Practice Handwriting on the iPad

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April-May 2015

By Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat: Practice Handwriting on the iPad

Attention: parents, educators, and tutors! If your child or student spends just 10 minutes a day in a simple activity that would strengthen cognitive development and achievement in all academic areas, would you make time for this in your busy schedule? Of course you would. Consider this: Replace unproductive “down” time with handwriting practice. Imagine kids quietly practicing handwriting instead of idly waiting between activities. It’s a win-win situation for all!

Simply provide daily time to practice writing individual letters, words, phrases, and sentences. This does not involve composing original text (e.g., writing in journals that involves thinking time); instead, the focus is on learning to form letters and development of automatic letter formation skills. Developing automaticity in forming individual letters and connecting cursive letters is crucial, but frequently neglected.

You may feel that legible handwriting in both manuscript and cursive is an outdated relic from bygone days and is no longer necessary in today’s world of technology. For cursive, I would argue that a person who cannot read and express himself or herself in all written forms of a language is not fully literate. I recently heard an interview by a renowned scientist who received a request for information from a child. “But please don’t write in cursive,” the child implored, “because I cannot read cursive.” The scientist thought it was funny, but I thought it was tragic. Here was a child who wanted to learn more about advanced science, but was not fully literate in his own language.

For a variety of reasons, handwriting has been reduced to secondary status in educational standards, K-12 instruction, and university teacher preparation courses. This practice disregards some compelling facts:

  • Poor handwriting costs businesses and government agencies millions of dollars annually through poorly written phone numbers, mailing addresses, tax returns, etc. (Wolf, 2011).
  • Automatic letter formation reduces reversals and letter confusions (e.g., b and d, p and q, h and n) (Wolf, 2011).
  • In a study by James and Engelhardt (2012), when pre-literate children wrote letters in freehand, it activated the brain’s reading and writing circuit. In contrast, when the children typed or traced letters, this “literacy circuit” did not activate.
  • When handwriting becomes fluent and automatic, people have more mental resources available to transform ideas into print, increasing both the quality and quantity of writing (Graham and Santagelo, as cited in Saperstein Associates, 2012).
  • Without consistent exposure to handwriting, people have difficulty remembering how to form letters, reproduce letters, spell accurately, extract meaning from text or a lecture, and interpret the context of words and phrases (Saperstein Associates, 2012).
  • College students who took notes in longhand performed better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on laptops (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

This last item inspired me to require students in my university teacher preparation courses to take notes in longhand.

For students with dysgraphia—a specific learning disability of impaired handwriting and/or spelling—early intervention with specialized instruction is a vital, non-negotiable part of literacy instruction. For a concise discussion of dysgraphia identification and instruction, download the free IDA Fact Sheet, “Understanding Dysgraphia,” from the website of the International Dyslexia Association (

Researchers and education thought leaders convened in Washington D.C. for “Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit” on January 23, 2012 to discuss research and opinions regarding the role of handwriting instruction in the 21st century classroom. For proposed PreK-8 Written Language Production Standards and handwriting facts related to general education, go to

Selecting Apps

This review includes several different sections:

  • Highlights apps that include freehand formation practice.
    Research suggests that forming letters freehand activates the reading and writing brain circuits, whereas merely tracing does not.
  • Includes writing styli.
    The best stylus enables one to write more precisely than with a finger, and it also provides a writing utensil experience that will better facilitate skill transfer to paper writing tasks.
  • Includes apps that transform handwritten notes into printed text.
    As a “techie,” I can understand why some of my university students were distraught when I required note-taking in longhand. After all, it is so much easier to retrieve and study electronic notes than handwritten notes. Letter recognition apps that transform handwriting into printed text offer a compromise.


Letter Formation Apps (Latin or Roman Script)

There are two major issues to consider when choosing letter formation apps:

1. Developers often include letter-sound associations instead of linking the letter name with its shape.

  • More often than not, vowel letters are indicated by long vowel sounds, not the short vowel sounds in closed syllable words appropriate for beginning readers.
  • The letter x is frequently associated with /z/ as in xylophone, rather than /ks/ as in fox, the most common sounds associated with x and most appropriate for beginning readers.

2. The apps do not include free-hand practice activities, but only letter recognition or tracing activities. If an app had both of these issues, it was not included in this list.

  • Handwriting Without Tears: Wet Dry Try by No Tears Learning ($4.99)

This is my all-time favorite app for practicing letter formation. It gives clear verbal instructions, models each stroke clearly, and provides both tracing and freehand practice. The oral feedback is both prompt and specific (e.g., “Don’t go outside the line!”). In addition, the app allows each student in a classroom to sign in and practice letters while the app records progress and errors. Via the Live Insights website, the instructor can access reports, view graphs, and analyze the data for each student individually or collectively as a class. Cons: None. I wish the developers would make a cursive version!

  • Writing Wizard and Cursive Writing Wizard by L’Escapadou ($4.99) Uppercase and Lowercase Letters.

