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Learning By Hand: A Case for Handwriting Enhancing Reading
By Dr. John J. Russell,
Head of Windward School

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In the February 23, 2009 issue of Newsweek, Jessica Bennett predicted the doom of writing in longhand. In her cleverly-titled article, “The Curse of Cursive”, she states that “penmanship, like hieroglyphics and the IBM Selectric, has lost its purpose,” and she goes on to deliver the coup de grace by saying, “Let’s erase it for good.” Ms. Bennett is not alone in prophesying the demise of writing in cursive. Margaret Webb Pressler, in an equally cleverly-titled piece, “The Handwriting Is on the Wall,” published in the October 11, 2006 edition of the Washington Post, reported that on the handwritten essay section of the SAT exam, only 15 percent of the 1.5 million members of the class of 2006 wrote their essays in cursive; the rest printed using block letters. Ms. Pressler opined that “the computer keyboard helped kill shorthand and now it’s threatening to finish off longhand.” She claims that many teachers are not concerned about the precipitous drop in the use of cursive, while scholars “who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it’s important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.” With populist outcries for doing away with cursive and with apparent teacher apathy toward its demise, now is a perfect time to examine the reasons for the fall of handwriting and the evidence that supports the teaching of handwriting in our schools.

Writing in the Annals of Dyslexia (vol. 46, 1996), Betty Sheffield bemoans the fact that there is a relative dearth of major research studies on handwriting. She does, however, cite many of the important findings that support explicit instruction in handwriting. She notes that kinesthetic learning results in very powerful memories, and she posits that, because kinesthetic learning is such a strong learning modality, all children need to assimilate accurate letter formation of alphabetic letters. She points out that “dyslexic students in particular often need to use writing in order to learn to read.” Virginia Berninger and her colleagues, writing in the Journal of Learning Disabilities (vol. 35, 2002), confirm the strong effect of “language-by-hand” learning. There is also research on beginning reading that supports the observation that learning to write the manuscript alphabet enhances letter recognition and promotes automaticity. In her review of reading research, Adams (1990) points out that the speed and accuracy with which beginning readers recognize individual letters are determinants of their future reading skill. As Windward consultant Eileen Perlman explained in Child magazine (September 2003), “a good handwriting program involves three simultaneous processes: listening to the sound of the letter (the auditory component), looking at the letter (the visual component), and making the movement to form the letter (the kinesthetic component).” The research clearly demonstrates that handwriting strengthens the sound-symbol connection and should be an important component of any reading program.

At the most recent conference of the International Dyslexia Association, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham presented a compelling argument for teaching not only manuscript, but also cursive. In one of his studies he found that the average first-grader writes nine to ten letters per minute. After 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week for nine weeks, the students doubled their writing speed and constructed more complex sentences. He also noted that students who remain printers rather than cursive-writers write much more slowly—so slowly, in fact, that Graham believes it is nearly impossible for printers to take accurate notes in most high school and college classes and may have difficulty writing essays for the SAT. This concern was supported by Ms. Pressler in her Washington Post piece when she pointed out that SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those that were in print. Sheffield confirmed this phenomenon, citing the work of Alston and Taylor (1987) and Briggs (1980), which demonstrated that middle school teachers and college professors grade papers based on the quality of the handwriting and not just the content. In both studies the only difference in the papers the teachers and the professors were given was the quality of the handwriting. Even though the content was exactly the same, there was significant variation in grading.

Unfortunately, students are receiving less and less instruction in handwriting. Steve Graham found in 2003 that primary grade teachers spent less than 10 minutes a day on handwriting. Graham’s research also confirmed another of Sheffield’s hypotheses: teachers “have been given inadequate preparation in the teaching of handwriting.” Professor Graham found that while most of the teachers he surveyed did teach handwriting, albeit to a very limited extent, a vast majority admitted that “they had no training in the subject, had no curricular materials for it and, for good measure, didn’t enjoy it.” The decline in the instruction of handwriting and its diminished use by students is not because handwriting has lost its purpose; it is due to a lack of teacher preparation.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the death of handwriting are exaggerations. Handwriting is alive and well at Windward and other schools where instructional practice is informed by the research and supported by a comprehensive professional development program that includes strategies for teaching handwriting. There is clear evidence that handwriting is an important tool in the acquisition of reading and writing skills and should be part of every language arts program. #

Dr. John J. Russell is head of Windward School.



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