by Diana Hanbury King
“I didn’t even have to think about the steps. You know, muscles have a memory and they took over.”
“Only three fingers write, but the whole body works.”
The motor memory, the brain/hand connection, is the most powerful of our memories. It enables us to learn to swim, ski, ride horseback, play tennis, and dance. It is the way musicians learn their pieces, actors memorize their parts, and even how we drive our cars.
Before seatbelts were invented, we parents developed a powerful reflex: Put on the brakes and fling out the right hand to hold the child in the seat—useless, of course. But for many years, even after my children were in college, that hand would fly out and belt my passenger in the chest. Motor memory is persistent.
While the computer rules these days, there are crucial cognitive benefits that are lost when handwriting goes (Berninger, 2012; Zubrzycki, 2012). Forming letters by hand engages more networks (Berninger, 2012) within the brain than keyboarding. Children who learn letter formation learn to recognize letters more quickly (Berninger, 2013). Children generate ideas more easily when writing by hand (Berninger, 2012). Finally, it makes for better recall.
A study of 300 students at Princeton and at UCLA established that those who took notes by hand had significantly better recall and comprehension of the material than those who took notes with keyboards (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum has dropped cursive writing altogether and suggests that printing (i.e., manuscript letter formation) be taught only in kindergarten and first grade; thereafter, the stress is to be placed on developing keyboarding skills. Well, that’s bad enough. But worse is that teachers are not taught how to teach letter formation (Berninger, 2013; Graham, 2009-2010) even for printing (manuscript), and they are provided with no materials.
I have often asked an audience of teachers, “How many lower-case printed letters begin on the line?” I wait out the silence and watch them mentally scrolling through the alphabet. Finally, one of them says, ”None of them?”
The perception that children will pick up letter formation by osmosis is erroneous. Incorrect letter formations learned at home, in preschool, or in kindergarten are incredibly difficult to remediate.
Maria Montessori believed that writing of single letters could begin with three or four-year-olds. She noted that children try to write before they begin to read.
In Latvia, I watched some very young children practicing “tall grass” and “short grass,” always from the top down, and circles moving in a counter-clockwise direction. All this was in preparation for learning to form letters the following year.
At first, forget about lines. Mildred Plunkett wrote, “Alignment is necessary, but it is the final achievement. At the beginning of corrective work, limitation by lines would only increase tension because it would necessitate an added control.”
At first the young student should work in trays of rice, lentils, shaving cream, finger paint, or sand—don’t use sandpaper on those delicate fingertips. Tracing should be done with two fingers to provide the strongest feedback. Then move on to slates, or best of all, standing up at a whiteboard, chalkboard, or easel using colored markers or chalk.
While standing, the student should practice the four-step multisensory procedure known as “Trace. Copy. Cover. Closed.”
- The teacher makes the model at least 8 inches tall, naming the letter aloud as it is formed. The student traces it several times, while naming it aloud.
- The student copies it several times, while naming it.
- The model is erased, and the student forms the letter from memory, while naming it.
- Finally, the student forms and names the letter with eyes closed or averted. This is an essential step and one that children enjoy, often asking excitedly, “Can I do it now with my eyes closed?” or exclaiming, “Look! I did it without looking!”
One of the disadvantages of print (manuscript) letter formations is that some letters are easily reversed or inverted (e.g., b and d; p and q; and sometimes t and f). For these easily confused letters, it is important to teach students to use a mnemonic. If b and d are both started from the top, they are more likely to be reversed, so begin b at the top (“b is tall and has a ball.”) and begin d like a c (“d is the cd letter. Make the c, then go up and down to finish it.”). For p and q, we sometimes use a mnemonic that delights young children, “When you pee, you pee down.”
So “p goes down, bounces up and around.” Then “q starts like a, goes down and ends with a hook.”
Capitals, except for the capital letter I and the first letter of the child’s name, should be postponed until lower-case letter formations are firmly established. The practice of displaying lower-case and capital letters together above the board as Aa,Bb,Cc etc. may confuse young children. The upper-case and lower-case alphabets should be displayed separately; in kindergarten, the upper-case letters should be hidden until Spring.
Kindergarten children who have established a formation for each lower-case letter are more likely to succeed not only in first grade but also throughout elementary school.
Time spent in making this happen is time well invested.
Berninger, V.W. (March 2013). Educating Students in the Computer Age to Be Multilingual by Hand. Commentaries (National Association of State Boards of Education), 19 (1).
Berninger, V.W. (May-June 2012). Strengthening the Mind’s Eye: The Case for Continued Handwriting Instruction in the 21st Century. Principal, 28-31.
Graham.S. (Winter 2009-2010). Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting. American Educator, 20-27, 40.
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.
Zubrzycki, J. (January 23, 2012). Summit to Make a Case for Teaching Handwriting. Education Week, 31 (Issue 18), 1,13.
Diana Hanbury King, Lit.hum.Dr.h.c., F/AOGPE, was the founder of Camp Dunnabeck in 1965 and co-founder of The Kildonan School in 1969. She was a Founding Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators(AOGPE). Her vision created cutting edge education for students with dyslexia, and she developed a program for training teachers at Kildonan that has become a model program. Dr. King has also published teaching materials, particularly in the area of written language skills, that have been used by thousands of educators throughout the world. The International Dyslexia Association awarded her the Samuel T. Orton Award in 1990 in recognition of her gifted teaching that “has enhanced beyond measure the quality of life for a myriad of dyslexic students and their families.” In 2013, she was awarded the Margaret Byrd Rawson Lifetime Achievement Award by IDA in recognition of her compassion, leadership, commitment to excellence, advocacy for people with dyslexia, and work nationally recognized as furthering the mission of IDA.
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