Connecting the dots between handwriting and high scores
February 3rd, 2012
07:35 AM ET

Connecting the dots between handwriting and high scores

by Donna Krache, CNN

(CNN) Penmanship. To grown-ups, the word conjures up memories of coarse sheets of paper with solid and dotted lines - and a pencil so big that you had to practically balance it on your shoulder to practice writing your letters.

For some of today’s elementary school kids, there won’t be any memories of penmanship class.  With classroom time at a premium and the common use of the keyboard, some school districts are abandoning handwriting as part of the curriculum.

But Dr. Laura Dinehart says not so fast.

Dinehart, an assistant professor at the Florida International University School of Education, was examining data collected on 1,000 second-graders and comparing it with information collected when they were in pre-kindergarten.  She and her research team expected to find that early number skills might predict math achievement and that early language skills might predict who would be better readers in second grade.  But they were surprised to find that a 4-year-old’s fine motor writing skill - the ability to form letters, numbers and shapes - was an indicator of stronger academic achievement later on.

What’s just as surprising, says Dinehart, is that the academic achievement by those with better penmanship is seen in both reading and math, and it’s reflected in both teachers’ grades and standardized test scores.  Students who received good handwriting grades in pre-K had an overall “B” average in second grade.  Their standardized tests scored above average in both math and reading.  By contrast, pre-kindergarten students who did poorly on fine motor writing tasks had an overall “C” average and below-average test scores in second grade.

So what does it all mean?

Dinehart said, “We’re glad we found this link and think it’s important. It needs to be looked at in greater depth: What is it about writing that’s predicting later achievement?” Her findings, she says, are raising lots of new questions. She acknowledges that some will say this is about teacher perception that a child who has good handwriting is a smart child.  But, she asks, is there some mechanical connection between fine motor skills and how the brain works? She points out that there is research that shows that kids who physically write letters more easily recognize those letters, compared with kids who use keyboards. “Schools have started to drop handwriting from curriculum, and we don’t know that that is beneficial,” Dinehart said.  “We might have jumped the gun on this.”

Regardless of where the findings lead, Dinehart says that it’s important for preschoolers to spend time practicing handwriting because it’s a very specific motor skill. She encourages parents to provide opportunities for their kids to write with crayons, markers and pencils, and to write with them, just as they read to their kids and count with them. “What we do know is that kids with greater experiences in early childhood do better later on, and writing can’t be discounted from that,” Dinehart said.

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Filed under: At Home • Early childhood education • Policy • Practice
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. tokencode

    ... says the author who TYPES articles for a living.....

    February 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  2. tokencode

    writing is fast becoming a useless skill, the only time I write anything down is if my battery died. We wonder why our kids are achedmic underachievers, maybe it's because we spend valuable time teaching them the equivalent of morse code.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  3. F.

    So, why is it that doctors tend to have poor penmanship? This study is just dumb!

    February 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • umm

      Doctors don't tend to have poor penmanship. They're taught to write a specific way so it's harder to forge prescriptions.

      February 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  4. GeorgeBos95

    Don't you just love how people can interpret data?

    Maybe she has it backwards ... maybe the correlation between penmenship and higher achievement is that higher achieving kids pay closer attention to their penmenship, and as in other areas, they excel.

    Oh, duh. Couldn't be that. Careful Dinehart, your agenda is showing. Either that or you don't do as well as the kids you're studying.

    Maybe you should let THEM do the study. At least the handwriting will be legible.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  5. Mike

    Everything we do is related to the function of our brain. But not everything related to our brain must we do. The notion that brain function relates to intelligence is obvious. It is also likely that you would find correlations with the success of many activities reading, writing, dancing, singing, driving, knitting or whatever. As one person said, it isn't causal. How about coloring in kindergarten? I would guess that the children who can draw elaborate pictures at age 5 are probably more likely to do well then there stick figure drawing peers (that isn't to say that some of the former stick drawing people aren't the CEOs or billionaires of todays society). But if is true, does that mean that we should continue coloring as an activity in classrooms at a more advanced age? I doubt it.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  6. Curt

    In my opinion only if your a biased adult that judges everything on what you see and not what it really is.

