There are research-based practices related to handwriting and literacy instruction that pre-K and elementary teachers can use to help improve student outcomes. What follows are three questions educators might ask about effective handwriting and literacy instruction, followed by responses based on research in the area.
Why is it still important for students to develop handwriting skills?
Research clearly demonstrates the link between handwriting and academic achievement – even in this increasingly digital age.1, 2 Numerous studies have found that proper, early handwriting instruction not only improves legibility, it also improves the quantity and quality of children’s writing.3, 4 When children develop fluent, legible handwriting, they can better focus on generating and organizing ideas. They can also keep pace better with classroom instruction. The best way to develop this legibility is through carefully planned, explicit handwriting instruction.5
New research continues to demonstrate just how important fine motor skills and handwriting readiness is for children entering school and how critical such readiness can be for improving academic skills in the long-term. 6, 7, 8 As education experts Steve Graham and Karen Harris have so emphatically stated, “Acquiring strong writing skills is not an option for young people today, it is a necessity. It is critical to success at school, in the workplace, and in the community.”2
In addition to helping students better concentrate on generating and organizing ideas while writing, effective handwriting instruction also helps children develop reading skills. One reason is that handwriting experience helps build letter categorization ability in young children. This ability to categorize and understand letters is a strong predictor of reading success.3, 8 Increased handwriting practice and learning multiple examples of letters in various ways, is a highly effective method for teaching this letter knowledge. Additionally, handwriting experience helps establish the neural systems that underlie reading.9, 10 As an added bonus, there is evidence that improved handwriting skills lead to improved keyboarding skills.
Despite the clear research results, a decreasing amount of students have the requisite handwriting skills for academic achievement.11 As Dr. Steve Graham found in a nation-wide survey, only 39% of 1st – 3rd grade teachers reported that their students’ handwriting was adequate.5 Moreover, only 12% of teachers felt that they received adequate preparation in their college education courses to teach handwriting skills.
What is the connection between fine motor skills and academics?
It is important that children develop innate physiological and neurological abilities that help them discover a vast world of possibilities. The fine finger motor skills developed by using a proper pencil grip while practicing drawing and writing increase the brain’s capacity for learning. Fine motor skills have been shown to underpin school readiness in at least two areas: self-regulation and emergent literacy and numeracy. For example, one recent study found that children whose motor skills were rated “good” by their teachers paid better attention in class than students with less optimal motor skills.12 Other studies have drawn a distinct correlation between fine motor skills and emergent literacy skills – including reading and writing.13
In addition to the more immediate benefits, a review of research from the past two decades draws a clear connection between fine motor skill development in early life and future success in math, science and reading. Several longitudinal studies have established a robust association between well-developed fine motor skills and academic achievement.14, 15, 16, 17 For example, one study found that children who had developed strong fine motor skills at age 5 performed better than peers with weak motor skills in both math and reading at ages 6, 8, and 10.16
Developing fine motor skills, self-regulation and attention, and emergent literacy and numeracy leads to improved outcomes for students academically, socially, and emotionally. Indeed, when attention, fine motor skills and general knowledge are grouped together, they are much stronger predictors for later math, reading and science achievement than early math and reading scores alone.18 Children with highly developed fine motor skills also demonstrate higher self-confidence and stronger social skills.15
How does Drawn To Discover accomplish these goals?
Creative thinking and problem solving are more important than ever in this digital age, where automation is taking the place of unskilled, and even skilled, labor. That is why we focus on building brainpower. For young children, building that brainpower starts with fine motor skills. It starts with the fingers and thumb manipulating the world and establishing important neural pathways. Drawn To Discover’s mission is to manifest creativity and self-confidence through interactive drawing and writing lessons. The lessons are designed to develop fine motor skills, handwriting, and visual literacy while teaching art, math, science, and more.
Drawn to Discover was born out of the teaching and research of renowned children’s book author and artist, Wendy Anderson Halperin. Wendy has been working in classrooms for over 20 years through her non-profit, Drawing Children Into Reading (DCIR), opening up the creative and cognitive abilities of children through the joy of art and fine motor development. Wendy builds the confidence of children starting with simple drawings of dogs, bees, mice, pencils, and other geometric shapes. Within a short period of time, children are drawing and writing reports about geometry, science, literature, social studies, and engineering.
Drawn To Discover lessons are built upon a solid research foundation and its outcomes are supported by preliminary studies.19, 20, 21, 22 For example, in a longitudinal study examining the effects of the DCIR program with 1st – 3rd grade students, researchers found positive outcomes such as improved pencil grip, penmanship, and composition skills.22 Two groups of students were compared in the 3rd grade: one group who received a weekly, 70-minute drawing lesson from Wendy Halperin for two years (Kindergarten and 1st grade) and a control group who did not receive the lessons. Participating students demonstrated superior penmanship, story writing, observation skills, and performance on the statewide reading assessment.
Additionally, ongoing research measuring the impact of this program on student outcomes is being conducted. Early results are promising. For example, in a multi-state survey conducted with experienced elementary school teachers during the Fall of 2018, teachers reported positive results from using the lessons in their classrooms on a weekly or biweekly basis.20 A large majority of teachers rated Drawn To Discover lessons as high quality and agreed that students benefit from these lessons, learning useful knowledge and skills. Teachers reported that the lessons are “much better and more engaging” than other methods of teaching handwriting skills.
