January 23rd, 2014 will mark the 277th birthday of John Hancock. Known for being a prominent statesman, businessman, and member of society, it is Mr. Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence that may be one of the most recognized accomplishments of his life. Being the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, he did so with confidence and elegance. In his day, a person’s signature signaled social class, education, and feelings toward a document. It was said that “A good hand was the sign of a good man”. His signature and penmanship has been evaluated, copied, and respected to this day. To celebrate his birthday, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) created the National Day of Handwriting in 1977. This day is set apart to encourage the flourish and practice of the lost art of handwriting.
Two hundred and thirty eight years after Mr. Hancock so eloquently signed his name to this world-changing document, the educational and political world is continuing to take a closer look at the skill of handwriting. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is on the brink of being launched and adopted by the nation. Within these standards is the surprising omission of handwriting as a skill to be taught, even when many educators and doctors assert its importance for student growth and learning.
Research strongly supports the practice of this dying art and its tremendous impact on reading, writing, language, and critical thinking skills. In our current world driven by technology, many educators are focusing their attention on keyboarding skills in lieu of handwriting. Although keyboarding has its place in society today, research has shown that the act of handwriting activates critical brain regions associated with learning in a way that keyboarding does not. Additionally, some researchers believe the practice of this skill provides a foundation for higher order thinking.
Written language consists of two skills that work in concert. Receptive and expressive language skills are critical components of written language. Handwriting is proven to bolster both of these skills. Research shows that 25-33% of all students are struggling to achieve competency in handwriting. We deprive students the opportunity to gain fluency, automaticity, and competency in reading and writing when we eliminate the instruction of handwriting beyond the first grade.
When handwriting becomes automatic for students, their energy and thought process becomes more focused on the quality and organization of their composition. Students who are competent in handwriting have also shown time and again the quantity, quality, and fluency of written expression to be higher than those who are not competent in this skill set, according to research done by Dr. Steve Graham and Dr. Tanya Santangelo. Similar research done by Dr. Virginia Berninger, showed that not only did students in grades 2, 4, and 6 show greater writing ability with an increase in complexity, but they also were able to do it faster than those students who primarily used keyboarding skills. Writing competency with an increasing level of complexity is a standard highlighted within the CCSS.
The ability to competently handwrite has positive impacts throughout the life of the learner. Additionally, research asserts that students who do not write by hand have difficulties with processes needed for reading and writing. These processes include: retrieving letters from memory, forming letters on paper, spelling accurately, extracting meaning from texts or lectures, and having the ability to interpret the context of words and phrases.
Neurological processes show a positive impact from handwriting. fMRIs show that the brain is more actively engaged when handwriting is the modality in which writing is being done. Young children who were printing letters were seen on fMRIs as having similar brain activity as that of adults. Cursive writing was shown to be superior, activating the brain in the visual regions over printing, typing, tracing, and visual identification. Doctors have discovered through these fMRIs that the act of writing by hand makes a significant difference in brain activity patterns. Doctors have also discovered that a child’s corticospinal tract, which impacts fine motor skills, does not fully develop in the brain until the age of ten. This discovery should make educators universally choose to spend the time, energy, and effort to teach handwriting beyond first grade.
There is a body of research that is being supported by fMRIs showing the link between handwriting and the lightening of a student’s cognitive load. When students are able to write with automaticity, the students are able to devote higher levels of neurological resources to critical thinking and thought organization. However, if students lack this ability to write with automaticity and fluency their ability to carry out a higher order thinking skills is diminished.
The goal of the Common Core Standards is to build a solid academic foundation that prepares students for college and career. When students are taught handwriting it gives them the tools to more efficiently perform higher-level thinking skills required in all subject areas. Being a more successful and efficient thinker in all areas as a result of consistent handwriting leads to better grades, better test scores, and better overall academic performance. When our students perform better academically, they will be prepared for college and career in a 21st century, globally competitive society.
Occupational medicine specialist and professor, Dr. Gerry Conti, asserts “Illegible handwriting is a problem for a large number of children…it can affect children not only personally (their self-esteem), but also academically, and their careers in the future.”
January 23rd is right around the corner. Go and celebrate National Handwriting Day and write. Increase your brain function as well as model this critically important skill for the students you seek to impact. In recognizing this special day, it is the goal of the WIMA to “give a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting.” How can you celebrate? The WIMA suggests that you pick up a pen or pencil and put it to paper. So get off the computer, start writing, and go make John Hancock proud!
- Berninger, V. “Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K–5: Teaching the Orthographic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters So Developing Writers Can Spell Words and Express Ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
- Case-Smith, J. “Benefits of an OT/Teacher Model for First Grade Handwriting Instruction.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
- Case-Smith, J. “21st Century Handwriting Summit.” All Sides with Ann Fisher, January 17, 2012, http://beta.wosu.org/allsides/21st-century-handwriting-summit/
- Conti, G. “Handwriting Characteristics and the Prediction of Illegibility in Third and Fifth Grade Students.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
- Graham, S., and Santangelo, T. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Teaching Handwriting.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
- James, K.H. “How Printing Practice Affects Letter Perception: An Educational Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing.” Washington D.C.: 2010.
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts,” Appendix A. Washington D.C.: 2010.
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts,” Introduction. Washington D.C.: 2010.
- Peverly, S. “The Relationship of Transcription Speed and Other Cognitive Variables to Note-Taking and Test Performance.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.