Handwriting and Spelling

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Logic of English students learn to read and write simultaneously as part of a well developed multi-sensory approach to literacy. Students progress systematically through the following steps of learning to write and spell:

  • Lowercase single-letter phonograms (a-z)
  • Short words
  • Short phrases
  • Uppercase single letter phonograms (A-Z)
  • Multi-letter phonograms (ch, oy, ow)
  • Sentences
  • Multi-syllable words

Students are taught how to write each phonogram as they are introduced to its visual representation and sounds. Handwriting instruction begins using large-motor movements and emphasizes the rhythm of each movement in order to develop automatic muscle memory. In this manner students learn to associate the printed shape, how it is formed through writing, and its sounds. As students acquire the needed fine motor skills they then progress to writing on paper.

One of the most beneficial ways to improve fluency is to intertwine reading and spelling instruction as related subjects. The most effective spelling practice will also include writing the words by hand.

Reading and spelling are both processes of the Alphabetic Principle. Reading is how students decode fluent speech from print, while spelling is how students encode spoken words into written words. When the relationship between spelling and reading is shown, students gain a better understanding of the code and demonstrate gains in reading comprehension (Moats, 2005), vocabulary (Moats, 2005), fluency (Snow et al., 2005), spelling (Berninger, 2012) and composition skills (Moats, 2005; Peverly, 2012).

Spelling instruction begins by learning how to write each of the phonograms beginning with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Research has demonstrated that students’ ability to write the letters is closely interwoven with their ability to read words (Domico, 1993; Richgels, 1995).

Good handwriting instruction develops automatic muscle memory, meaning the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention (Berninger & Rutberg, 1992). A process is automatic if it occurs without voluntary control and interferes minimally with other processes (Pashler, 1994). When students have developed automatic handwriting, they are then free to concentrate on spelling, higher-level thought, and written expression (Sheffield, 1996; Handley-More et al., 2003). In addition, students retrieve the letters from memory more easily (Case-Smith, 2012; Berninger, 2012).

Handwriting also builds recognition of words using kinesthetic memory — the earliest, strongest, and most reliable memory channel (Sheffield, 1996). Scientists at Johns Hopkins University showed that practicing handwriting changed which brain regions were being activated and demonstrated that these changes resulted in almost immediate improvements in reading fluency and the development of the neural pathways needed for reading. In the experiment, subjects’ brains engaged new regions to perform the handwriting, with a shift from the prefrontal regions to premotor, posterior parietal, and cerebellar cortex structures. This shift is specific to recall of an established motor skill and increased stability of the skill (Holcomb & Shadmehr, 1997). Through fMRI brain studies, it has also been shown that the sequential finger movements used in handwriting activate massive regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory (James, K.H., 2012).

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As students master phonograms, they learn to combine them to spell short words, then progressively larger and more difficult words. By teaching students to spell, we help them develop a clear understanding of the relationship between speech and print.

Each new phonogram and spelling rule is taught explicitly before it is used for spelling or reading. Games and activities help students apply the knowledge to a wide variety of words.

Spelling lists in Logic of English lessons may use any rule or phonogram that has been previously taught — thus requiring students to use critical thinking skills during spelling. New spelling words are introduced using a multi-sensory method called spelling dictation. In this process students write the word and analyze the phonograms and rules that explain its spelling, thereby mapping the relationships between sounds and symbols.”

As lessons progress, a wide variety of phrase-, sentence-, and paragraph-level writing activities continue to engage the motor learning of students and aid them in becoming stronger writers as well as readers.

Other studies have confirmed that when written production is less practiced, it interferes with conscious retrieval processes during reading (Bourdin, 1999; Bourdin & Fayol, 1994, 1996, 2002). This is because a motor experience, such as writing, changes our neural activation patterns when we next perceive the object visually, with the result that simply looking at the object activates the motor system (Chao & Martin, 2000; Grezes & Decety, 2002; James & Atwood, 2008). This has recently been found to occur when we view letters as well (James & Gauthier, 2006), suggesting that our history of interacting with letters through writing is stored and perhaps re-activated upon visual presentation.

