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Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications

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Early fine motor writing skills are quickly becoming recognized as an important school readiness skill associated with later academic success (Dinehart and Manfra, 2013; Grissmer et al., 2010; Son and Meisels, 2006). Yet, little is known about the development of handwriting, the extent to which it is of value in the early childhood classroom and the best means by which to teach handwriting, or at least handwriting readiness, to young children. The current work reviews the literature on handwriting and its place in early childhood education. Overall, this article serves as a call for (a) researchers to continue examining the role of handwriting in the early education and development of young children and (b) practitioners to develop and implement programmes they know to be best practice in teaching early handwriting or handwriting ‘readiness’ skills.
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Journal of Early Childhood Literacy
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DOI: 10.1177/1468798414522825
published online 18 March 2014Journal of Early Childhood Literacy
Laura H Dinehart
implications
Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future
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DOI: 10.1177/1468798414522825
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Review Article
Handwriting in early
childhood education:
Current research and
future implications
Laura H Dinehart
Department of Teaching and Learning, Florida International
University, FL, USA
Abstract
Early fine motor writing skills are quickly becoming recognized as an important school
readiness skill associated with later academic success (Dinehart and Manfra, 2013;
Grissmer et al., 2010; Son and Meisels, 2006). Yet, little is known about the develop-
ment of handwriting, the extent to which it is of value in the early childhood classroom
and the best means by which to teach handwriting, or at least handwriting readiness, to
young children. The current work reviews the literature on handwriting and its place in
early childhood education. Overall, this ar ticle serves as a call for (a) researchers to
continue examining the role of handwriting in the early education and development of
young children and (b) practitioners to develop and implement programmes they know
to be best practice in teaching early handwriting or handwriting ‘readiness’ skills.
Keywords
beginning writing, children’s writing, early childhood literacy, early literacy development,
emergent writing, pre-school children, writing development
Introduction
Handwriting in the United States was once taught in schools as an individual
lesson receiving a separate grade on a child’s report card (Blazer, 2010). Yet,
over the last decade, and more recently since the adoption of the Common
Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
[NGA Center] and the Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2012),
Corresponding author:
Laura H Dinehart, Department of Teaching and Learning, Florida International University, 11200 SW
8th Street, ZEB 343A, Miami, FL 33199, USA.
Email: dinehart@fiu.edu
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the importance of handwriting in elementary education has diminished sig-
nificantly (Carpenter, 2007; Pressler, 2006). This is not unlike policies in
other nations, including England, where handwriting is perceived as having
a low status in literacy education (Medwell and Wray, 2008). In the United
States, schools are less likely to provide handwriting instruction than in pre-
vious years and few teachers today feel prepared to teach handwriting given
their preservice coursework and training (Graham et al., 2008). Despite the
shift away from handwriting and towards typing and standardized testing,
having a wide range of writing skills from the basic production of letters,
shapes and numbers to quality handwriting has been positively linked to
academic performance (Carlton and Winsler, 1999; Dinehart and Manfra,
2013; Feder and Majnemer, 2007; Grissmer et al., 2010; Jackman and
Stagniti, 2007; Kulp, 1999; Luo, Jose, Huntsinger and Pigott, 2007; Mayes
and Calhoun, 2007; Rosenblum et al., 2003; Son and Meisels, 2006; Sortor
and Kulp, 2003).
The current literature on handwriting primarily focuses on school-age chil-
dren in both clinical and non-clinical populations, and less so on the writing
skills of young children before they enter formal schooling. Yet, in early
childhood, developing ‘handwriting readiness’ may be beneficial for two rea-
sons: (1) recent evidence suggests that writing by hand in the early years
supports the development of reading skills (James and Engelhardt, 2012;
Longcamp et al., 2005) and (2) given the association between handwriting
and academic achievement, the development of ‘handwriting readiness’ skills
may increase the likelihood of academic success in later years. The current
article discusses the development of handwriting, conducts a review of the
current literature on handwriting and its application to young children, and
notes the implications for future research and ongoing practice in the early
education classroom.
The development of handwriting
Researchers have long used a variety of terms to describe the development of
handwriting. The concepts that most strictly define quality handwriting are
legibility and speed, and because young children rarely produce legible work
quickly, research has focused on handwriting, particularly in older children in
grades K–12. Yet, similar to other academic skills, such as reading and maths,
the development of handwriting, and the extent to which children are even-
tually able to produce legible writing at speed, requires the development of
foundational skills that probably begin well before a child enters kindergarten.
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Terms such as graphomotor skills, visual-motor integration and fine motor writing (Beery,
1997; Daly et al., 2003; Dinehart and Manfra, 2013) have all been used
interchangeably in the literature as acceptable parameters for evaluating writ-
ing readiness (Ratzon et al., 2007). Orthographic processing, or the coding of visual
symbols specific to symbols of letters, clusters of letters and words, is often
considered qualitatively different from the visual-spatial processing measured
by copying arbitrary patterns (Berninger, 1994; Berninger and Fuller, 1992;
Jones and Christensen, 1999). However, it should be noted that in young
children, performance on visual motor integration (VMI) (Beery, 1989)
strongly correlates with their ability to copy letter forms (Daly et al., 2003).