This app pronounces the name of the letter before modeling the strokes; thus, it links the name of the letter with the shape, provides accurate and common related sounds associated with the letter, and gives immediate corrective feedback. One can customize the font style, size and writing image (colorful stickers or plain pen tip), and add custom words with audio. Under Profiles and Reports, the data collection feature tracks the progress of unlimited users. There are many other customization options as well. Cons: It does not provide an opportunity for freehand practice.

  • StarDot Handwriting by TrishCO ($4.99)
    This app has two learning sequences: “kinesthetic” (arranged by common shape) and alphabetical order. It supports unlimited users and provides reports. The website has printable worksheets. Cons: There is no immediate corrective feedback. One can write very poorly and still be rewarded.
  • LetterSchool by Boreaal ($4.99)
    This engaging app provides three modes of progressively more difficult letter formation practice with immediate corrective feedback. The final version is a freehand mode. Cons: Some vowels are represented by long vowel sounds; the keyword for x is “xylophone“ /z/ rather than “box” /ks/.
  • J’écris en cursive-apprendre à écrire by L’Escapadou (4,99 €)
    The developer is a native French speaker. This version is comparable to the English versions

Handwriting Recognition Apps

Once letter formation has become accurate and fluent, one can use handwriting recognition apps for note-taking when voice recognition apps are not appropriate. Digital keyboards cannot match the speed or versatility of writing by hand, particularly when using cursive script. These apps transform handwriting into text. A feature called “palm guard” allows the user to rest one’s palm on the tablet surface without creating errors.

  • Notes Plus by WritePad Pro ($9.99 plus $2.99 for the handwriting recognition add on)
    This app produces standard HTML document files that can be viewed on any computer using practically any internet browser. You can also export documents as PDF files and translate to other languages. This app learns to recognize your handwriting and vocabulary, and offers multilingual support in English (UK, US), German, French, Spanish, Portuguese (BR, EU), Italian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish. It also features a spell checker with a customizable auto-corrector (although on the website, the word “corrector” was misspelled!).
  • My Script Smart Note by My Script (free, with premium in-app purchase)
    This app turns handwritten words (in 54 languages) and math formulas into text. It also can display a word’s definition, search with a web browser, or send a page or notebook to a contact name in your address book. One can add voice recordings and images into the text. Just as with word-processed text, one can search terms within the text. The free version includes one notebook (10 pages). The premium (paid) version has unlimited pages, enables the user to print pages, and connects with several other apps.
  • My Script Memo by My Script (free, with premium in-app purchase)
    This app is also available in Android, although with lower ratings. This note-taking app does not require perfect handwriting. It supports handwriting recognition in 31 languages and various scripts (e.g., Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). It can be adapted for left- and right-handed users. Another helpful feature is the personal word bank that recognizes the user’s vocabulary.
  • My Script Calculator by My Script (free)
    This app allows one to write the mathematical expression on the screen. The app converts symbols and numbers to digital text and then performs the calculation. It is much faster than a calculator with a keyboard! Sloppy handwriting is not recognized, so this is the perfect app for perfecting digit formation skills.


Writing Styli

  • Cosmonaut ($25.00)
    This stylus has a thick, wide-grip device akin to a dry-erase marker, which may make it the best app for children were it not for the price! It has a rigid tip that requires more pressure than a conventional soft tip.
  • Adonit Jot Pro Fine Point Stylus for Apple, Android, Kindle, Samsung and Windows Tablets ($29.95)
    The Jot Script is 15 inches long and has the natural feel of a real pen, although it is wider in order to accommodate the battery and electronics inside. It has a small tip like a pen or pencil instead of a fat rubber tip. It requires power to work (i.e., a single AAA battery), so you must have a spare battery available. It will work on a variety of touch screens, including Android tablets and smartphones. The stylus has two modes of operation: battery power and Bluetooth. The battery power mode gives the user a writing experience that is akin to pen on paper. Without power, stylus tips need to be much fatter (like a fingertip) to be registered on the screen. The Bluetooth enables the device to connect with compatible applications like Evernote and GoodNotes. The precision tips deteriorate with time, and you must purchase spares. These tips can detach unexpectedly, so use the protective cap.
  • Adonit Jot Mini Fine Point Stylus ($19.95)
    This is a smaller, portable version of the Jot Pro. It has a small, circular disk on the point and may also take a bit of adjustment time.


Wolf, B.J. Teaching Handwriting. In Birsh, J.R. (2011). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, 3rd Ed. Baltimore, Paul H. Brookes, Inc.

James, K.H. and Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1) pp 32-42), ISSN 2211-9493,

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.

Saperstein Associates (2012). Handwriting in the 21st century? Research shows why handwriting belongs in today’s classroom. A summary of research presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit. Columbus, OH: Saperstein Associates. Retrieved from

Dr. Cheesman is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The courses she developed were among the first nine university programs officially recognized by the International Dyslexia Association for meeting the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

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