Most parents today likely learned to write first in print, then cursive and finally – maybe years after those skills were in place – on a computer. Today, with students as young as kindergarten working on devices in the classroom, that sequence looks different.
In our digital age, it makes sense for schools to incorporate typing and touchscreens into the day. Yet experts say handwriting is a fundamental skill that contributes to literacy. Further, it’s a skill that may have gotten lost – or at least deprioritized – during remote learning. And even with schools back in session, much of the technology that was implemented in response to the pandemic remains. According to an EdWeek Research Center survey, 84% of teachers said that elementary schools in their district had at least one device per child by March 2021.
Now may be a good time to take stock of your child’s handwriting development as they learn to print, and address any concerns with their teachers (or their pediatrician, if a learning disability like dysgraphia is suspected).
Why Handwriting Matters
Lisa Fiore, a professor and chair of the education department at Lesley University, says writing by hand activates parts of the brain that aren’t used while passively watching something, typing on a keyboard or even tracing letters. Fiore also notes that as children learn to read and write, their brains begin to group together different categories of information and understand their meaning. She points out that four different characters – uppercase and lowercase in print and cursive – can represent a single letter. “We somehow learn to recognize they’re all the same category, the letter A,” she says.
This categorizing is part of the process of letter recognition, and later, reading. Writing letters on paper further develops and encodes new neural connections, which helps with future recognition of these letters, Fiore explains. “The more we have these opportunities to open our brain up through these stimulating types of activities, the better.”
Handwriting is also connected to executive functioning, says Laurel Griffiths, director of family services at the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit that supports gifted youth. “You’re organizing, prioritizing and filtering through your thoughts just to do typical executive functioning; writing asks you to do all of that plus put it all down on paper.”
In short, handwriting is a complex skill. Yet Fiore notes that many schools (and by extension, parents) are setting handwriting learning goals that may be out of sync with where students are developmentally.
“I do feel like children are being expected to be able to produce capital letters, lowercase letters, certainly by age 4,” she says, which is before some children have the fine motor skills necessary to accomplish this. “We need to try to remind ourselves… to calibrate our expectations with human development.”
And kids with dysgraphia or other learning differences that make handwriting difficult may need special accommodations, experts say – including being able to work on computers.
The Impact of COVID-19 Disruptions on Learning to Print
Teachers in the early grades aren’t only looking at a child’s ability to hold a pencil and write their name, according to Ann Walsh, a kindergarten teacher at the Roger Wellington Elementary School in Belmont, Massachusetts. “We also look at fine motor strength in other activities,” she wrote in an email, “such as using tweezers, picking up small pieces, and the ability to draw a person with at least five body parts.”
Walsh’s school uses the Fundations literacy program, which includes handwriting lessons, in addition to supplemental lessons by Handwriting Without Tears. She sees differences in her current students’ abilities around handwriting and literacy compared to their peers pre-pandemic, noting that students this year had “much weaker fine motor skills than in years past, and also … little exposure to lowercase letters.” Walsh said the school adapted the curriculum in response, and an occupational therapist is advising teachers on incorporating activities that build kids’ fine motor muscles.
Walsh says the fact that many students skipped preschool during the pandemic could be contributing to the changes she’s seen in the classroom. Concerns about the impact of COVID-19 school closures on students’ writing abilities aren’t limited to the US; In a recent UK survey, 83% of teachers and school leaders said pandemics had a negative effect on their students’ handwriting habits.
But Fiore says that parents don’t need to worry too much, as kids will have plenty of opportunities to work on skills they may have missed. “There’s nothing that can’t be taught later,” she says.
How Parents and Caregivers Can Help
Walsh says parents who are concerned about their child’s handwriting should start by talking to the teacher, who can provide specific feedback on a child’s abilities and development in this area. The teacher may suggest activities that build their muscles without writing, such as “flipping over pennies, using small golf-sized pencils or broken crayons, ripping paper (and) playing games with smaller pieces,” she says.
Helping children think about handwriting as an everyday, fun activity instead of a chore is an approach that Fiore encourages as well. Pointing out letters or words while out on a walk or a drive can help build kids’ interest. When outside, they can practice forming letters in the sand, mud or snow, or by arranging leaves and rocks – all strategies that provide a tangible experience a keyboard won’t.
Giving children notebooks in the grocery story and copying the letters they see on labels is another strategy Fiore recommends. “They can be little word detectives,” she says.
- Learning Without Tears offers a variety of free resources for teachers and parents, including activities to build fine motor skills at home.
- Here are additional ideas for practicing at home from educational publisher Scholastic.
- Sesame Street has a fun activity for saving children’s signatures as they develop.
- The website Dysgraphia Life offers tips for parents to help children with a writing disability.