Producing legible writing quickly may feel like an automatic process for
most adults, but for young children, the development of handwriting is a
complex task requiring the coordination of several cognitive, motoric and
neuromotor processes (Smits-Engelsman et al., 2001). Children typically
begin experimenting with writing by the age of 2. Although early scribbles
lack the characteristics of conventional writing, Gombert and Fayol (1992)
found that more intentional scribbles contain some of the universal features of
writing including directionality and linearity. Eventually, children begin to
learn to write by copying geometric shapes including vertical strokes, hori-
zontal strokes, circles and perhaps most important to ‘writing readiness’ – the
oblique cross (Feder and Majnemer, 2007). Weil and Amundson (1994)
found that children who could copy the oblique cross among other less
complex symbols on the Developmental test of VMI (Beery, 1989) were able
to copy significantly more letters than children who were not successful in
copying those items.
As children age and their fine motor skills develop, they become more able
adequately to manipulate objects in their hands. Fine motor skills are a key
variable in handwriting development, as fine motor control has been impli-
cated in the writing errors commonly made by first graders (Feder and
Majnemer, 2007). Preschoolers have expectedly immature grasp compared
to their older counterparts which, in turn, impedes their ability to produce
letters accurately. As children gain greater exposure to and experience of
writing, letter forms, pseudo-letters or even actual letters particularly
those in their name begin to appear in their writing (Gombert and Fayol,
1992). Schickedanz (1999) argues that writing letters requires that children
have (1) a complete visual representation of each letter, (2) recognition of the
line segments that form the letter and (3) the ability to reproduce the
sequence and the direction with which the segments form the letter. In a
recent study of children’s early writing skills, Puranik and Lonigan (2011)
Dinehart 3
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found that approximately 77% of the three-year-olds sampled in their study
were able to produce some letters of the alphabet, and by age four and age
five, approximately 93% and 95%, respectively, were able to produce letters
accurately.
Children’s improved ability to write letters and complete more complex
writing tasks such as spelling and the production of complete and meaningful
sentences requires a more integrated knowledge system including the sym-
bolic nature of letters, letter-sound correspondences and knowledge of writing
conventions (Puranik and Lonigan, 2011). In elementary school, children’s
ability to produce automatically the letters of the alphabet, rapidly code ortho-
graphic information and execute sequential finger movements significantly
influenced the handwriting of first, second and third graders completing a
copying task (Berninger et al., 1992). As children’s skills continue to develop
over time, writing is used with increased frequency in the early childhood
classroom.
In 2003, Marr et al. reported that children in a preschool setting spent
approximately 37% of their day engaged in fine motor activities and only 10%
of those activities involved paper and pencil tasks. In kindergarten, the shift to
utilizing handwriting in the classroom was significant. Kindergartners spent
nearly half their day engaged in fine motor activities, of which 42% was spent
on paper and pencil tasks (Marr et al., 2003). Two years later, children in
second grade were found to spend as much as 30–60% of their day participat-
ing in an activity that required fine motor skills, of which 85% involved paper
and pencil tasks (McHale and Cermak, 1992). Although the increase in time
spent writing as children age is developmentally appropriate, the extent to
which preschoolers enter formal schooling prepared for the demands of
writing remains unclear (Marr et al., 2001).
Berninger and Fuller (1992) suggest that handwriting instruction may
be particularly challenging for students who lack foundational skills in
writing. Estimates suggest that handwriting difficulties range from 5% to
33% of school-age children (Hamstra-Bletz and Blote, 1993; Karlsdottir and
Stefansson, 2002; Rubin and Henderson, 1982; Smits-Engelsman et al., 2001),
many of whom are eventually referred for special education services (Baker
et al., 2003).
The link between handwriting and achievement
Writing skills have long been associated with various aspects of academic
achievement (Carlton and Winsler, 1999; Dinehart and Manfra, 2013;
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Grissmer et al., 2010; Keogh and Smith, 1967; Kulp, 1999; Luo et al., 2007;
Mayes and Calhoun, 2007; Son and Meisels, 2006; Sortor and Kulp, 2003).
Given there is some evidence of an association between VMI and handwriting
in young children, it is worth noting a few studies that have found associ-
ations between visual-motor performance and academic achievement. In kin-
dergartners, Keogh and Smith (1967) found that VMI performance on the
Bender Gestalt (Koppitz, 1964) was significantly associated with performance
on standardized testing instruments of achievement several years later. Kulp
(1999) obtained similar results, in which kindergartner’s performance on the
VMI significantly predicted achievement in reading, maths, writing and spel-
ling. In older children, scores on the VMI were no longer significantly asso-
ciated with reading achievement in second, third and fourth graders but
continued to be a significant predictor of maths achievement (Sortor and
Kulp, 2003).
Associations between academic achievement and graphomotor skills have
also been revealed in secondary data analyses. Both Luo et al. (2007) and Son
and Meisels (2006) found that fine motor skills, as measured by the Early
Screening Inventory-Revised (ESI-R; Meisels et al., 1997) in the Early
Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), was a significant predictor of
maths and reading achievement in kindergarten and first grade, respectively.
It should be noted that the ESI-R includes a fine motor manipulation task
(building a gate with blocks) and several fine motor writing tasks (drawing a
person and copying five basic figures). Grissmer et al. (2010) also found a
significant association between kindergartners’ fine motor skills and their
academic achievement utilizing data from the British Cohort Study, but
noted that copying an image involving various shapes, and utilizing a writing
utensil, appeared to be a stronger predictor of academic success in middle
school than other types of fine motor tasks.
