I once saw a little pin with a picture of a hand holding a pen. The pin read “Palmer Method”. This pin was a penmanship award that was given out to children long ago for perfect handwriting. The days of awards for perfect handwriting are long gone and today’s children are lucky to receive any handwriting instruction at all. With the increased emphasis on literacy in our schools, however, it is very important to emphasize that handwriting plays a huge part in learning to read. This article will discuss how writing and reading interact to improve literacy.
The Interaction of Writing and Reading in the Brain
As children learn to write, they develop the skills necessary for learning to read as well. Here are a few ways writing supports reading:
- Children learn to write letters from top down. This follows the same visual movement pattern as reading since people read text starting at the top of the page and working their way down. When children learn to write, using proper top-down letter formation, it reinforces the visual organization necessary for reading.
- Children also learn to align and sequence the letters they write from left to right on the writing paper. This reinforces the left to right visual tracking that is required for reading.
- Writing is rhythmic and predictable. Because of its rhythm and repetitive nature, writing practice facilitates writing fluency. This fluency leads to an automatic motor response, allowing a child to think less about the actual motor actions of writing and more about what he or she is writing. The ability to focus on reading the letters while writing them leads to more proficiency during the act of reading.
- As children learn to write letters, the movements are stored in what is called “kinesthetic memory”. These are the memory centers in the brain that are related to movement patterns. It is the first memory center to develop and provides for the longest lasting memories – for example, the memory of the movement patterns for how to sit or walk. This memory center allows writing to become an automatic motor response, as stated above. When a child learns to read, he or she can draw upon this memory center to remember how the letters on the page are formed and to draw conclusions on what those letters are.
- Both reading and writing use the same temporary working memory system to take in information, analyze it, and use it. Working memory takes what the eye sees and interprets it based on what is stored in a person’s long-term memory. Letters and words are processed through this same system no matter what their source. If working memory can draw upon kinesthetic memory to identify letters, then the brain will respond to the letters and words on a page faster. Reading and writing also interact through working memory during spelling and composing written work.
Why Keyboarding is Not a Substitute
The influx of technology into daily life has placed the emphasis on typing to produce written work, rather than handwriting. Children are learning to type at younger ages than they ever did before. The motor patterns used for keyboarding are different than for writing, however, and draw upon different parts of the brain. Keyboarding emphasizes visual-spatial memory. This means that the brain learns the location of the letters on the keyboard and the finger movement patterns necessary to strike the keys. The brain does not learn how to form each letter or what the letters look like during keyboarding since the letters are already formed and just appear as they are typed. Children must already know what the letters are before the letters that they type will mean anything to them. You can see this when young children who have not learned to read yet try keyboarding – they just strike random letters with their fingers because it is fun, but they do not know what they are writing.
Keyboarding also utilizes both hands, so it draws from both sides of the brain to complete the activity. Handwriting, on the other hand, uses one hand to complete the action, causing the parts of the brain that control writing to fire. These brain centers are located in the same parts of the brain as the language centers that manage language comprehension, including reading comprehension.
Is a Handwriting Curriculum Important?
While some children naturally develop the ability to hold a pencil with a perfect tripod grasp, they do not naturally develop the ability to know what to do with that pencil once they are holding it. Handwriting must be taught, and the consistent use of a handwriting curriculum throughout the early elementary school years will ensure that children learn the processes required for correct handwriting. Research supports structured handwriting instruction. Children who learn handwriting from teachers who have undergone training in handwriting instruction show greater improvements in handwriting skill and better abilities to transfer handwriting skill to the task of composition (Berninger, 2012). Handwriting instruction should not occur in isolation but should be an integrated part of the overall literacy program to allow for more consistent practice and carry-over of skills. The more children use reading and writing together, the more fluent they will become in both.
Teachers and parents can work together to review how children are being taught handwriting and how a handwriting curriculum can improve the literacy of children overall. If your school does not use a handwriting curriculum, do some research on the effects of writing and reading and work to promote handwriting instruction. The children you care about will benefit greatly from your efforts, and maybe they will even come home with a handwriting award!
Berninger, V. (2012). Strengthening the mind’s eye: the case for continued handwriting instruction in the 21st century. Principal, May/June, 28-31.