I recently saw a newspaper headline suggesting that teaching students HANDWRITING ultimately improves their READING ability.
As an English teacher, I was intrigued by that claim.
As a skeptic, I was … well … skeptical.
In this case, we have two good reasons to be skeptical. First, we should always be skeptical. Second, claims of transfer rarely hold up.
What is “transfer”?
Well, if you teach me calculus, then it’s likely I’ll get better at calculus. If you teach me to play the violin, it’s likely I’ll get better at playing the violin. But: if you teach me to play the violin, it’s NOT likely that this skill will transfer to another skill — like calculus. (And, no: music training in youth doesn’t reliably improve math ability later in life.)
In fact, most claims of transfer — “teaching you X makes you better at distantly-related-thing A” — end up being untrue.
So, is it true — as this newspaper headline implied — that handwriting skills transfer to reading skills?
This newspaper article pointed to research by Dr. Anabela Malpique, working in Western Australia.
Her research team worked with 154 6-7 year-olds around Perth. They measured all sorts of variables, including…
…the students’ handwriting automaticity (how well can they write individual letters),
…their reading skills (how accurately they read individual words),
…the amount of time the teachers reported spending in reading/writing instruction.
And, they measured handwriting automaticity and reading skills at the beginning and end of the year. For that reason, they could look for relationships among their variables over time. (As you can see, Malpique’s research focuses on many topics — not just the writing/reading question that I’m discussing in this post.)
To their surprise, Malpique’s team found that more fluent letter formation at the beginning of the year predicted more fluent word reading at the end of the year. In their words, this finding
suggest[s] that being able to write letters quickly and effortlessly in kindergarten facilitates pre-reading and decoding skills one year later.
In other words: this research allows the possibility that teaching writing does ultimately help students read single words.
However — and this is a big however — the researchers’ methodology does NOT allow for causal conclusions. They see a mathematical “relationship” between two things, but don’t say that the writing ability led to later reading ability.
Experimental research is needed to confirm these findings[,] and systematically evaluate potential explanatory mechanism[s] of writing-to-reading effects over time in the early years.
They specifically note that they did NOT measure reading comprehension; they measured single word reading.
To put this in other words: we would like to know if
a) teaching letter writing leads to
b) improved letter writing fluency, which leads to
c) improved single word reading, which leads to
d) improved reading comprehension.
These findings make the b) to c) connection more plausible, but the certainly do not “prove” that a) leads to d).
This research doesn’t claim we should make big changes right away.
I do think it leads to this conclusion:
Some schools are replacing books with computers and tablets. I can imagine (although I haven’t heard this) that advocates might make this claim:
“In the future, no one will need to write by hand. Everything will be keyboarding, and so we need to get children typing as soon as possible. Let’s replace handwriting instruction with keyboarding instruction, to prepare our kids for the future!”
If we hear that argument, we can say:
“I have LOTS of objections to that logical chain. In particular, we have tentative reasons to believe that handwriting instruction improves reading. If that’s true — and we don’t yet know — we should be VERY wary of doing anything that slows our students’ ability to read. We might not be handwriting so much in the future, but we’ll be reading forever.”
In sum: I don’t think that newspaper article captured essential nuances. However, this research raises the intriguing possibility that transfer just might take place from writing instruction to single-word reading. We need more research to know with greater certainty.
But, given the importance of reading for school and life, we should be excited to find anything that can help students do better.