Handwriting, defined more specifically as the ability to produce writing
legibly and quickly, has been consistently linked to composition skill through-
out development (Berninger et al, 1997; Connelly et al., 2005; Graham,
1999; Medwell and Wray, 2008). Puranik and Al Otaiba (2012) found that
handwriting and spelling were significant contributors to written expression
in kindergartners. The same was not true of oral language and reading ability.
In a group of 114 first graders, Jones and Christensen (1999) reported that
nearly 53% of the variance in children’s story-writing ability was accounted
for by the speed and legibility of the letters produced, and Berninger et al.
(1997) found that providing handwriting instruction significantly improved
the compositional fluency of 144 first graders. In a similar experimental
Dinehart 5
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design, Graham et al. (2000) found that improvements in handwriting were
directly associated with higher quality written text.
Although the link between handwriting and achievement does not always
appear logical, the mechanisms by which handwriting influences achievement
are substantial (Jones and Christensen, 1999). Once children enter formal
schooling, good handwriting is thought to influence academic performance
in three major ways. First, from an aesthetic level, research suggests that
teachers give higher grades to assignments produced with more attractive
writing than those produced with less attractive writing (Briggs, 1980;
Graham et al., 2000; Hughes et al., 1983; Klein and Taub, 2005). However,
in a recent study of college students, Greifeneder et al. (2010) found that
more positive evaluations of nicely handwritten essays were not associated
with the attractiveness of the writing per se, but rather the fluency associated
with processing legible versus illegible material. In other words, teachers are
more likely to give higher grades to work they find ‘easy’ to read. Second,
researchers argue that difficulties with handwriting burden the writer’s atten-
tion, requiring them to focus more on the writing and less on the content of
their composition. Children who are too slow when writing may not be able
to put their thoughts and ideas down on paper, while the coherence and
complexity of the product may be affected by competing attention demands
(Jones and Christensen, 1999). Finally, children with handwriting difficulties
are said to develop negative experiences of writing, including frustration,
decreased self-efficacy and poor motivation (Berninger and Graham, 1998;
Berninger et al., 1991; Graham, 1992, 1999). From a social-emotional per-
spective, students who experience frustration in their writing are less likely to
want to write, more likely to feel bad about their writing and generally be less
likely to produce detailed, comprehensive material (Berninger and Graham,
1998). The extent to which these factors are applicable to children before they
enter formal schooling is unclear, but recent work suggests that the influence
of handwriting on later academic performance may have some of its roots in
the years before children enter school.
Where is the research on handwriting in early childhood?
An understanding of the development of handwriting and the skills that pro-
mote ‘handwriting readiness’ before children enter formal schooling has been
generally neglected in the early childhood literature. This is probably for two
reasons. First, when handwriting was an important subject in the elementary
curriculum, few children were receiving the formal preschool education that
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expanded in response to the welfare reform legislation (Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, 1996) of the
1990s and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2001. Before
these pieces of legislation, few educators or researchers were focusing on
‘school readiness’ and the skills that provide a foundation for learning in
kindergarten and beyond. But then, as the pre-k education system expanded
and early education became a focus for educators and researchers alike, a
growing emphasis on Clay’s Emergent Literacy perspective (Clay, 1975; Teale
and Sulzby, 1986) and the increasing use of technology put handwriting on
the backburner.
Emergent literacy
First introduced in the late 1970s, Clay’s (1975) definition of emergent lit-
eracy focuses primarily on the environment and social context in which chil-
dren gain literacy knowledge prior to practising conventional reading and
writing. Literacy skills taught primarily through explicit instruction, including
handwriting, are discouraged in this approach. In this definition, emergent
writing focuses on the social context in which writing occurs (Dennis and
Votteler, 2012) and the development of writing skills primarily from a content
perspective (Medwell and Wray, 2008). Writing skills, it is believed, can, as
well stated by Graham (1999), be ‘caught by immersing children in a literacy-
rich environment...’. From an emergent writing perspective, teachers and
parents are encouraged to make writing materials easily accessible to children,
allow children to write freely and focus primarily on the message of the
writing, rather than the formation of the letters (Dennis and Votteler,
2012). Schickedanz (1999) suggests:
The wise teacher is reluctant to provide formal instruction in handwriting to
groups of preschool and kindergarten children. Instead, she provides paper and
marking tools for children to explore writing. Teachers are concerned with
good reason that if they regularly provide formal and direct instruction to
preschool and kindergarten classes, children’s interest in writing may be under-
mined. (p.109)
Similarly, a position paper published in 1998 by the National Association
for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in partnership with the
International Reading Association (IRA), and entitled ‘Learning to Read
and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children’
Dinehart 7
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stated: ‘Classrooms that provide children with regular opportunities to express
themselves on paper, without feeling too constrained for correct spelling and
proper handwriting, also help children understand that writing has real
purpose’ (p.5).
