Penmanship Problems Hurt Quality Of Student Writing, Study Suggests

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A recent study suggests that a little handwriting instruction can go a long way in staving off writing problems.

The report, by researchers at the University of Maryland College Park is based on a study of 38 Washington-area 1st graders who were identified as having handwriting problems. Half the children in the group received regular, 15- minute handwriting lessons on top of their normal classwork. The other half got similar doses of phonics instruction.

After 27 such lessons, all of the children were evaluated on the fluency and quality of their writing. While both groups produced stories of similar quality, the researchers found, the pupils given handwriting lessons produced grammatical sentences much more fluidly than their counterparts in the control group. And the gains occurred among youngsters with disabilities, as well as those without them.

All of the children in the handwriting group maintained their edge—and even widened it— when the researchers tested them again six months later.

"That's often the real rub—that what you get initially will wash out," said Steve Graham, the primary author on the study, which was published in the December issue of Educational Psychology. His research partners were Karen R. Harris and Barbara Fink.

The findings are among a small but growing number of studies suggesting that handwriting may play a bigger role in the writing process than is commonly believed. "If you have to stop and think about how to form a particular letter, that increases the likelihood that you're going to lose something you might hold in your working memory," said Mr. Graham, a professor of education. "What you might lose are the ideas in your working memory about what you're going to say next."

Yet, Mr. Graham pointed out, current classroom trends work against giving students explicit, systematic lessons in letter formation. Instead, teachers tend to reserve those lessons for small groups of children having trouble with specific letters. "We need to take a more proactive approach," Mr. Graham said.

Vol. 20, Issue 24, Page 8

Published in Print: February 28, 2001, as Penmanship Problems Hurt Quality Of Student Writing, Study Suggests
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