Handwriting in the Time of Common Core

  • 21 September, 2014
            My father, who had no more than an eighth grade education, wrote in a beautiful Palmer hand. His one-room schoolhouse education did not promise to take him far, but it did allow him to place words on paper in an elegant and readable manner. And, this skill had practical utility beyond its aesthetic beauty, since he worked for many years as a bookkeeper. 
            But the public value of handwriting has diminished during the ensuing century. In fact, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) don’t even mention handwriting, cursive, or manuscript printing. 
            Nevertheless, It is evident that the standards writers expect kids to learn some form of these—since the standards explicitly call for students to engage in written composition; and this would be hard to do if one had no way of getting words on paper. 
            Of course, part of the diminishment of handwriting is due to the fact that most of us type or keyboard rather than write. But CCSS doesn’t even mention keyboarding prior to third grade. 
            This neglect of handwriting has occasioned some controversy. Some states, Alabama, for instance, have supplemented CCSS to require the teaching of these skills in addition to the shared standards.
            Recently, I received a request from a teacher concerning the “role of handwriting for beginning readers.” 
            Many years ago, my response to her would have been that handwriting plays very little role in literacy development. Correlations between handwriting proficiency and early reading were never especially high and researchers made a point of the importance of composition and spelling over handwriting. 
            That view began to change with the work of Ginger Berninger. She has been one of the leading researchers exploring how writing affects reading. Like the rest of us who have tilled those fields, Dr. Berninger has reported a close relationship between reading and writing. However, unlike the rest of us, she considered handwriting and found that it played an important role in this relationship. 
            Many years ago, I concluded that writing could only have an impact on a child’s reading development if the child was writing—something that is omitted in far too many classrooms. Berninger takes that a step further, because she has found that the amount and quality of children’s writing is highly dependent on their handwriting skills. 
            If a student has trouble getting words on paper, then the impact of writing on reading is reduced. Students simply write less and write less well (in terms of the quality of the composition) if they can’t easily get words on paper. 
            Most children are able to write by hand more quickly and fluently than they can by keyboard. CCSS is correct to encourage the teaching of keyboarding, but handwriting can play an important role in children’s writing across the elementary years. 
            There are now various theories about how handwriting may affect the brain—and there are reasons to believe that at least some disabled readers and writers benefit more from some kind of composition by hand than by keyboard (New York Times article). However, the argument for teaching handwriting is much simpler than those findings suggest:
Premise 1:  Writing has a positive impact on the development of children’s reading skills;
Premise 2:  To derive this benefit, children have to engage in writing;
Premise 3:  If they can write well (quickly, legibly), they will write more and better; 
Premise 4:  If children write more and better that will have a more positive impact on reading.
Conclusion: Therefore, we need to teach young children to print and write--early on. 
            Kids may not need to develop a Palmer hand like my father’s, but they do need to know how to record their ideas on paper with ease and instruction can facilitate that.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:26 AM


Dr Shanahan....it is hard to argue with what you state about handwriting. But, as a principal, our biggest issue is prioritizing the time. How much time should be allotted for penmanship? reading instruction? math? science? arts? PE?....etc. The outside experts all tell us what is important. But can everything be important?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:27 AM


There is no question that there are lots of time demands. If I'm making the decisions, full-day elementary teachers would devote 2-3 hour per day to English language arts. I would divide that time in either quarters or fifths. With the former, I would divide the time this way: 1/4 words (including phonological awareness, phonics, spelling, sight vocabulary, word meanings); 1/4 oral reading fluency; 1/4 reading comprehension; 1/4 writing (and part of that time in particular grades would be devoted to penmanship and keyboarding). In the 1/5 plan, I would have one section on oral language. Most math experts ask for 1 hour per day... that leaves about 2 to 2.5 hours per day (10-15 hours per week) for everything else--though that isn't as stark as it sounds since reading and writing time can focus on reading or writing about social studies, science, and the arts.

Jess Jun 15, 2017 11:27 AM


In regards to to the "time" question posed by Anonymous...

Handwriting can be embedded into writing instruction quickly and effectively by drawing attention to incorrect letter formation when it occurs. The teacher can focus on pathways of movement through rehearsal on a practice page or other tactile methods (sand, wipe off board, etc.). Allowing the student time to practice only those letters formed in error will help the "time" factor since time is not wasted on practicing letter formation for letters they can form quickly and easily. This is a common practice in Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery teachers can prompt the child by saying, "Let me show you a faster way to make this letter..." Then, the teacher allows a brief amount of time for modeling and student practice. This occurs during independent writing and takes just a moment of time. In a sense, it is embedded into the writing portion of the lesson. Classroom teachers can do the very same thing.

Jesse Grant Jun 15, 2017 11:29 AM


In regards to the question Anonymous posed...

Handwriting can be easily embedded into any guided or independent writing activity. When the teacher notices incorrect letter formation, he/she can prompt the child by saying "Let me show you a faster way to make this letter..." The teacher then allows time for modeling and independent practice. This is occuring while the student is composing any sort of message or written assignment. When addressing handwriting in this manner, time is not wasted on forming letters that the child can form easily and quickly (without prompting or copying). This is a common practice during the writing portion of Reading Recovery lessons but classroom teachers can do the very same thing.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:29 AM


For those of us who use the Spalding Method for teaching reading this is "old news". Having taught first grade for more than 20 years, I know that correct letter formation should be explicitly taught and goes hand in hand with the reading process.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:30 AM


In my opinion its hard to meet all the demands of common core. It is hard to find the time for handwriting when we must meet the needs of reading, math, science, arts and even physical education. Personally, I was taught handwriting in school. I remember having writing books that we worked in once a day. It may have only been for a few minutes but we still had the chance to work on them. I feel that teachers can model writing skills and how to form letters when writing up on the white boards during whole group discussions. Then allow the students time to write in writing journals. These can be science, reading, math etc. Let them know that it will be looked at for neatness and handwriting techniques.

April Dec 11, 2019 06:19 PM

Can anyone direct me to research on the appropriate age to begin handwriting instruction?

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Handwriting in the Time of Common Core


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