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Six Critical Ways Writing by Hand Improves Language Literacy

By: Holly Britton

When I began learning the cello as an adult, I started with variations of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The cello instructor wisely pointed out, “You are not learning Twinkle, Twinkle; you are learning how to play the cello.” His point was that the song was second to a greater lesson, namely skill. Your young students will be doing many activities and assignments that they will never remember, but often more important than the content we present, are the skills students are acquiring  ̶  skills that will serve them for life. And one of the most important skills needed for their academic career and beyond, is the ability to write by hand.* But why, given we live in an increasingly digitized world with keyboards, tablets, voice-to-text, and thumb-texting devices, would handwriting be necessary? Let us explore that here.

From my own writing experience and that of countless others I talk to, it is clear that the act of writing whether by hand or computer shapes one’s brain; it affects how one thinks. It not only helps one express thought, but actually forms one’s thoughts as they write, opening doors in the mind that would otherwise stay closed.

In preparation for writing, the brain begins its innerworkings, pulling together ideas, filtering, and formulating sentences. It reasons through concepts large and small, and as the ideas emerge, writing makes the invisible visible, revealing thought, exposing what was once hidden in the brain. Once exposed, words and thoughts can be further scrutinized, puzzled over, and rewritten so that they communicate the intended ideas clearly and precisely.

Is it necessary to get those ideas down by hand? One could argue that were it not for the act of writing by hand, a child might never learn how to come to those ideas at all. The mental processes needed to write by hand fine-tune our thinking making handwriting a unique and indispensable tool for processing and rendering thought.

  1.  Writing by hand is a kinesthetic connection to language.

A teacher points to a letter in front of the class. “This,” she begins, “is the letter t. What does t say?” The class responds by making the phonetic sound for t. This common, straightforward approach to teaching phonics is a good start for beginning reading instruction exposing children to the base components of language and highlighting the visual-audio and oral connection to letters.

Follow then, what happens to the letter t when a child is required to write it. The child sees the letter and repeats the sound the teacher makes. The teacher while displaying the letter, asks the student to write the letter t. Assuming the child has been taught how to form the letter, the child must then hold the image of the letter in his/her head as they take their eyes off the image before them, recall the letter and the process used to form it, and recreate it on the paper in front of them. That is, they must connect mentally to the shape of the letter in their mind and proceed to connect with the letter kinesthetically using pencil on paper. That process  ̶ of taking something visual into the invisible place that is the brain and then making it visible again, cannot be skipped if children are to learn how to communicate through writing. And while it is still difficult to ascertain a child’s understanding at this point, the act of writing something as basic as one letter “seen” in their mind’s eye is one of the earliest steps in learning how to communicate through writing.

Furthermore, the physical act of using a writing implement on paper stimulates other sensorimotor parts of the brain which makes for stronger more lasting mental impressions. Neuroscientist Audrey van der Meer of Norwegian University of Science and Technology says, “Writing by hand creates much more activity [than keyboarding] in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning.”(1)

  1.  Writing by hand makes us better readers.

Having been read to for years, having flipped through the pages of books, having depended on the oral language and pictures to tell the story, a child slowly begins to grasp the concept that the print on the page has something to do with the words being spoken by the adult reading to them.

While this literacy emergence is happening, a typical child is simultaneously developing the body control and fine-motor skills necessary for writing by hand. Within a very short period of a child’s life, these two developmental abilities start to merge (normally between the ages of 4 and 7)(2 & 3). At this stage, children are introduced to letter names and phonics-the building blocks of reading. Often overlooked, however, is the integral connection that forming the letters has to reading the letters. Writing letters and words on paper by hand helps bring a child’s focus to the most basic unit of language ̶ the letter. Coupled with phonics instruction, writing language by hand reinforces the direct connection to significance of print on the page.

In a report published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, authors Steve Graham and Michael Hebert state that “increasing how much students write does in fact improve how well they read.” (3) If they are taught well early on, students’ basic writing skills will improve their ability to connect with text. In turn, their improved reading skills will hone their writing skills, leading to a greater understanding and appreciation of the written word.

  1.  Writing by hand helps us process our thoughts.

Young students must learn to come up with a complete and coherent thought, a “sentence” that is still in their mind, but not yet written. That they will be required to write it, helps them to process and construct it. Then, upon writing it, they can determine if it accurately expresses what they had intended. Were they able to formulate a full thought? An answer to the teacher’s question? A summary of what they just read?  Did they communicate to their reader successfully?

This “inside out” process ̶ taking what is inside the brain and getting it out onto paper ̶  is necessary to understanding ourselves, and it improves our ability both to think well and to write well. Many professional writers express that the very best way to hone their thoughts is to write them out by hand. Children do not know this intuitively; they must be taught.

Students who have not been taught well how to get their thoughts onto paper suffer. They do not suffer because they have poor handwriting; rather, they suffer because they do not know how to work through the mental processes needed to clarify and express their own thoughts. They suffer because they cannot absorb, process, and summarize the thoughts of others. It is not a stretch to conclude, then, that as a consequence, society suffers because a lack of these skills makes reasoning and communicating difficult and ineffective. 