Despite the notion that the purpose of handwriting instruction is to allow
children eventually to develop legible writing that requires limited conscious
attention in the years that follow (Graham, 1999), the emergent literacy per-
spective created inevitable tension between allowing children to express them-
selves freely and teaching letter formation (Medwell and Wray, 2008). This is
not to suggest that early childhood educators should replace instruction that
focuses on meaning and process with form, but rather they should regard
handwriting instruction as an equally important means by which to improve
early literacy skills (Berninger et al., 1992). There is little evidence to support
the notion that children will ‘catch’ writing skills (Graham, 1999), and the
ability to produce high-quality text is only expected to develop once transcrip-
tion skills are fully developed (Alamargot and Fayol, 2009). In fact, writing
skills are said to develop in a sequential process in which basic skills are mas-
tered for use in the development of more complex skills (Puranik and Lonigan,
2011). If handwriting a skill best taught through explicit instruction (Ste-
Marie et al., 2004) is only emphasized when the students have failed to ‘catch’
the skill, students are likely to fall behind early and develop poor habits that
require remediation (Graham, 1999).
Technology in early childhood education
The early 1990s saw a significant increase in the use of computers and word
processing. As Marilyn Cochran-Smith (1991) stated in her review of word
processing for elementary school students:
During this time period, legions of adults who wrote professionally – staff and
freelance writers, researchers, journalists, educators, publicists – made the con-
version from pencil and typewriter to computerized word processing. For the
most part, professional writers found that word processing was a highly effect-
ive writing tool, and some were eager to describe their experiences and specu-
late about the benefits of word processing for others. (p.110)
Given adults’ excitement over the new technology, educators and research-
ers began to ask how technology could be used in education and for writing
in the classroom (Cochran-Smith, 1991). Keyboarding could certainly be
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viewed as a means by which children would be better able to focus on the
content and meaning of their work (MacArthur, 2000), and less so on their
form. Yet, despite the growth in technology, Cutler and Graham (2008) report
that most elementary teachers still use computers less than once per month to
support their students’ writing. Preschool teachers report even less use of tech-
nology, indicating they experience limited access to technological tools
(Wartella et al., 2010) and believe that many available tools are developmentally
inappropriate (Public Broadcasting Service and Grunwald Associates, 2009).
Overall, technology is thought to provide scaffolding for novice learners
until they form habits (Espinosa et al., 2010). An increasingly technological
society affords children the opportunity to engage with new exciting digital
devices that can extend their learning in the home, the classroom and the
community. The International Society for Technology in Education (2007)
suggests that children should acquire a certain technology ‘readiness’
demonstrating basic skills in technology operations by age 5, and the
National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred
Rogers Center (2012) suggest that while technology can afford a source for
exploration and mastery, teachers should provide a balance of activities that
allow children to engage in authentic interactions in their surrounding envir-
onment. Once children enter formal schooling, current US education stand-
ards propose that teachers consider using digital tools for producing writing
as early as in first grade (NGA Center and CCSSO, 2012).
Research suggests that young children who have access to and use technol-
ogy at home show stronger academic achievement years later (Clements and
Sarama, 2003; Espinosa et al., 2010); and with computers, tablets, touchsc-
reens, smartboards and e-readers, pencils, pens, markers and paper seem
outdated and slow. Arrowood and Overall (2004) found that computers
motivated young elementary children in the writing process. This does not
suggest that technology cannot be used to ‘write’ in a traditional manner.
Couse and Chen (2010), for instance, found that preschool children were able
to acclimate to using pentop and table technology to produce self-portraits
that were comparable to self-portraits created with traditional writing media.
Although the extent to which pentop and tablet technology could enhance the
learning of handwriting remains unexamined, ‘writing’ in a traditional
manner (as opposed to keyboarding) may still have its benefits.
Christensen (2004) reported a significant correlation between handwriting
speed and keyboarding speed in a sample of nearly 300 secondary education
students. Similarly, Rogers and Case-Smith (2002) reported a significant cor-
relation between handwriting and keyboarding in 40 participating sixth-grade
Dinehart 9
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students. More recently, Connelly et al. (2007) also found a significant cor-
relation between the handwriting and keyboarding speeds of 300 children in
elementary school, but more notably that typed essays were up to two years
behind, developmentally, than handwritten essays. Although it is important to
note that Connelly et al. (2007) indicate that explicit instruction in keyboard-
ing would improve the fluency of typing, and as a result probably improve the
quality of a typed essay, James and Engelhardt (2012) suggest that keyboard-
ing instruction, particularly at early ages, can have a significant impact on the
development of reading.
What we know about handwriting in early childhood
Recent work with young children suggests that writing may support founda-
tional skills that are necessary for later academic functioning. Using functional
magnetic resonance imaging technology with four- and five-year-old chil-
dren, James and Engelhardt (2012) found that writing letters by hand acti-
vated areas of a child’s brain identified as the ‘reading circuit’. More
specifically, writing letters activated those areas more so than other forms of
sensorimotor training, including the tracing and typing of letters. The extent
to which this activation influences development is unclear, but the authors
concluded that handwriting certainly appears to lend support to the develop-
ment of reading in young children (James and Engelhardt, 2012).
Writing skill developed before children enter formal schooling has also
been shown significantly to predict academic achievement years later.
Dinehart and Manfra (2013) examined whether the fine motor skills of
over 3,000 preschoolers predicted their academic achievement in second
grade. The study aimed to disentangle the effects of fine motor manipulation
tasks, requiring preschoolers to build with blocks, weave string, lace beads
and cut with scissors (among other tasks), from fine motor writing tasks,
requiring them to imitate strokes, copy letters, numbers and shapes, and draw
simple objects such as people and houses. The results indicated that although
all fine motor skills in preschool predicted later achievement, fine motor
writing skills in preschool were consistently stronger predictors of reading
and maths achievement than fine motor manipulation tasks (Dinehart and
Manfra, 2013). The authors argue that there may be several reasons for
these findings, even in early childhood.
