Parents (and even teachers) are confused as to why we spend so much time teaching handwriting in my reading clinic. The simple answer is that emphasizing handwriting helps children improve their reading abilities. Research shows that just looking at and identifying letters on a chart does not help children learn to read or enhance their reading ability (Li & James 2016). Even practicing using letters on a computer, iPad, or other electronic device does not improve letter recognition or reading skills (James & Engelhardt 2012). If children are to receive any benefit for reading, then the children need to write and correctly shape the alphabet letters (Dinehart 2014). Handwriting differs from typing. Keyboarding or typing involves selecting letters. Neuroimaging research shows that shaping the letters by hand requires the student to engage language, working memory, and cognitive processing skills (Gimenez et al. 2014). Handwriting engages the brain and requires the student to manage and remember the letter symbols. Visual, typing, or oral practice does not. Although it uses a different section of the brain, handwriting facilitates and uses phonemic and phonological awareness.
So, we teach handwriting from day one as we teach phonemic awareness or letter sounds. If children are to learn to read, they must also learn to write legibly. Scribbling does not count and does not teach the brain to identify and recognize the letter sounds. I use tracing sheets. I have the children trace the letters at first to learn the shape of the letters. Then we say the letter sounds. We use three or four different colors of colored pencils and trace over the letters several times. By tracing the letters with colored pencils, the children can tell when they’re on the dots and when they are off the line. I use tracing sheets that have the arrows so that children can learn to make and shake their letters correctly. I tell the children, “we are training your brain.”
If the letter is not written correctly, the child erases and tries again. We start with simple words for handwriting the same as we start with simple words for reading and spelling. These three processes are taught together. If we are teaching words that use the at sound; we first trace and write the letters. Then, read, write, and spell words that use the at sound: at, cat, fat, rat, mat, hat. Repetition helps children learn to make their letter shapes, just as repetition helps children learn to read and spell. We then add these new written words to one of our creative art projects, such as a paper towel tube rocket. We say to fuel a rocket we need 25 new words. These words can be as simple as at, cat, bat. Or the words can be multisyllable or compound words using the same phonemic sound: acrobat, astronaut, afternoon. Each child works at their individual ability level, regardless whether it be with beginning sounds or more complex sounds.
Teaching block-style handwriting is essential for teaching reading. We cannot have effective reading without effective handwriting.