: Is Handwriting Causally Related to Learning to Write?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Is Handwriting Causally Related to Learning to Write?

The contribution of handwriting to learning to write was examined in an experimental training study involving beginning writers with and without an identified disability. First-grade children experiencing handwriting and writing difficulties participated in 27 fifteen-min sessions designed to improve the accuracy and fluency of their handwriting. In comparison to their peers in a contact control condition receiving instruction in phonological awareness, students in the handwriting condition made greater gains in handwriting as well as compositional fluency immediately following instruction and 6 months later, The effects of instruction were similar for students with and without an identified disability. These findings indicate that handwriting is causally related to writing and that explicit and supplemental handwriting instruction is an important element in preventing writing difficulties in the primary grades.

Is handwriting causally related to learning to write? Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers.
Graham, Steve; Harris, Karen R.; Fink, Barbara
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 92(4), Dec 2000, 620-633


Auntie Ann said...

In "Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices" by Ralph Fletcher, he mentions that a fairly large number of boys claim to get hand pain when they write. Our boy suffers from the same. We were practicing this summer for the 1-minute math drills they do in his school, and by the 30-second mark he was putting down the pencil and shaking out his hand.

I've looked for help online; sites say to use larger pencils or pencil grips--which he hates and won't use. There's not much else out there.

Last year, he discovered that he would much rather type--especially in light of the spell checker--than use handwriting. The problem is, he can't really do that at school. (Though we do know of one student who uses a tablet computer because of dysgraphia.)

We're hoping that the teacher will allow him to do the 1-minute math drill on some sort of a computer--but he would have to get used to the number pad too.

For take-home assignments, I'm perfectly happy to let him type most of them.

ChemProf said...

Auntie Ann,

Have you tried taking a page from precision teaching? Just have him write as many slashes as he can in a minute, or as many o's, and see if you can help him get faster at the basic strokes. That will also help strengthen the muscles of his hand. I seem to remember Catherine had luck with something like that in getting Christopher's handwriting faster and more fluent.

Glen said...

Ann, you might have better luck with softer pencils. You might want to pick up a "3B" at an art store and have him try it. He can relax his hand more without losing control of the pencil if the lead is softer. He'll still have to remind himself to relax his hand, but it is easier to relax when the pencil makes a good mark without having to be pushed into the paper.

Another possibility that doesn't require going to the keyboard is a gel pen. Some of them glide so smoothly that it's like waving the pen in the air, which takes very little muscle tension (if you aren't too fussy about penmanship.) If the 1-min math drill is on paper, you may have a hard time getting them to give it to him by computer (they may not even know how), but you could have better luck getting them to accept a gel pen with single-line crossouts for mistakes.

Auntie Ann said...

Those sound like great ideas. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'd second the practice idea. How often does your son ever use a pen or pencil in an ordinary day during the summer?

It's like any other physical activity in many ways. If I haven't been knitting for a few months, the first few days back I definitely knit more slowly, make more exaggerated movements and "feel it" very soon after picking it back up. The next day I might notice my shoulders or neck are sore.

However, after building up over a week or two, I can knit for long periods of time, I'm faster, etc.

Hands tend to cramp up quickly -- especially if you're trying to go fast and do math problems at the same time. Keep a chart of how many good slashes and circles he can make in a minute...and watch it go up over time!

Catherine Johnson said...

Auntie Ann - what a wonderful comment - I MUST find time to pull it up front!

Your son's hand-cramping is a perfect example of "Endurance" (or lack of endurance when a skill isn't fluent).

I was very surprised by the idea that fluency = endurance, but I shouldn't have been. We all understand that athletic practice builds endurance. It's the same principle with fine motor skills and with cognitive skills.

Absolutely: if you're up for it, have him just start writing o's and l's.

The Morningside people would count errors, so have him write o's and l's, count the errors, and build up the number of accurate o's and l's he can write in a minute. You'll be AMAZED at how quickly he'll build speed and endurance.

In general, the Morningside people want to see a "2x" increase per week: the number of accurate 0's and l's the child can write per minute should double each week.

One last thing. While I was there, they had me work with two boys who had major difficulty handwriting. They had me doing fluency timings with both boys, and they told me not to worry about errors; I was just to focus on legibility. (One boy's handwriting was impossible for either me or him to read.)

I ***think*** that it's probably fine to pursue non-accurate fluency in the case of handwriting .... (i.e. not-pretty but completely readable fluent handwriting...)

On the other hand, I don't know what Morningside would do during the normal school year --- AND I don't think Morningside probably has a lot of students with the specific handwriting issues these two students had.

I'm thinking of getting out my handwriting program and using it on myself just to get practice using the celeration charts and to acquire a better sense of how this all works.

palisadesk said...