The first, in line with Graham et al.s (2000) notion that children’s cogni-
tive load is lifted when handwriting is fluent and accurate, is supported by the
findings of Longcamp et al. (2005). Participants in their study were randomly
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assigned to one of two intervention groups. In the first group, preschoolers
were asked to practise writing words using a writing utensil. Preschoolers in a
second group were asked to practise typing the same words using keys on a
keyboard. The authors predicted that performance on a posttest letter recog-
nition task would be equal between the two groups if the preschoolers were
able to identify the letters in the words simply by seeing them repeatedly, but
better for children in the writing intervention group if the act of writing
helped children develop an internal model of the alphabetic characters. The
results indicated that children in the writing group significantly outperformed
the children in the typing group, suggesting that writing may have helped the
preschoolers develop a stronger internal model of the letters (Longcamp et al.,
2005).
As such, at least in the early years, writing may provide children with
support in learning the skills necessary to become efficient readers and writers
by strengthening internal models of regularly used characters, decreasing the
cognitive load associated with producing symbols and increasing the attention
necessary for producing quality written text as they get older. In other words,
early handwriting instruction may be beneficial in much as it automatizes
basic skills that allow for ‘higher order’ composition skills in later years
(Graham and Weintraub, 1996). Of course these findings may also be applic-
able to maths skills, as recognizing and producing numbers and mathematical
symbols with ease in the early years may enhance the speed at which maths
operations are performed later. Further research is necessary to support this
hypothesis.
Beyond providing a system of support for young children, handwriting in
the early years may be also be linked to achievement because of its association
with other cognitive factors that have been associated with academic achieve-
ment. In its most basic form, handwriting is the exercise of fine motor con-
trol, and fine motor activities are said to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, an
area of the brain that houses elements of self-regulation and executive func-
tion (EF; Diamond, 2000). The association between EF and academic achieve-
ment has been well documented in the literature (Blair, 2003; Blair and
Diamond, 2008; Blair and Razza, 2007; Bodrova and Leong, 2007, 2008;
Davidson et al., 2006; Diamond et al., 2007; Diamond and Lee, 2011;
McClelland et al., 2000; Ponitz et al., 2009), and writing, particularly copying
letters and symbols, may require that children either possess or exercise the
components of self-regulation, including attentional flexibility, impulse con-
trol and working memory (McClelland and Cameron, 2012). Although a
direct link between early writing skills and EF in early childhood has been
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poorly examined, research with children, adolescents and adults with atten-
tion deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) appears to provide correlational
evidence of a link.
Just as many individuals with ADHD demonstrate dysfunctions of the EF
system (Brown, 2006), many individuals with ADHD also exhibit impair-
ments in motor functioning, including handwriting (Adi-Japha et al., 2007;
Langmaid et al., 2012; Racine et al., 2008; Rosenblum et al., 2008). In fact,
ADHD and developmental coordination disorder (DCD) are often comorbid
disorders (Racine et al., 2008), and although poor handwriting in this popu-
lation may be the result of multiple factors, attention may be a particularly
significant modifying factor (Flapper et al., 2006). Although preliminary
work by Cameron et al. (2012) reports no significant correlation between
EF and fine motor ability, more recent findings suggest that visuomotor skills
in preschool children may compensate for poor inhibitory control in predict-
ing school readiness (Cameron et al., 2013). Future research should continue
to explore this association, including the individual components of EF skills
(i.e. attention, impulse control and working memory) and their link to hand-
writing readiness and handwriting performance (Chu, 1997). This work is
important for two reasons. First, early writing difficulties if associated with
EF skills – can serve as an early indicator of more global cognitive concerns in
young children. Second, and perhaps more importantly, an association
between early writing and EF skills may point to handwriting or ‘handwriting
readiness’ as a means by which to improve EF skills.
Teaching handwriting to young children
Handwriting focuses directly on letter formation and the perceptual-motor
skills that are required for the mastery of writing. Despite the literature sup-
porting the link between handwriting and academic achievement, there is
little research to support the use of any one specific handwriting curriculum
(Asher, 2006). D’Nealian and Zaner-Blosser are currently the most commonly
used handwriting programmes for children in elementary school (Cahill,
2009), although Asher (2006) states that teachers report using a variety of
programmes and techniques with little consistency even within school dis-
tricts. Cahill (2009) also provides a brief summary of other supplemental
programmes available for use, including Callirobics, Handwriting without Tears,
Big Strokes for Little Folks, Sensible Pencil and Loops and other Groups.
