Teaching Kids Handwriting to Help Them Read

Building brain connections for literacy.

Posted Mar 26, 2018

I grew up in B.C. days—Before Computers. The closest thing I had to an iPad was an Etch-A-Sketch, which kept me entertained on many a family drive. Nowadays, it seems every four-year-old has a mobile device.

The digital world is fraught with dangers but also with wonderful possibilities. To the extent that we load Junior’s favorite cartoons and movies onto his tablet, we may be raising a generation that expects to be entertained 24-7. But there’s also plenty of quality educational software available, including programs that can teach kids reading skills. However, if these programs aren’t designed according to sound psychological principles, they may not be effective at teaching literacy.

Many children in middle-class families start learning the names of the letters at around four years of age. The most common way of teaching letter names is the see-and-say method. You show kids the letter and tell them its name, which they repeat. I recall from watching Sesame Street with my own kids that this show uses the see-and-say method: “Today’s program is brought to you by the letter A.” Given the medium, perhaps the best that an educational TV show can do is see-and-say.

But more interactive approaches are also important. In particular, Indiana University psychologist Karin James argues that practice in handwriting is needed for children to become effective readers. She gives two reasons for this assertion. First, learning-by-doing is far more effective than learning-by-seeing. It’s obvious that you can’t learn how to swim by watching a swimming video. Observing others perform a task can give you some idea of how it’s done. But until you get into the water and start making the strokes for yourself, you don’t know how to swim. This is because procedural learning always involves making connections between the sensory and motor areas of the brain that are recruited for the task.

At first glance, this argument doesn’t seem to hold in the case of reading, which appears to be purely a visual task. But James would disagree with this assertion. This point leads to her second reason for arguing that handwriting practice is an essential component of learning to read. Namely, writing out letters helps young children learn how to recognize them.

Recognizing letters isn’t the straightforward task it seems to be to those of us who are fluent readers. This is because there’s so much variability in the shapes of letters. Upper and lower case letters often bear little similarity to each other. And letter shapes also vary widely depending on the font. Back in my B.C. grammar school days, much of what we read was handwritten, and so we had even more variation in form to deal with.

It’s often thought that four-year-olds don’t yet have the manual dexterity to learn handwriting. And yet, James argues, it’s precisely poor penmanship skills in these youngsters that helps them master letter recognition. When children copy letters, their reproductions are far from exact. Lines are tilted, angles are off, and curves aren’t balanced. Still, when children look at what they’ve drawn, they know it’s “the same” as the original because they wrote it. Furthermore, as they gain more practice in handwriting, children learn the essential elements of letters are that run across families of fonts and different people’s penmanship.

To test the hypothesis that handwriting letters creates links between sensory (visual) and motor (hand) regions of the brain, James conducted an fMRI study using four-year olds. Clear links between visual and hand areas are observed in adult readers, but not in illiterate children. The children were then split into two groups. Both underwent letter recognition training, but half used the see-and-say method while the other half copied letters as well. After four weeks, the children’s brains were scanned once more. Connections between visual and hand areas were already forming in those who’d learned by handwriting, whereas none could be detected in the see-and-say group.

This study was followed up by an experiment testing the hypothesis that handwriting helps children learn to extract the essential elements from variable letter forms. To avoid any contamination of the data from prior learning, the experiments taught 5-year-olds the Greek alphabet. Some children learned by copying the letters (handwriting), while others learned by see-and-say. In a crucial third condition, another group of children learned the Greek alphabet also by the see-and-say method, but with exposure to a wide variety of fonts. The children in this condition learned just as well as did those in the handwriting condition. Those in the single-font see-and-say condition performed much worse.

Finally, in a brain-scanning study looking at the learning of cursive, children who were asked to handwrite cursive examples developed vision-hand connections in their brains, but those who just watched adults writing in cursive did not. Likewise, children who were taught to recognize letters by typing them on a keyboard didn’t develop vision-hand connections, even though the motor task of typing was involved. In short, learning letters by handwriting not only helps kids extract the essential features of letters, it’s also the only method that establishes the brain connections necessary for full literacy.

Pencil and paper may seem like ancient writing implements to today’s digital generation. Still, there are ways that computer tablets can be an effective device for teaching early literacy skills. Single-font see-and-say programs will only take Junior so far. But the research we’ve just reviewed shows that multi-font see-and-say programs can be quite effective. Such programs should be easy to design, and some may already be on the market. Furthermore, handwriting recognition software is widely available, and so it should be implemented in educational games that kids can play on their mobile devices.

The digital age has changed the way we communicate—even how we read and write. But if we’re thoughtful in how we use our devices, we can reap the benefits they offer while avoiding their dangers.

References

James, K. H. (2017). The importance of handwriting experience on the development of the literate brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 502-508.