Some thoughts about handwriting

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[1] 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.

 

 

 

[1] Montgomery, D. 2007. Spelling, handwriting and dyslexia: Overcoming barriers to learning. London: Routledge.

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