Similar to the principles that guided instruction across other subject areas,
the teaching of formal handwriting was once only recommended for children
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when they entered kindergarten (Zaner-Bloser, 1994). This notion comple-
ments the ‘reading readiness’ approach established in the 1920s, suggesting
that formal reading instruction is not appropriate until children are suffi-
ciently mature, or 6 and a half years of age (Durkin, 1970). More current
research has established that children provided with a balanced approach to
reading instruction explicit instruction used in conjunction with construct-
ivist activities for the strengthening and generalization of skills engage in
literacy practices and develop strong foundational skills well before they enter
school (Pressley, 2006). Similarly, handwriting programmes, once designed
for kindergarten, now offer opportunities for young children to engage in
activities that lay the foundation for good handwriting once children enter
school. Table 1 provides a summary of the opportunities afforded pre-
schoolers, if any, from the programmes listed in Cahill (2009). Although
the International Reading Association and the National Association for the
Education of Young Children (1998) recommend the utilization of evi-
dence-based practices and curricula in early childhood classrooms, there is
no evidence to support the labelling of the available curricula and supplemen-
tal curricula as evidence-based (Asher, 2006).
Table 1. Preschool options of supplemental handwriting programmes.
Programme
Preschool
option Description of preschool programme
Callirobics Yes A music-based programme for ages 4–7,
where children produce easy, disconnected
patterns geared for printing.
Handwriting without Tears Yes The Get Set for School is a general readiness
curriculum that includes handwriting
readiness.
Zaner-Bloser Yes On the Road to Writing and Reading introduces
children to written communication and
developing fundamental prewriting skills.
Big Strokes for Little Folks No A programme designed to prepare children
aged between 5 and 9 for handwriting.
Sensible Pencil No A handwriting programme in which children
learn to print upper- and lower-case letters
and numbers using eleven basic lines.
Loops and Other Groups No Designed for second grade to high school
students to learn cursive writing.
Dinehart 13
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Current research on handwriting in the preschool years is limited with
regard to handwriting readiness skills but should address issues of posture,
grip and position (Rosenblum et al., 2006), a focus on learning simple ver-
tical letters (Berninger and Graham, 1998), as well as the spatial and temporal
vocabulary typically used in handwriting instruction, including ‘top’ or ‘up
to’ (Marr et al., 2001). The extent to which these foundational skills can
prevent bad habits will influence how teachers provide quality handwriting
instruction that does not require remediation.
There is limited evidence of effective handwriting practices in elementary
school (Asher, 2006) and almost no evidence of the effectiveness of hand-
writing programmes implemented at the preschool level. Only the
Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) Get Set for School multisensory pro-
gramme was found to be beneficial in improving the fine motor and prewrit-
ing skills of 17 preschoolers enrolled in Head Start (Lust and Donica, 2011).
Overall, their research suggests that children in the treatment group made
significantly greater improvements in prewriting skills than a non-treatment
control group. Although promising, the relatively small sample size, rural
community implementation and fact that the programme was implemented
by occupational therapists – a luxury not often made available to all preschools
suggests that future research is needed to develop a programme that can be
used in any early childhood classroom and implemented by the classroom
teacher. There is currently no research examining how or if teachers in pre-
school teach handwriting to their children. In fact, given the emphasis on an
emergent literacy perspective, it may be that early childhood educators feel it
would be inappropriate to provide any instruction on handwriting readiness.
Nonetheless, we may draw conclusions based on research gathered on elem-
entary school teachers, although it should be noted that early care and edu-
cation teachers are typically less educated than teachers in the state school
system (Whitebook et al., 2009), and the extent of knowledge they have
concerning handwriting may be significantly less than that of their elementary
school counterparts.
In a national survey, teachers in elementary school reported using commer-
cially available programmes to teach handwriting (Graham et al., 2008). Yet,
teachers using these curricula still fail to implement effective, research-
approved handwriting instruction strategies (Vander Hart et al., 2010).
Teachers fail to devote an adequate amount of time, as recommended, to
teaching handwriting, and they limit the extent to which they provide explicit
instruction (Vander Hart et al., 2010). In fact, most teachers report failing to
receive adequate instruction in their college courses prior to entering the field
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(Graham et al., 2008). Ninety-three percent of teachers reported that they
teach handwriting in whole class lessons, and yet most teachers feel that
handwriting should be taught as a separate subject and that direct instruction
is more important to learning handwriting than incidental learning (Graham
et al., 2008). Although the use of district-wide programmes may be necessary
for ensuring high-quality handwriting instruction (Vander Hart et al., 2010),
a limit on the number of evidence-based practices makes it difficult to select a
programme for implementation. Future research should examine the effect of
handwriting programmes, their applicability in the early childhood education
classroom and the extent to which these methods have long-term effects on
composition and other academic skills.
Conclusions and implications for practice
Although the link between handwriting and academic achievement has been
well established in the research literature, little is known about the develop-
ment of handwriting before children enter school. Moreover, the extent to
which handwriting readiness affects formal handwriting instruction once
children enter school, and the best practices to teach young children hand-
writing readiness skills effectively before they enter school remains unclear.
The current paper serves as (a) a call for researchers to continue examining
the role of handwriting on the early education and development of young
children and (b) a call for practitioners to develop and implement pro-
grammes they know to be best practice when teaching early handwriting or
handwriting ‘readiness’ skills. Quickly becoming recognized as important
school readiness skills (Dinehart and Manfra, 2013; Grissmer et al., 2010;
Son and Meisels, 2006), examining how best to improve fine motor writing
skills and handwriting readiness in the years before children enter school may
be critical to improving academic skills in the long term.
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... Pencil Grip. The literature review conducted by Dinehart (2015) confirms this, but recent work allows us to specify it. Morin, Bara and Alamargot (2017) just as Labrecque and Morin (2018) made it clear from their reviews that optimal pencil grips include the thumb, index finger, middle finger and/or ring finger, and fingers can either remain one next to the other or overlap. ...