This means that students should frequently practice spelling by writing as opposed to typing. Compared to typing, handwriting requires executing finger strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding only involves touching a key (Berninger et al., 1998).

Despite a cultural tendency to deemphasize handwriting and spelling instruction, it is vitally important that all reading curriculum integrate spelling and handwriting as part of a multi-sensory approach to mastering the written form of language.

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Berninger, V. “Evidence-based, developmentally appropriate writing skills k-5: teaching the orthographic loop of working memory to write letters so developing writers can spell words and express ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st century?: An educational summit, Washington, D.C. January 23, 2012

Berninger, V., Abbott, R.,Thomson, J., Wagner, R., Swanson, H.L., Wijsman,E., & Raskind, W. (2006). Modeling developmental phonological core deficits within a working-memory architecture in children and adults with developmental dyslexia. Scientific Studies in Reading, 10,165-198.

Berninger, V., & Rutberg, J. (1992). Relationship of finger function to beginning writing: Application to diagnosis of writing disabilties. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 34, 155-172.

Berninger, V.W., Graham, S., & Weintraub, N. (1998). The relationship between handwriting style and speech and legibility. The Journal of Educational Research, 91, 290-296.

Bourdin, B. (1999). Working memory and language production: Comparison of oral and written production in adults and children. Anneo Psychologique, 99(1), 123-148.

Bourdin, B., & Fayol, M. (1994). Is written language production more difficult than oral language production? A working-memory approach. International Journal of Psycholgy, 29(5), 591-620.

Bourdin, B., & Fayol, M. (1996). Mode effects in a sentence production span task. Cahiers De Psychologie Cognitive, 15(3), 245-264.

Bourdin, B., & Fayol, M. (2002). Even in adults, written production is still more costly than oral production. International Journal of Psychology, 37(4), 219-227.

Case-Smith, J. “Benefits of an OT/teacher model for first grade handwriting instruction.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st century?: An educational summit, Washington, D.C. January 23, 2012.

Chao, L.L., & Martin, A. (2000). Representation of manipulable man-made objects in the dorsal stream. NeuroImage, 12(4), 478–84. doi:10.1006/nimg.2000.0635.

Domico, M.A. (1993), Patterns of development in narrative stories of emergent writers. In Examining central issues in literacy research, theory and practice, eds. C. Kinzer & D. Leu, 391-404.

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Handley-More, D., Deitz, J., Billingsley, F.F., & Coggins, T.E. (2003). Facilitating written work using computer word processing and word prediction. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 57, 139-151.

Holcomb, H.H., & Shadmehr, R. (1997). Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation, Science, 227, 821-825.

James, K.H. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing the developing brain, Developmental Science, 13(2), 279-288.

James, K.H., & Atwood, T.P. (2008). The role of sensorimotor learning in the perception of letter-like forms: Tacking the causes of neural specialization for letters, Cognitive Neuropsychology.

James, K.H., & Gauthier, I. (2006). Letter processing automatically recruits a sensory-motor brain network, Neuropsychologia, 44, 2937-2949.

Moats, L. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-42.

Pashler, H. (1994). Divided attention: Storing and classifying briefly presented objects. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 1, 115-118.

Peverly, S. “The relationship of transcription speed and other cognitive variables to note-taking and test performance.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st century? An Educational summit, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.

Rasinski, T.V. “Introduction: Fluency: The Essential Link From Phonics to Comprehension.” Essential readings on fluency. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2009. 1-10. Print.

Richgels, D.J. (1995). Invented spelling ability and printed word learning in kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 96-109.

Sheffield, B. (1996) Handwriting: a neglected cornerstone of literacy. Annals of Dyslexia, 46, 21-35.

Snow, C.E., Griffin, P., & Burns, M.S. (Eds.) (2005). Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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