    How does penmanship in the least mean anything.. God would stick his shlong in your face for writing this article.

    February 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  7. Kat

    It's simply lazyness as to why it's not taught in elementary school anymore. No one said you have to write beautifully, but a person should know how to write in cursive and sign your name! Good Lord, we've been doing this for years, now all of a sudden we shouldn't teach it anymore?! Talk about losing something very valuable because of sheer stupidity and lazyness! I know an 18 year old who couldn't even sign his student loan application, because he was never taught cursive writing in school. His parents had to help him to sign his name. That's ridiculous! To young people who don't think it's important, you only think that way because you're still young and foolish. Writing IS important!

    February 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Beth

      I don't think it's always laziness. While working in an elementary school last year, I observed that there was simply no time to teach penmanship. The students' time was entirely taken up by preparing for state testing. And by preparing for state testing, I mean, they took practice tests at least two hours a week, with the rest of the time occupied by teachers teaching to the test.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:13 am |
      • NAB

        I currently work in the elementry school system and I would have to agree that there is not enough time in the day to teach cursive. Children need many hours practice to master the skills necessary for good handwriting. We have to set our priorities. Either we can give students pre-tests, tests and re-tests or we can teach Cursive, P.E., History, Science and the Arts.

        February 9, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  8. Melanie E.

    There's got to be more to it than this. My husband and I both had horrible handwriting as children, but were both A students, high scoring on tests, etc. Our academic achievements would never have been predicted based on our early handwriting. DH's was so bad, his teacher actually went out and spent her own money on a handwriting book for him. My 6th grade gifted teacher had to switch me to using graph paper to do math so that it was neat enough to follow. (It was usually right, it just couldn't be followed by anyone else.)

    Handwriting is important, but I don't think it's a particularly good indicator of future success.

    February 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  9. Frank

    I don't have anything against learning handwriting the old pencil and tablet way. I do question the premise that handwriting can predict the future any more than a crystal ball or tarot cards. I'm opposed to "guiding" young children into any job that might be hot in the future based on testing of any kind – the reason being, the future is always changing. Maybe people who make a career of one dicipline, eat, breathe, and sleep it, might benefit from a long sabatical and fubbing elbows with everyday folks.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  10. Dennis

    There's is plenty of research to support the importance of handwriting by Berninger, Harris, and Graham. They have also created some incredible lessons I use in my practice all the time to improve legibility and automaticity of HW. As a school psychologist have come to the conclusion that writing, with a pencil, is the most important skill to learn in school. Just walk into any classroom at any given time and you are likely to see students sitting at a desk with a pencil in their hand. How much more obvious does it need to get?

    February 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  11. truchar

    I am a 4th grade teacher who can't beieve how some children are forming their letters. Formation has a lot to do with assignment completion in a timely manner, readability for others and even general lack of spacing. Who will want to pay them in the future big bucks who can not even write out notes in a meeting? Is everyone supposed to carry around a laptop so they can type their thoughts and relay notes to others? It is so sad because by the time they are in 3rd grade, the bad habits are ingrained! So hard to break them but most of the their work is affected by handwriting. Class notes, test answers, writing stories etc. With No Child Left Behind and standardized tests that are not going away..handwriting is and always will be important! If their answers are not legible, they are wrong or given no score. Maybe not what the answer deserves but what scorer is going to sit and decipher poor handwriting like the classroom teacher does? What good job will they get with that poor handwriting. Doctors agreed! They didn't all have poor handwriting when they went to medical school. Now it is just expected so they change to barely legible for effect. Thank God pharmacists can decipher and/or they have a common knowledge of most drugs. Poor handwriting has led to many mistakes even deaths!

