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  • Writer's pictureKelly Priest

Handwriting - With or Without Tears

September 6, 2017

Parents often go to great lengths to help our kids work on handwriting. Teachers and therapists say it’s important, and there are all these articles bobbing around on Facebook saying that handwriting is important for cognitive development. And we want cognitive development. So we have to make sure kids conquer their handwriting problems, right?

Maybe not at the expense of more important therapies that improve the child’s quality of life. Maybe not at the expense of pursuing a passion like drumming or coding or gymnastics. Maybe not at the expense of having some down time to play with sticks or make up sad songs about lonely horses or play with a neighbor.

The kids I know professionally tend already to have a whole lot of work on their plates. I don’t feel bad for them just because of this. In fact, it’s a lucky kid who has access to thoughtfully chosen services and supports that can make a difference in helping them to make their way in the world. But some of these kids do speech therapy, educational therapy, psychotherapy, social skills groups, physical therapy, and on and on. When that’s the case, I'm going to go out on a limb and share my unpopular opinion that we should seriously consider not adding occupational therapy for handwriting skills to their busy schedules.

If you have a kid with dysgraphia or other fine motor challenges, and their main concern in life is this scribbledy handwriting they wish the didn’t have – by which I mean, they have some friends, they can kind of solve problems with others, their academic learning is fine, they can manage their behavior pretty well – then sure. By all means. Work on the handwriting. Buy Handwriting Without Tears*, go to an occupational therapist, get it written into an IEP, knock yourself out.

But that is rarely the case. In fact, I don’t personally know any kids who fit this description. Most kids whose handwriting has come under the scrutiny of professionals also have other big learning work to do. And so they work hard all day at school, then they have more work to do in the afternoons, including crying for 45 minutes over the letters G and H in the office of some nice professional with several letters behind their name. Let me make the case for skipping it.

I have yet to see a convincing argument that it’s all that important. I’ve read the research cited in these articles** about how important handwriting is, and here is what I’ve found:

  • Conflict of interest. Many of these articles are posted on or around “National Handwriting Day,” which was started by the Writing Implements Manufacturers Association (I am not making this up) in 1977. One work that is cited in these articles is from the “Handwriting in the 21st Century Summit.” Zaner-Bloser hosted this event, where several experts presented on the goodness of handwriting. Zaner-Bloser makes handwriting programs. They are a business doing a good job of marketing their products, not a particularly objective source of quality research.

  • Most of the research cited in these articles is correlational, though the writers of the articles often use wording that implies causation like “leads to” or “supports.” So let’s say good handwriting is associated with good academic brain things happening. OK. No surprise that kids with excellent fine motor skills, motor planning, and gradation of force are also good at other school-y things that require smooth executive functioning. Does that mean that if we force overwhelmed kids to practice their handwriting, this will cause them to develop skills in other areas? I wouldn’t bet money on it, unless the skills include hating therapists and therapy, resenting parents, feeling overwhelmed and defective, and having no life. If kids need help with executive functioning or other important academic skills, we should get them good educational therapy for that exact thing instead of hoping that developing beautiful penmanship will reverse engineer their brains into being able to identify the main idea, build phonemic awareness, solve for x, make meaning, or organize their homework folders. There’s not enough convincing evidence that it works that way.

  • There’s a smattering of relevant research. One study indicated that handwriting led to better “fast mapping” in spelling. There’s also one that showed different brain activation patterns when kids were handwriting vs. keyboarding. One study indicated that taking notes by computer led to more verbatim transcription, instead of summarizing and interpreting as handwritten note-takers tend to. Fair enough! But none of these, individually or collectively, is a compelling reason to focus a great deal of time and sweat and tears on handwriting. Especially with students with fine motor problems who would be better off adapting to using better computer-based note-taking strategies and direct remediation of any learning challenges.

  • Several of the works cited as evidence of handwriting’s benefits are surveys of teachers’ opinions about the importance of handwriting. Others are surveys of the prevalence of handwriting instruction in schools. So, people who have great penmanship themselves, and who teach penmanship … think penmanship is important. Well, OK. That’s human nature. But that’s not a good reason to sacrifice a great deal of a family’s money, and a child or family’s precious time.

I’m great at walking, and I do it a lot, but you don’t see me pushing teary, weary kids with cerebral palsy to walk all day instead of relying on their wheelchairs or braces to get around. Not even if I have seen them walk several consecutive steps, unaided, before. Not even if I can cite evidence that walking is good for us, and specifically good for brain development. Because that wouldn’t be right, would it?

Pushing people with a disability to conform to doing things the “normal” way reflects our assumptions that it is more important for disabled people to sweat, stretch, and suffer to do things the "normal" way (even if painfully) than to adapt and do things their own way. Partly because we tend to suspect that they might be getting away with something if they do it their way. But mainly because the normal way is what we are familiar with and think is best. Then we find evidence to support our belief that the normal way is best, like the fact that it correlates with other normal skills we have. Which are normal because most of us have them. That’s circular.

The case for pushing kids with disabilities to labor over their handwriting is shaky at best. There are a few correlational studies, a few surveys, and scattered evidence of specific benefits of handwriting. But as far as I know, none of this thin body of research has been done specifically with disabled students. And none have shown that improvements in handwriting have actually caused significant improvements in other areas, for students with or without a disability.

So let’s don’t push kids too hard on handwriting. If you are lucky enough to work with an occupational therapist, get them to help your kid learn to ride a bike or a skateboard, or make cookies, or dress themselves, or wash dishes. If you have been sweating and crying over Handwriting Without Tears at home, box it up and give it somebody you don’t like. (Kidding!)

Spend that extra afternoon or two doing something else. Preferably something free, since you’ll need to save up for a computer, or somehow get your kid consistent access to one at school. Teach them how to use it responsibly and how to advocate for themselves when they need it (both of these are a process), and make sure their needs are understood and met. Make sure they learn good keyboarding skills or can competently use dictation software, and fight for their right to use it if you need to. That’s going to be the new normal soon anyway, and we all know it.

* Handwriting Without Tears kits often includes free tears.

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