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With more and more learning occurring in digital environments, some may believe that spending precious instructional time on handwriting skills doesn’t make sense. But research suggests that handwriting skills can help develop critical thinking, and that instruction and practice in handwriting can more effectively connect reading with writing.
According to the National Reading Panel, letter knowledge is one of the two best predictors of reading proficiency, and it has been noted that the coordinated physical movement developed in learning handwriting helps students recognize letters as they read. And while it is widely known that reading and writing are naturally linked, research also supports the idea that handwriting skills play an important role in overall academic achievement.
Let’s take a closer look at how handwriting skills benefit students in and outside of school, as well as explore a handwriting method that can help students become agile writers and engaged, critical thinkers.
Learning to write is a gradual process, and it takes a number of years for students to develop legibility, fluency, and automaticity (fast, effortless word recognition) when they write. Studies suggest that the motor training involved in learning handwriting skills plays a crucial role in increasing mental representations of letters and may prevent graphic and spatial difficulties in students’ abilities across content areas. Students may also become better spellers because they have increased practice in learning how letters fit together to form words. Additionally, instruction in cursive handwriting helps students avoid writing letters backwards and can help them become better writers overall. Students who learn handwriting more easily grasp skills related to syntax.
The complex task of learning to put pen or pencil to paper affects students’ self-esteem as well as their academic success. Fine-motor control, bilateral and visual-motor integration, motor planning, in-hand manipulation, visual perception, sustained attention, and sensory awareness of the fingers work together to help students feel accomplished. Despite the widespread use of computers, legible handwriting is a skill in which students feel pride. Some argue that not all correspondence should be in the form of a typed file, an email, or a text. Moreover, we still live in a world where we have to sign our names on legal documents and where grandparents cherish handwritten thank-you notes!
“Despite the widespread use of computers, legible handwriting is a skill in which students feel pride.”
As a first-grade teacher, Donald Neal Thurber found that students struggled with learning curved and slanted cursive writing after having been taught to print using the traditional ball-and-stick method. He developed the D’Nealian method, which eliminates the inconsistencies in traditional handwriting instruction by using a unique, lowercase manuscript alphabet that is easy to write and that leads seamlessly into cursive writing.
Most letters are formed using a continuous stroke, so that rhythm — an essential part of cursive instruction — develops in young writers from the very beginning. Most D’Nealian lowercase letters are forms of corresponding cursive letters, so as students transition to cursive writing, basic patterns are already internalized. A few connecting strokes provide the links that allow manuscript writing to become fluent cursive writing.
While the D’Nealian method stresses legibility and provides precise, detailed models for students to imitate, it also recognizes that writing is an individual product. Thurber understood that beginning students are highly motivated to write, so his method builds on that motivation by honoring the fact that each student’s writing can and will look different. He maintained, however, that if teachers focused on consistent slant, size, and spacing, legibility would follow. The ultimate goal of the D’Nealian method is for students to enjoy writing, and Thurber fully recognized that students are happier when their efforts to improve are measured against themselves and not in competition with others.
“But do students really use handwriting as they become older? The answer is a resounding YES!”
The D’Nealian method produces eager, motivated writers, but it also produces agile writers — those who can put forth ideas with ease, automaticity, and fluency in a variety of writing environments. Educators recognize that handwriting agility is a critical skill. Fluent cursive writing has consistently predicted both higher spelling and composing skills at every grade. But do students really use handwriting as they become older? The answer is a resounding YES!
Studies show that handwriting continues to develop through middle school, and students today continue to write much of their schoolwork by hand, despite the availability of computers. They take notes, do homework, and write papers in cursive. They certainly do more writing in preparation for assessments. Nowhere is handwriting fluency more consequential than in timed-writing assignments and tests, where the quality of students’ handwriting directly affects their performance. The College Board has found that students who write in cursive on the essay portion of their admissions test score higher than those who print.
“The College Board has found that students who write in cursive on the essay portion of their admissions test score higher than those who print.”
Studies have additionally demonstrated that handwriting fluency strongly predicts students’ ability to produce more complex written text. In fact, handwriting fluency can lead to an increased quality of written compositions. When students write with fluency and agility, their cognitive load is decreased, freeing up memory to focus on higher-level writing tasks, including constructing clear sentences that effectively communicate ideas.
Communicating ideas well is the hallmark of successful people, both in and out of school. D’Nealian Handwriting ©2022 is an interactive, print and digital program that, through a streamlined routine, supports teachers and students by offering a complete audio, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic approach to teaching manuscript and cursive handwriting. The program fully supports 21st-century learners in their journey to becoming critical thinkers and engaged, agile writers.