Handwriting: A formative art or vital tool?

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 21 2011 11:42 p.m. MDT

An upper level language arts class at Reid School in Salt Lake City practices writing the cursive letter "l" on Friday, September 9, 2011. Many schools across the nation are spending less time on teaching penmanship.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PROVO — At the beginning of the school year, Lance Vandermark asked his second grade class what kind of handwriting they wanted to strive for this year.

Did they want to have cruddy kindergarten penmanship or write like sloppy second graders?

One boy said that he had a brother in college, and he wanted to have handwriting like his.

Now when the students turn in their final writing drafts, Vandermark asks if they think they used their "super-neat college handwriting." If not, he has them practice certain letters again.

"They think it's a blast and it gets them focused on how they are writing," said Vandermark, who teaches at Sunset View Elementary in Provo.

But over the years, schools have focused less on handwriting. Most early-grade elementary school classes spend 25 to 50 minutes on handwriting instruction a week — as much as some schools used to spend every day on penmanship, said Kathleen Wright, national product manager at Zaner-Bloser, one of the nation's largest handwriting curriculum publishers. Schools have more pressure and time constraints due to the emphasis on high-stakes testing ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, meaning there isn't as much time to focus on handwriting.

Some schools have already given up on teaching cursive and more may follow in the coming years as the new state-led Common Core standards, set to be implemented by 44 states (including Utah) in the 2014-15 school year, do not require students to learn cursive and do not mention handwriting as part of the curriculum at all. Currently, the Utah curriculum does specify that students should learn how to write legibily and fluently.

Research has shown that learning to write letters by hand is an important part in language development and helps children learn how to read faster and better, said Karin Harman James, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who has done extensive research on the topic.

The demand for students to know how to write well remains, as 80 percent of the work students do in the classroom is still done by hand, said Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University.

Advantages to handwriting

Earlier this month, students at Reid School, a private school in Salt Lake City, sat down and practiced their handwriting skills. Kindergartners practiced writing the lowercase letter "r" and corrected their teacher when she modeled the letter and wrote it too tall or backwards. Students in the upper-level writing class practiced writing the cursive lowercase "l".

For the first three weeks of school, preschoolers through eighth-graders practice their letters for at least 45 minutes a day, said Ethna Reid, director of the school. Reid has had parents who can't believe the difference in their child's handwriting after just a few days at the school.

"Handwriting is so important nowadays," Reid said, adding that it helps children develop good critical thinking skills. "The better the handwriting, the more you write, and the more you write, the more you think."

Learning to write by hand is especially important in the early years, said Harmon, who is known in the linguistic world for her brain-imaging study on children.

Her studies have shown that manually printing words as compared to typing letters and words has different effects on the brain. Actually forming the letters on paper activates the portions of the brain that help with letter recognition and reading.

"Printing helps children to be able to identify letters and identifying letters is the highest predictor of reading success," Harmon said. Subsequent studies have shown that learning to write while learning to read helps children read better and faster than just learning to read without the writing component.

Better handwriting also generally equals better grades, said Graham, with Vanderbilt University.

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