Many writers, public speakers, and others express that they often write out their thoughts in order to find the exact words needed to communicate their message precisely. Maybe in part because it is slower than keyboarding, the act of writing by hand gives the brain time to find the right words or phrasing, the methodical strokes connecting thought to thought, word by word. By reading back over our words, we can determine if the way we put them on paper conveys what we meant. This process is crucial to problem-solving, reasoning, and accurately communicating. Should an education system fail to teach the steps that lead up to this advanced thinking, ramifications will reach beyond the one child. Consider how by not teaching our children to critically think could, ultimately, cripple society as we lose the skilled minds of deep thinkers.

  1.  Writing by hand is a means of evidencing understanding.

For the sake of discussion, let us think broadly of learning as a two-part endeavor: there is the inputand there is understanding. As teachers, we often think of education or teaching as information being fed to the student, that is, what is going in. We focus on the lesson plans, the curriculum, the standards being addressed, etc. But, if the curriculum and our lesson plans are to be of any value, students must also be taught how to process the input. We need to be concerned with whether or not the students have come to a true understanding of what is being presented to them, what they can make of it and, ultimately, whether they can evidence their understanding through some form of output. This circles us back to a point made earlier that the student needs some way to work through all the input, arrange it, connect it to other points of learning, and ultimately reach conclusions. That all gets worked out in the recesses of the brain and is evidenced when what is going on inside the student’s brain is expressed on paper. While writing is not the only means of expressing understanding, it is a very telling means of determining and verifying what has been learned. Furthermore, it actually helps the student see for themselves whether or not they are reaching an understanding.

It stands to reason, therefore, that writing by hand must be an intentional regular part of every subject in every grade as a child’s brain develops. If done regularly, writing by hand becomes a tool that helps students express their understanding of more complicated works and issues.

  1. Writing by hand manifests thought.

Teachers and parents want their students to be able to express themselves clearly and precisely, to manifest outwardly what they are thinking inwardly. That is writing. The road to writing normally begins at four, five, and six years of age ̶ all the way back in kindergarten when children are just developing the fine motor skills needed to form letters. The skill of getting onto paper what is in their head, does not come naturally like crawling, or walking. It is a more involved, complicated skill that needs teaching, practicing, and honing. But, like crawling and walking, it is a motor skill that will become as second nature, if taught well and used regularly. When taught properly and early, and when used frequently, handwriting becomes an invaluable tool for learning and communicating.

If a child wants to go to a friend’s house down the street, she can jump on her bike and pedal there…if she knows how to ride a bike. In order for children to choose writing as means for expressing themselves, it must be easy for them, like second nature, like riding a bike. If writing has not been taught and practiced, then it is unlikely that the child will use it for honing or expressing their thoughts. But, when children are taught how to move their thoughts onto paper, it is as though they have grown wings and they are free to summarize, analyze, imagine, create… and to share all that with the world.

  1.  Writing by hand is a means of retaining information.

As a child’s brain develops it is finding ways to both absorb and filter the bombardment of information coming in. Writing by hand is a critical skill in helping the brain do this well. By kinesthetically connecting to the information, the brain can focus more precisely on what is pertinent. It hones and processes certain bits while simultaneously filtering out extraneous or unnecessary input. Educators can help students meet learning goals by having them write to process and evidence learning. By using a writing implement to take notes and express thoughts, “we both learn better and remember better,” says Dr. van der Meer.(1)

One is more likely to remember input when it is connected to information already embedded in the brain. One is more likely to remember when true understanding happens. In my experience, writing by hand helps the brain make sense of it all and that contributes to greater knowledge retention.

Conclusion:

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of great giants.” We, indeed, stand on the shoulders of great thinkers, and we labor to cultivate great thinking in our children. Education should not merely be a focus on what to know and teach, but rather it needs to be a concerted effort by educators at all levels in a student’s growth to encourage great thinking- deep thinking. Handwriting helps minds think deeply. The development of deep thinking skills begins with teaching a child how to efficiently and proficiently read and write ̶ first letters, then words, then sentences ̶ first other’s thoughts, then their own.

*(Note: Handwriting in this article is NOT referring exclusively to cursive writing, but more broadly to the skill of putting words on paper by hand.)

Cited Works:

  •  Askvik, Eva Ose.,(Ruud) van der Weel, F.R., and van der Meer, Audrey L.H. The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults. Front. Psychol., 28 July 2020 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810
  •  Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
  • Deborah Marr, Mary-Margret Windsor, Sharon Cermak. Handwriting Readiness: Locatives and Visuomotor Skills in the Kindergarten Year. Early Childhood Research and Practice. 2001
    Vol 3 No 1. Handwriting Readiness: Locatives and Visuomotor Skills in the Kindergarten Year (illinois.edu)

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