... Awareness of the Shape of Letters and the Ability to Copy. Dinehart (2015) as well as Labrecque et al. (2018) added awareness of the shape of letters (understood in the sense of being able to distinguish letters from each other based on their shape) and the ability to copy words (understood in the sense of having the ability to write a legible letter when one has the possibility to consult a model) as precursors. Finally, Morin, Bara and Alamargot (2017) insisted on the importance of nervous system maturation, especially the ability to exert motor control on distal joints such as the elbow, wrist and finger joints. ...
... Studies of the past years confirmed this and allowed us to better understand their importance. Moreover, Labrecque et al. (2018) and Dinehart (2015) explicitly confirmed that these skills are important in kindergarten. ...
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... Wang et al. 2017;Yeatman, et al. 2012a, b;Yeatman et al. 2011); however, our sample was 5-8 years of age. We, therefore, included visualmotor and fine-motor skill measures in the regression because a large amount of work has demonstrated that these two skills positively predict future literacy attainment (Cameron et al. 2012;Carlson et al. 2013;Clark 2010;Dinehart 2015;Fears and Lockman 2018;Grissmer et al. 2010;Maldarelli et al. 2015). The dependent variable was the z-scored microstructural property (i.e., FA), averaged across tracts within the PVP, and the independent variables were the z-scored behavioral composite measures, as well as age in months and sex, excluding interaction terms. ...
... While our age range was 5-8 years, all but one prior work used children 7 years and older. We note that a breadth of behavioral work has indicated that visual-motor skill development positively predicts literacy development in this age range (Cameron et al. 2012;Carlson et al. 2013;Clark 2010;Dinehart 2015;Fears and Lockman 2018;Grissmer et al. 2010;Maldarelli et al. 2015), suggesting that the left pArc's relationship with visual-motor skill may be a precursor to its relationship with literacy. Nonetheless, the one prior work that used the same age range as our study also reported a relationship between pArc and literacy (Broce et al. 2019), suggesting that future work will be necessary to better understand the relationship between the pArc and literacy development (Yeatman and White 2021). ...
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This work is part of an innovative e-learning project allowing the development of an advanced digital educational tool that provides feedback during the process of learning handwriting for young school children (three to eight years old). In this paper, we describe a new method for children handwriting quality analysis. It automatically detects mistakes, gives real-time on-line feedback for children’s writing, and helps teachers comprehend and evaluate children’s writing skills. The proposed method adjudges five main criteria: shape, direction, stroke order, position respect to the reference lines, and kinematics of the trace. It analyzes the handwriting quality and automatically gives feedback based on the combination of three extracted models: Beta-Elliptic Model (BEM) using similarity detection (SD) and dissimilarity distance (DD) measure, Fourier Descriptor Model (FDM), and perceptive Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) with Support Vector Machine (SVM) comparison engine. The originality of our work lies partly in the system architecture which apprehends complementary dynamic, geometric, and visual representation of the examined handwritten scripts and in the efficient selected features adapted to various handwriting styles and multiple script languages such as Arabic, Latin, digits, and symbol drawing. The application offers two interactive interfaces respectively dedicated to learners, educators, experts or teachers and allows them to adapt it easily to the specificity of their disciples. The evaluation of our framework is enhanced by a database collected in Tunisia primary school with 400 children. Experimental results show the efficiency and robustness of our suggested framework that helps teachers and children by offering positive feedback throughout the handwriting learning process using tactile digital devices.<br
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... Transcription skills consist of children's handwriting and spelling skills (Berninger & Chanquoy, 2012). In preschool, handwriting, or letter formation, represents a complex amalgamation of cognitive, motor, and neuromotor processes (Dinehart, 2015). Handwriting requires that children have requisite fine motor skills to manipulate and move a writing utensil, visual understanding of the letter form, and the knowledge of and ability to replicate the strokes and line segments that comprise that letter (Schickedanz, 1999). ...
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This study examined preschool teachers’ writing knowledge and how this knowledge relates to classroom writing practices. Head Start teachers (N = 47) across two states participated by completing a knowledge questionnaire in which they responded to three vignettes and samples of preschool children’s writing. Teachers’ writing practices were gathered and coded from half-day video observations. Questionnaire responses were iteratively coded, first, using a set of a priori developed codes, derived from well-established theories of writing and including subcomponents of writing: handwriting, spelling, composing, and print concepts. Then responses were open-coded using an iterative process. Responses to the vignettes revealed that teachers’ knowledge of early writing development generally aligns with research-based conceptualizations for handwriting and print concepts, but less so for spelling and composing. Teachers varied widely in the components they discussed, with clear patterns across the three writing samples. Observations of teachers’ practices revealed that teachers primarily enacted practices focused on children’s handwriting skills and engaged in scaffolding strategies designed to make writing easier for children more frequently than modeling or expansion strategies. Most instructional strategies were considered low quality as teachers were observed doing much of the cognitive or physical work of writing. Teachers’ knowledge and practices were related. Teachers demonstrating higher knowledge complexity (i.e., discussed more writing components in their responses) engaged children in more writing and offered higher quality supports reflecting a wider range of writing components.