Further to fluency in developing handwriting -- I'll look for my post (I think it was on another group) about the 6th grader whose writing was transformed by working on printing/writing fluency.

However, the Precision Teaching folks often start with rate-building for shorter periods than 1 minute although they claculate the rate in per-minute terms.

I would suggest Auntie Ann get some centimeter graph paper (or 1-inch graph paper) for the practice if the boy has trouble with spatial organization, which is often the case.

Instead of 1-minute timings, do 15 seconds. See how many tally marks he can make in 15 seconds (you know -- the 4 downstrokes plus a 5th stroke across -- this builds in two major components of the printed letters, the downstroke and the cross-stroke), plus, it's easy to count. Let's say he can only do 10 the first time. You want to see that rate double in a week or so. The 15-second limit means his hand won't tire so quickly, but you can do those 15-second bursts several times (some people time practice sessions, others don't). You multiply by 4 to get the rate per minute.

PT people call these short sessions "sprints" and they are very effective at building fluency, speed and accuracy. You gradually extend the time in each session, but only so long as the student is improving.

I'll look up the number of tally marks per minute that is the usual aim, but the aims are only guidelines. PT is individualized and each child has his or her optimum rate of improvement and performance. Your data tell you when you've reached the maximum rate needed for fluency and its benefits.

Catherine Johnson said...

Auntie Ann - I think it may be a bad idea to have your son move to keyboarding -- will get the study on handwriting-vs-keyboarding posted ASAP.

For YEARS I have felt, intuitively, that handwriting is much more powerful than keyboarding when it comes to learning.

Of course, that has major implications for my own habits. I now read everything on my iPad & type all my notes.

Would the basal ganglia project have gone more smoothly if I'd been writing notes in margins as I used to do?

It's entirely possible.

One of the HUGE stumbling blocks with the basal ganglia project has been simply REMEMBERING all the highly complicated studies I read -- or, at least, remembering enough of the gist to use them as I write instead of having to re-find them and re-skim them.

I'm really wondering whether I need to go back to pre-iPad, pre-screen-annotating notetaking.

In fact, as I type this, my basal ganglia brain is telling me: YES YOU DO NEED TO GO BACK TO MARGIN ANNOTATING BY HAND.

Catherine Johnson said...

However, the Precision Teaching folks often start with rate-building for shorter periods than 1 minute although they claculate the rate in per-minute terms.


I couldn't remember whether that was the case, and I didn't see it at the school.

Another COMMENT to pull up front!

I think this is VERY important. At this point I have a strong 'gut intuition,' which I trust, that all parents who are thinking about these things should practice their kids to fluency on handwriting.

As far as I can tell, it's not hard. If you ***aren't*** trying to teach a specific, good-looking form for penmanship, you can teach O's and l's to fluency and go from there.

Catherine Johnson said...

palisadesk- I don't think your handwriting post was ever here --- I'm pretty sure I would remember---

Anonymous said...

Could you please post a website or someplace to get the materials to teach handwriting.

My eleven year old's handwriting it atrocious. She needs help, but I don't know how to help her.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

If you are looking for pleasant-looking handwriting, I recommend the D'Nealian hands. If you are looking for robotic handwriting that is supposedly not too hard to learn, there is Handwriting without Tears. Both are not particularly good for left-handers (there is almost nothing published for teaching left-handers how to write legibly).

Both D'Nealian and Handwriting Without Tears are easily Googled to find teaching materials.

If you are trying to move someone from functional to beautiful handwriting, there are many calligraphy books that teach good italic hands.

palisadesk said...

The go-to person on handwriting problems is Kate Gladstone, whose website is here:
Handwriting Repair

She has a section on teaching the left-hander, too.

palisadesk said...

Catherine, I think I found the post I was remembering (you are correct, it was not to KTM) -- will send it to you by email as it is too long for a comment, and you can edit or ignore at will.

Auntie Ann said...

Isn't H w/o T the one with the b's that look so strange? They are so far from closing the loop, that they look to me like two letters.

palisadesk said...

Cathering, I did send a brief version of the PT writing anecdote to KTM as a comment to this post:

How To Fix Problem Learning

I'll send you the other one by email.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thank you!

I have to remember which book I was using .... I'm thinking Kate Gladstone, but I'm not sure.

The book was built to help adults remediate their own handwriting by learning a very simple, semi-italic print & then cursive.

The characters aren't bad looking.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Auntie Ann, yes, Handwriting without tears is that awful style. You can see the official sample at

I find HwT to be the ugliest hand since Palmer method. (There are some German styles that are worse, like the Kurrentschrift I used to write to my grandmother, but they haven't been taught since about 1935—I had to do historical research in the 70s to find instructions for Kurrentschrift.)

A good italic hand is far more useful and readable than a cursive hand, which is why D'Nealian is an attractive option for teaching kids, as their printed form is basically a simple italic.