Teaching handwriting is one of the cornerstones of literacy because reading and writing are reciprocal skills. As students learn to spell words with the same phonetic patterns they are reading, it helps solidify their understanding. Automaticity and accuracy in letter formation frees up working memory. Then students can concentrate on what they are writing, rather than how.
Like everything literacy related, you can’t build on a shaky foundation.
Ideally, handwriting should be addressed in the early grades. Providing adequate instruction on letter formation helps prevent bad habits. Bad habits in letter formation include things like forming the letters from the bottom up, reversals, random capitals, and ‘drawing the letters’. Once these habits are formed it is difficult, but not impossible, to break them. It will require systematic, explicit instruction and plenty of opportunities to practice in order to rewire the muscle memory. The problem of improper letter formation will not resolve itself.
While letter formation can take time to reinforce, it is time well spent!
Letter formation by hand is a critical step in letter and word recognition, spelling accuracy, and writing fluency. It must be taught explicitly and to mastery. Letter formation must become part of the student’s muscle memory so there is one less thing to think about when writing.
Writing a single word is a compilation of several skills:
- Phonemic Awareness
- Correct Letter/Sound Correspondence
- Phonetic Patterns/Trick or Heart Word Recognition
- Letter formation
When a student is stuck on how to form the letter then everything else, including the spelling of a single word, is negatively impacted.
Instructional time devoted to handwriting leads to accurate and automatic letter formation. This is critical for freeing up working memory. Working memory is a finite resource. When students are asked to write anything, whether it be a story, an opinion piece, or a written response, it requires a lot of underlying steps for the final written piece to come together. These underlying skills include, letter formation, spelling, word choice, vocabulary, and grammar.
One way to free up cognitive resources in working memory is to ensure that letter formation is automatic. We often talk about cognitive energy which is basically one’s “brain space”. When a student can confidently and automatically form letters (and numbers) their brain space can then be dedicated to what they are trying to express rather than splitting their mental efforts between “how do I form the letter” and “what do I want to write”.
Students who are concentrating on what the letter looks like and how to form the letter are not concentrating on the what of writing, they are concentrating on the how.
How do I teach letter formation explicitly?
We follow the process as outlined by Fundations.
- Tell the student(s) the letter they will be learning today. “Today we will be writing the letter c.”
- Use a large spelling grid to demonstrate the formation.
- Write the letter and explicitly say the verbal pathway. “To make the letter c start at the plane line and fly backwards. Go down and around to the grass line and stop.”
- Then say, “c, cat, /k/.”
- Before the students write on their grids, incorporate some gross motor practice. Have students Sky Write by forming the letter in the air, using their entire arm. As they are forming the letter, they repeat c, cat, /k/. Use the Sky Write approach the first few times a letter is introduced. This method is helpful if extra support with particular letter(s) is needed (i.e. b/d).
- Students then write the letter on their grids saying, “c, cat, /k/.”
- Once this process is complete, be sure to provide many opportunities for practice, including letter formation booklets, multisensory approaches, and games.
Explicitly teaching letter formation can reduce letter reversals.
B/d letter reversals, while common in Grades K and 1, tend be a bit more of a concern as students move beyond first grade. In the intervention setting, many of our students have difficulty reading and writing “b” and “d”. There are a number of visual and motor-based prompts to remediate reversals. Forming these letters with different verbal pathways is helpful. We will be addressing letter reversals specifically in an upcoming post.
Why is handwriting still important in the digital age?
As we stated in the beginning of this post, reading and writing are reciprocal skills. Physically forming letters offers a multisensory approach that can help activate areas of the brain connected to reading. Multisensory learning presents information through various modalities. When that happens, students typically retain that information more efficiently.
This quote from an article written for Understood.org by Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD perfectly explains the process: “Handwriting is a multisensory activity. As you form each letter, your hands shares information with language processing areas in your brain. As your eyes track what you’re writing, you engage these areas. The same goes if you say letter sounds and words when you write.”
Technology can greatly reduce the physical stress for students with fine motor concerns and can serve as a helpful accommodation. However, assistive technology should never take the place of direct handwriting practice and explicit instruction of letter formation. The importance of teaching handwriting cannot be underestimated. Handwriting is a form of literacy with a powerful connection to reading.