... After the immersive training, each coder worked independently and applied the writing quality rubric described above to a typed, mechanically-corrected version of each participant's composition. Prior research examining writing has stated that messy handwriting and excessive spelling errors can negatively impact a reader's perception of a composition and ultimately lead to lower ratings of writing quality (Dinehart, 2014;Feng et al., 2017;Graham, 1999;Graham et al., 2011;Klein & Taub, 2005;Olinghouse & Leaird, 2009). Additionally, other studies have also used corrected versions of compositions in their research, both to avoid coder bias and to improve legibility during the coding process (Dockrell et al., 2015;MacArthur et al., 2018;Olinghouse & Leaird, 2009;Perin & Lauterbach, 2018). ...
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The goal of this study was to describe how underlying vocabulary knowledge manifests into vocabulary usage, and in turn, how usage predicts writing quality among adult basic education (ABE) learners. ABE learners were administered tasks that measured vocabulary knowledge, in the forms of both vocabulary breadth and depth. Participants were also given a composition writing task, and these samples were evaluated for overall writing quality and vocabulary usage. A mediating model was constructed to describe the relationships among variables. This model indicates that vocabulary depth is predictive of writing quality through the mediating variable of vocabulary usage after controlling for the direct contribution of vocabulary breadth. We found no evidence that vocabulary breadth contributes to writing quality when controlling for vocabulary depth and vocabulary usage. The results of the study reveal important relationships among vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary usage in written work that warrants further investigation in developing learners.
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Handwriting research lies mostly within discipline-specific boundaries, hindering knowledge transfer across disciplines into academic skills instruction in schools. This paper attempts to review the literature on handwriting across the occupational therapy and education disciplines to propose an interdisciplinary conceptual framework to guide research and intervention on handwriting in the Malay language. This cross-disciplinary review revealed four major factors that may influence Malay language handwriting: i) neuromotor development; ii) ergonomic; iii) orthographic and iv) cognitive factors. The sub-factors under these four major factors also are identified. Many of the neuromotor development and ergonomic factors are derived from the occupational therapy discipline, while the education discipline provides most of the information on orthographic and cognitive factors. As orthography influences handwriting, it is necessary to revisit handwriting from the perspective of languages other than English. In conclusion, an interdisciplinary framework of handwriting synthesised from this crossdisciplinary review will stimulate more coordinated and coherent research on handwriting. The Malay language serves as a future case study for research into orthographies in handwriting.
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The argument running through this book is that numeracy is an applied form of literacy and that its teaching must be integrated into the repertoire of school practices. While there are obvious differences between literacy and numeracy, in the Early Years numeracy is inseparable from the teaching of literacy. This is the case in multilingual classrooms, and even more so in classrooms where cultural differences create barriers to learning.
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Alamargot, D. & Fayol, M. (2009). Modeling the Development of Written Composition. In Writing Development: Multiple Perspectives. July 2-9. Jeffery Hall, Institute of Education, London, UK.
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This study examined empirical evidence about the relationship between motor skills at the beginning of kindergarten and reading and mathematics achievement at the end of first grade, using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten cohort national dataset (N = 12,583). Results of hierarchical regression analyses demonstrated that early kindergarten motor skills, especially visual motor skills, add a small but unique amount of variance to achievement in reading and mathematics at the end of first grade even after controlling for ­initial skills and demographic information. Furthermore, ­Receiver-Operating-Characteristic curve analyses showed that information from visual motor skills is useful in identifying children at risk for academic underachievement. The results suggest the importance of the role that motor skills can play in designing and implementing an early school achievement battery.
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Research Findings: Given the growing literature pertaining to the importance of fine motor skills for later academic achievement (D. W. Grissmer, K. J. Grimm, S. M. Aiyer, W. M. Murrah, & J. S. Steele, 201019. Grissmer , D. W. , Grimm , K. J. , Aiyer , S. M. , Murrah , W. M. , & Steele , J. S. ( 2010 ). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators . Developmental Psychology , 46 , 1008 – 1017 . [CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®]View all references), the current study examines whether the fine motor skills of economically disadvantaged preschool students predict later academic performance in 2nd grade. More specifically, we expand on the current literature and evaluate whether 2 types of fine motor skills—fine motor object manipulation and fine motor writing—predict academic achievement above and beyond the effects of demographic characteristics and early language and cognition skills. Results indicate that performance on both fine motor writing and object manipulation tasks had significant effects on 2nd-grade reading and math achievement, as measured by grades and standardized test scores. Stronger effects were yielded for writing tasks compared to object manipulation tasks. Practice or Policy: Implications for researchers and early childhood practitioners are discussed.
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Handwriting is one of the most complex skills that is learnt and taught. It requires motor, sensory, perceptual, praxis and cognitive functions, and the integration of these functions. When the complex nature of this skill is considered, it comes as little surprise that many children experience difficulty in mastering this area. When an occupational therapist observes that a child referred to the service is having difficulty with handwriting, it becomes necessary for the therapist to administer procedures to identify the strengths and weaknesses that will then become the basis for a remedial programme. This article presents a conceptual framework for evaluating and treating handwriting difficulties presented by children in mainstream education with specific developmental disorder, such as dyspraxia or dyslexia. The performance components and functional performance of handwriting are briefly reviewed. Both evaluation and intervention procedures are discussed in order to guide the therapist in developing remedial and instructional programmes. The article highlights the unique role of the occupational therapist in evaluating and treating a child's functional performance of handwriting skills.