Some thoughts about handwriting
A recent posting on Facebook reported that education departments in some countries are reconsidering the need to teach cursive (joined up letters) to learners. It seems that there is an argument for abandoning cursive writing because of the decreasing need to write at all. The use of computers, i-pads, cell phones and other devices mean that we spend far more time pressing letter keys than we do with pen and paper. So, superficially, it does make sense for learners to spend classroom time on keyboard skills once they have been taught printed letters, rather than mastering good handwriting. There are, however, some pros and cons of handwriting that need to be considered before any decision is made.
Arguments for less focus on handwriting
Many learners may benefit from not having to depend on handwriting for communication of knowledge and skills. Those with handwriting difficulties try to avoid any written task and some even become disruptive when they have to write something down. Indeed, Linda Silverman, a leading figure in the field of gifted child education, believes that handwriting seems to play a much more significant role in underdevelopment than has often been realized. One of the common characteristics of underachievement is an inability to produce written work of a suitable quality to match the learner’s demonstrated (usually verbal) potential. This leads to consequences such as inattention, avoidance, low motivation, low self-esteem, a negative attitude towards school in general and behavioural problems. As a result of this realization, it is fairly normal these days for schools to allow a scribe to help a child with writing difficulties, and even laptop computers are allowed in classrooms.
But there is another side to this story. Why do some children struggle with handwriting at all? The answer lies in neurodevelopment, which is why @integrated learning therapy practitioners take an active interest in this subject.
When we learn to write, we rely on many developed and developing skills. Our posture, hand grip and movement patterns are all involved and orchestrated by the motor cortex in the cerebral hemispheres concerned with voluntary movements. Furthermore, good fine motor skill, which is needed for neat handwriting, stems from well-developed sensory and motor foundations which result in muscle and joint stability, especially in the neck, trunk and arms. Accurate tactile discrimination and hand and finger strength help to control writing instruments. Motor planning, the coordination of the two sides of the body and the development of hand and eye dominance are also involved in laying down pre-writing skills.
While we are learning the motor skills needed for handwriting, the area of the brain called the cerebellum is involved as well. This brain area memorises all the complex muscular actions involved in a particular skilled movement so that it can take over control of movements, leaving the higher levels of the brain free to do the actual thinking and learning. If the cerebellum is damaged or underdeveloped then skilled movements are not easy to execute. Coordination problems are typical signs of cerebellar irregularities so learners who cannot coordinate the movements needed for fluid, rapid writing might be suffering from inefficient cerebellar functioning.
In other words, problems with handwriting can be important signals that neurodevelopment has not progressed as it should have. Rather than doing away with handwriting lessons it might be wiser to consider the underlying reasons for problems in this area.
Arguments in favour of cursive writing
Once the cerebellum has mastered the print form of letters, it has to learn an entirely new set of motor programmes when cursive writing is introduced. Some schools in certain countries teach cursive from the beginning, but most prefer starting with print, because all children’s stories, reading schemes and other forms of written communication use printed script.
There are some experts who advocate the use of cursive from as early on as possible. This is because cursive has a major advantage in the fact that each word or syllable consists of one continuous line where all the elements flow together. This means that a young learner experiences more readily the total form or shape of a given word as he or she processes the kinaesthetic feedback from the writing movements. In this way, handwriting supports spelling which in turn contributes to literacy development.
Cursive writing facilitates speed of writing which, until things change dramatically in schools and universities, is a crucial factor of academic success. Slow writers struggle with taking down notes in class and managing to impart knowledge during written exams.
Furthermore, cursive writing is said to be particularly helpful for learners with handwriting coordination difficulties. Research in the area shows that cursive
- Stops reversals and inversion of letters
- Induces greater fluency in writing which enables greater speed to be developed without loss of legibility
- Enables more to be written in the time
- Can improve spelling accuracy
- Results in orderly and automatic space between letters and between words
- Reduces the paid and difficulty experienced by pupils with coordination difficulties
- Improves legibility of writing
- Reinforces multisensory learning linking spelling, writing and speaking
In addition, it is known that insight and memory are enhanced by the use of multiple brain areas. Hence the encouragement of using notes and summaries as a good study skill. When we engage our hands to work with the brain in organising and understanding new materials, we naturally find it easier to comprehend and then recall content.
In the remedial field, it has been known for decades that the teaching of cursive writing benefitted learners with difficulties in learning and handwriting. Lack of good teaching can contribute to underachievement in schools but there seems to be some evidence that neglecting the teaching of handwriting can play a role too.
Will keyboards eradicate the problems of many underachievers or will they be somehow further disadvantaged by foregoing the benefits offered by learning handwriting – especially cursive writing? One can only hope that further research will shed more light on this puzzling question.
 Montgomery, D. 2007. Spelling, handwriting and dyslexia: Overcoming barriers to learning. London: Routledge.
What causes a reading problem?
Why are there so many bright and hard-working children in our schools that aren’t learning to read as they should? Interestingly, if you read something to them, giving them information through their ears, they understand. But when you give them the same words to read or to absorb through their eyes, they fail. Reading problems seem different from hearing or understanding problems, yet it is the same brain showing these differences in ability.
Our brains are ultimately responsible for us being able to read. If a child struggles to make sense of written words, surely it must be related to problems in some or other area of the brain. Is this true and if so, which brain areas are not functioning as they should?
Essentially, reading needs a brain
- That can change light waves into electro-chemical impulses through the visual system
- That has organized, adequately insulted neural networks through which the electro-chemical impulses can travel efficiently
- With an area where storage, retrieval and decoding of information can take place efficiently.
Which of these might help us understand why reading problems occur?
