We recently came across an article on the New York Times website discussing the relationship between learning to write and brain activity. This is a topic that we have taken a keen interest in for a number of years.
“Learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.” – Perri Klass, New York Times
Researchers have looked at how learning to write can help young children to learn to pay attention and develop “executive function” skills such as planning.
Virginia Berninger, from University of Washington and lead author of the study told the New York Times that the evidence suggests that “handwriting – forming letters – engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”
Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. Dr. James suggest that “writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”
This suggests that there is a direct relationship with handwriting and cognitive development of children. But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? It is integral that children are allowed the time to learn all of the key elements to mastering handwriting in order to train their brain to be able to read the written language. By allowing the time and providing the right teaching with specialist resources at an early age has been linked to higher marks and greater levels of achievement at later stages of education.
Handwriting and academic performance
The link between mastering the skill of handwriting and academic performance was discussed by Laura Dinehart, an early childhood specialist from Florida International University, in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Laura suggests that children who find handwriting difficult have to put more attention into forming and printing letters which detracts from answering the question or completing the task to the best of their ability.
This is compared to pupils with a good grasp of writing who can concentrate their attention solely on the task in front of them resulting in a quality answer that a teacher enjoys to read resulting in a higher mark. During the years of experience teaching in school, running workshops and private tuition this is a correlation that I have seen numerous times. Due to the time constraints and pressures enforced on teachers, they are not afforded the time to be able to analyse and address this correlation which would make their lives easier and teaching more effective resulting in better academic achievements.
Laure Dinehart has pointed out her research suggests that children who had developed fine-motor skills in pre-school or nursery were those that did better at school. Encouraging children to use their hands through play is something I have been encouraging in recent years in order to develop the muscles used to grip a pencil. This provides a good foundation for when they reach the first stage of learning to form letters.
Making people aware of the far reaching benefits of learning to write is a challenge I have faced numerous times. So, it is great to see in the New York Times article that scientists have found a link that the area of the brain used when they read is the same area activated by the fine motor processes. “This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.”
There is also a reference to research suggesting “children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practising cursive.” My approach to teaching has been focused on allowing ample time to be spent at each stage of the learning process. This allows solid foundations to be laid providing the ideal platform for children to progress through education with a good grasp of handwriting allowing them to focus attention on the work in front of them.