    February 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. Loren Shlaes, OTR/L, CTAT

    I am a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in school related issues and handwriting. In my clinical opinion, just providing small children with writing implements is not the answer. In order to write well, the child has to have acquired the underlying skill sets and strengths to support such a high level activity. Children who have good fine motor skills and excellent eye hand coordination are children who have matured their neurological development through lots and lots of movement and play. The pedagogy of teaching handwriting is critical, too. In order to be able to write both quickly and neatly, all letters in print must be formed from the top left or top center so that the hand is continually traveling in one direction. Many of the children who come to me with handwriting problems are lacking not only in their neurological development {having been imprisoned in playpens, car seats, strollers, and high chairs, been supplied with video games, and rarely been taken outside to run around and play} but have not been taught how to form their letters and numbers correctly, which slows them down and causes them to write illegibly when they need to write at age appropriate speed. The schools here in NYC expect the children to begin writing at age four, which is a full two years ahead of when they are developmentally ready to undertake such a high level skill with ease, and then don't teach them how to do it correctly.

    When children play with video games for hours on end instead of manipulating objects by making crafts or playing with three dimensional toys, it further impairs the development of their fine motor skills.

    If you want your child to have good handwriting, I strongly suggest: allow your child to walk or carry him on your hip instead of using a stroller, make sure he gets outside to play every single day, give him craft activities and hide the video games, find him a school that begins to teach handwriting at age six instead of age four, give him one inch pieces of chalk and crayon to draw with {which develops fine pinch} and make sure he knows proper habits of letter formation {I recommend Handwriting Without Tears as the best program}.

    February 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Lisa

    They aren't talking about beautiful handwriting, they're talking about the ability of a four or five year old to form proper letters as a predictor and as an indicator of their fine motor skills. Maybe there should be a study on reading comprehension.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  14. eileen feeney

    I had failing grades in handwriting for as long as they graded it in school My siblings did much better. Guess who got the best grades and test scores throughout school and went on to get an advanced degree? I did. Fast forward a generation. My kids had horrible handwriting, but thanks to some understanding teachers, they got good grades and superb test scores. They graduated with high grades in college and one is now in graduate school. I think this article is looking at this issue backwards. Readable writing makes it easier for the teacher to like you and think you're smart, but there is no causality linking early manual skill and intelligence. Boys learn to write later than girls, and generally are not as good at it. But that doesn't make them dumber.

    February 5, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Theresa

      I agree about the teacher perception that a child with good handwriting is smarter and therefore a good student. It would be interesting to know if they controlled for factors like age in this study. A child who just turned 4 is developmentally very different, that one who will be turning 5 in a month or two.
      There are many factors that can cause poor handwriting.

      February 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  15. Gabor Urban

    I support teaching handwriting in schools.. Handwriting analysis is admissible in Court because it can identify the writer of a letter or signature. Handwriting reveals intelligence, character, ambition, trustworthyness, success life. It tells on awfully lot about the writer. Many Companies require job applications to be submitted in long hand and upon receiving it rush it for analysis. Surprisingly, this works in the reverse also? I read about a Clinic in France, where they teach changing the person's handwriting, and the result has a life changing effect on his/her character and behaviour. Find a book on Handwriting Analysis.

    February 5, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  16. Alex

    Elementary Teacher: "Now class cursive is very important! You will use it for the rest of your life!"
    Forward to age 22: (NEVER USES IT EVER!)

    You know it's true.

    February 5, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Chartreuxe

      So you never write a check or sign your name to *anything?*


      February 5, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  17. Larry Moore

    Well, this study MUST be flawed. Think about the handwriting of all the doctors and lawyers (illegible, mostly). And, my own hadwriting is just horrible but I managed to thrive in education.

    February 4, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Nancy

      Doctors' handwriting does not factor into this premise. My doctor told me he had beautiful handwriting until he entered med school. There he had to write so many notes quickly that his handwriting deteriorated in favor of speed. This lends itself to the original premise that better handwriting is indicative of better skills.

      February 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
      • Chartreuxe

        It was my 2nd Biology professor who caused my beautiful handwriting skills to deteriorate. We had to take notes and sketch drawings in 6 different colours. That was the end of copperplate skills for me forever...I must concentrate now to write my signature legibly.

        Those electronic pads we must sign now for credit cards are not designed for us to write legibly either. I can barely recognise my signature immediately after I've completed it!

        February 5, 2012 at 11:53 am |