If a child can look at a cow and recognise it as a cow, he perceives it. This means that he interprets the image correctly as being a cow. The light waves from the cow are changed to electro-chemical impulses by the retina in the eye, then pass on to the brain. If there is no conflicting information coming in from the cow, the child will perceive a cow. Children with reading problems have no problem recognising objects. In essence, they can read all the physical things in their environment; they have no trouble recognising and perceiving actual objects.
If we show him a picture of those objects he recognise the pictures quite easily. He can, in essence, ‘read’ the pictures. Pictures aren’t real objects but are symbols which stand for the objects but they are closely related to the objects. The picture of a cow is easily related to a cow because the picture (the symbol) represents what an actual cow looks like.
If a child with a reading problem easily recognises a cow when he sees one, and he easily recognises a picture of a cow, why can’t he recognise the written word ‘cow’? What is there about written words which make them different from the real thing or from pictures? The problem seems to be one of language.
Language is a man-made code, composed of symbols that have no meaning in themselves. The word ‘cow’ is a symbol with no relation to the way an actual cow appears to the eye or brain.
To be able to use the code, we first have to memorise the meaning assigned to each symbol. If either the memory of the symbol or the memory of its assigned meaning is forgotten, the code breaks down. Thus, storage of both the symbol and its meaning is essential to memory. We know that language is stored in the left brain hemisphere. This means that language and decoding functions needs organized ‘wiring’ or neural pathways that convey information to this area. Any scrambling of the network due to shorted wires, inadequate connections cause a breakdown in transmitting the electrical messages.
Once the symbol and its meaning have been stored, we have to be able to retrieve it. Decoding needs a storehouse from which information is easily retrieved. Poor storage in the brain slows down the process of retrieval of information; children who suffer from this slow-down might speak more slowly, or read more slowly. If incoming information is stored in an excessively disordered way, then we have a reading problem.
Following this analysis, it seems that reading problems can be the result of lack of development of the nervous system, especially if underdevelopment results in undecided or cross-dominance.
Confirmation of this theory comes by looking at other, sometimes subtle, signs of brain underdevelopment that children with reading problems commonly share. Some of these include
- Problems with coordination. They seem to lack grace when walking and running, often have a history of skipping crawling or cannot crawl smoothly without concentrating on doing so
- Early problems with deciding hand, foot and eye dominance, and showing uncertain dominance after the age of 6 years
- Show an extreme love for music and listening to music
- Handwriting characteristically shows little consistency of slant; vertical lines of letters such as ‘h,j,p,t,l” make all kinds of different angles
- Eye problems even though eyes test as normal. Many have problems with binocular vision or eye tracking movements
- Many reverse words or letters
- Most are poor spellers
- Many seem to do better in numeracy than reading and all prefer verbal discussions to having to write something down
- Nearly all poor readers understand language better through their ears than through their eyes.
So reading problems are related to the development of the nervous system. No amount of remedial reading will be as effective as addressing the nervous system inefficiencies directly.
This is one reason why Integrated Learning Therapy evaluates the neurodevelopmental status of children with reading problems. We don’t address the symptoms of the problem, but go to the root cause. Once we understand the underlying causes, we are able to design an individualized programme for the child to give the brain a second chance to develop properly. By understanding the brain’s plasticity and thus its ability to restructure neural networks, we can stimulate brain areas. This results in more organized neural networks and better access to storage areas of the language brain.
Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about this approach. We also offer courses for teachers and other helping professionals that are accredited with SACE, ETDP-SETA and the HPCSA. These are aimed at shedding light on what can possibly be the cause of the problems your learners experience in the classroom as well as their sometimes puzzling behaviours.
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 With thanks to Carl Delacato and insights from his book A new start for the child with reading problems.
At Integrated Learning Therapy, you might often hear us comparing children to a house. Strange, but true! Let me explain.
So often we lose sight of the way a child’s brain develops and how that development may impact on learning. We tend to see a child’s difficulties in school and try to analyse the symptoms the child is showing to better understand the nature of his or her problems. The trouble with this approach is that it keeps our focus on the symptoms of the problem, rather than the underlying cause.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) tries to avoid this by teaching how a child’s brain develops and what needs to be in place for learning to be efficient and effective. This is where the example of a house comes in. Children, like a house, need strong foundations. It is useless trying to build walls and complete a house on poorly laid or non-existent foundations. Once the foundations are in place, walls will stand firm; no cracks will open up around doors and windows, and the roof will not leak. When foundations are poor, we spend a lot of time trying fruitlessly to patch cracks and leaking roofs; as soon as we have finished patching an area, the foundations shift and we have to start again.
This is the reason why so often, remedial work done shows no real, quick gains. After all, if teacher A has not managed to help a child learn to read, why should teacher B succeed? Efforts may bring results, but these often take long and require considerable work on the parts of both adult and child. On the other hand, when the root cause of a learning difficulty is identified and corrected, gaps in learning become more quickly and easily filled.
So the very first step to take when considering a child who is not able to function in school, is to look at his or her foundation systems, to identify which did not develop as they should have. Remembering that movement (and experiences from the environment) is responsible for many of the most basic foundational systems, it becomes possible to use specific, controlled and slow movements to give the brain a second chance to lay down strong foundations. Once this is done, the house becomes a haven and learning can take place with far greater efficiency.
Here’s a short video clip for you to watch which explains this further:
Do visit our website www.ilt.co.za to find out more about ILT and also contact us if you are interested in taking one of our courses to help you better understand the children in your care. You’ll see that our courses are accredited for CPTD points with SACE and also earn you credits towards further qualifications with ETDP-SETA. Earn while you learn J
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