In the survey, teachers also agreed that Drawn To Discover lessons are a valuable use of class time. Given the number of demands placed on teachers and the limited time and resources they have to achieve them, this is very encouraging. Furthermore, all teachers agreed that students enjoy the lessons and that they are fully engaged and on task. As one teacher noted, “One of the biggest benefits, in addition to improving their handwriting and pencil grip, is the ability to work quietly for 50 – 60 minutes and attend to the instructional video!” Keeping K-3 students on task is no small feat. And, as neuroscientist Dr. Karin James has elaborated, it is very important for children’s letter learning to be fun.21 The more they enjoy these handwriting experiences, the more motivated they will be to create them on their own.
A growing body of research helps us understand what practices are effective for teaching pre-K and elementary students necessary handwriting and literacy skills. The question-and-answer segment summarizes key information available from the research literature. Although there is much more to learn about handwriting and literacy instruction, the information that currently exists offers educators a solid foundation to implement programs that promote success for all students.
Children have a natural desire to create and to express themselves. Drawn To Discover is a tool to help teachers foster such creativity while simultaneously developing essential knowledge and skills for long-term, academic success
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- Dinehart, L. H. & Manfra, L. (2013) Association between early fine motor development and later math and reading achievement in early elementary school. Early Education and Development 24(2), 138–161.
- Graham, S. & Harris, K.R. (2014). Fostering budding writers. Observer, 27(7). Retrieved from: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/fostering-budding-writers
- Li, J. X. & James, K. H. (2016). Handwriting generates variable visual output to facilitate symbol learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(3), 298-313.
- Graham, S. (2009/2010). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. American Educator, 33, 20-27.
- Dinehart, L.H. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood: Current research and future implications. Journal f Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 97-118.
- Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Adkins, (2018). The impact of supplemental handwriting and spelling instruction with first grade students who do not acquire transcription skills as rapidly as peers: a randomized control trial. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31, 1273-1294.
- Maldarelli, J. E., Kahrs, B. A., Hunt, S. C., & Lockman, J. J. (2015). Devlopment of early handwriting: Visual-motor control during letter copying. Developmental Psychology, 51(7), 879-888.
- Scanlon, D. M., & Vellutino, F. R. (1996). Prerequisite skills, early instruction, and success in first grade reading: Selected results from a longitudinal study. Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities, 2, 54–63.
- James, K. H. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13, 279–288.
- James, K. H. & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 32–42.
- Brown, S. L. (2017, November 13). iPad generation’s fingers not ready to write teachers say. ABC Radio Melbourne. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-14/ipad-generations-fingers-not-ready-to-write/9143880
- Kim, H., Murrah, W. M. Cameron, C. E., Brock, L. L. Cottone, E. A., & Grissmer, D. W. (2015). Psychometric properties of the teacher-reported motor skills rating scale. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 33(7), 640-651.
- Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Brock, L. L., Murrah, W. M., Cottone, E. A., Mashburn, A. J., & Grissmer, D. W. (2018). An after-school intervention targeting executive function and visuospatial skills also improves classroom behavior. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 42(5), 474-484.
- Cameron, C. E., Cottone, E. A., Murrah, W. M., & Grissmer, D. W. (2016). How are motor skills linked to children’s school performance and academic achievement? Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 93-98.
- Murrah, W. M. (2010). Comparing self-regulatory and early academic skills as predictors of later math, reading, and science elementary school achievement. Dissertation Abstracts International (Order No. 3435992). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (816604073).
- Kim, H., Duran, C. A., Cameron, C. E., & Grissmer, D. (2015, May). Longitudinal relations among sensorimotor coordination, visual attention and perception, Visuo-Motor Integration, and mathematics achievement in young children. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, New York, NY.
- Jenkins, B. (2012, April 19). The motor-cognitive connection: Early fine motor skills as an indicator of future success. [Web log post]. Retrieved from: https://www.scilearn.com/blog/early-fine-motor-skills-cognitive-skills
- DeFauw, D. L. (2016). Drawing Children Into Reading: A qualitative case study of a preschool drawing curriculum. Early Childhood Development and Care, 186(4), 624-641.
- Halperin, W. A., Smith, M. L., & Smith, R. L. (2013). Drawing Children Into Reading: Studies of art lessons’ effects on literacy. Social and Behavioral Sciences, 106, 901-927.
- Leigh, S.R. (2017). First grade children discover the power of expression by creating descriptive drawings. In R. Meyer & K. Whitmore (Eds.), Reclaiming Early Childhood Literacies: Narratives of Hope, Power, and Vision (pp. 141-149). New York: Routledge.
- Smith, M. L., & Smith, R. L. (2011). Drawing Children Into Reading: A study of art lessons’ effects on literacy. Michigan Reading Journal, 44(1), 11–19.
- Barrett, D. C. (2018) Drawn To Discover fall teacher survey report. Unpublished raw data.
- James, K. (personal communication, February 8, 2017).