Handwriting instruction: What's the evidence?
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Everyone teaches handwriting, but like with other aspects of literacy, there is enormous variability in how educators go about it and how much time is dedicated to it. In 2015, Santangelo and Graham conducted a meta-analysis of handwriting instruction which is one of the more detailed and recent publications that we have available. Note that it looks at the macro rather than the micro level, so we do need to read it in conjunction with other papers to develop a good sense of what is required for effective handwriting instruction.
Handwriting instruction should have two broad aims. It should aim to develop legibility and also fluency. There are obviously many other skills involved to achieve both of those things. We want students’ handwriting to be neat, accurate and fluent, and we want them to master handwriting as soon as possible, so we can focus on idea and text generation and sentence structure without the excessive load that handwriting development brings.
Below, I detail eleven findings from the meta-analysis, and then draw some conclusions about instruction based on this paper and others.
1. Handwriting instruction is better than no handwriting instruction. Of course it is.
The question that they asked was, 'Does handwriting instruction produce greater gains than no handwriting instruction?'
“The HW instruction ranged from relatively short and focused interventions (e.g., copying letters during a few sessions) to longer and more comprehensive HW programs (e.g., multi-component instruction spanning several months). In 19 [of 25] studies, the control condition was no instruction, whereas the others consisted of instruction not related to HW.” (p.245)
25 studies involving 1811 students in total were analysed. The effect size for handwriting instruction on legibility was 0.59 and on fluency it was 0.63. The impact that handwriting instruction had on both legibility and fluency were statistically significant. The effect size was greater, the more time spent on handwriting instruction. For students who had 10 or more hours of handwriting instruction, the effect size for legibility was 0.70 compared to 0.55 for students who had 8 hours or less.
“Neither study quality nor amount of instruction statistically moderated effect sizes for fluency. However, we did find the average weighted ES for students in grades 5 and higher (1.03) was statistically larger than the average weighted ES for students in grades 4 and below (0.36; Q (between)=23.34, p<.001). Thus, older students showed greater improvement in fluency as a result of HW instruction, when compared to younger students.” (p. 245)
The take-away: Handwriting instruction improves legibility and fluency. The more handwriting instruction we do, the more legible their handwriting. Handwriting effects on fluency are significant at any age but seem to be the most pronounced in the later grades.
2. Handwriting instruction positively impacts writing quality, writing length, and writing fluency.
The question that they asked was, 'What is the impact of handwriting instruction on writing quality, writing length, and writing fluency?' Seven studies including a total of 46 students in total were analysed.
Handwriting instruction had a statistically significant effect on writing quality (ES 0.84), length (ES 1.33) and fluency (ES 0.48). Note, in these studies, handwriting instruction ranged from 405-1300 minutes in duration, which is 7-22 hours.
The take-away: Handwriting instruction positively impacts writing quality, length and fluency. Do a lot of it to improve handwriting AND writing.
3. Motor instruction (fine, gross and sensorimotor) seemed to be no better than no motor instruction.
The question they asked was, 'Does motor instruction produce greater gains than no motor instruction?' Eight studies involving 466 students in total were analysed. Six of the eight studies included students with the full range of handwriting skills while two of eight included students with handwriting difficulties.
Instruction ranged from 180-900 minutes in duration. While half of the studies examined reported positive effects, the overall effect size for impact on legibility was 0.10 and was not significant. Again, while some studies reported positive results, the total effect size for impact on fluency was -0.07 which was not significant.
The take-away: At this stage, it seems to be the case that unless students have fine, gross and/or sensorimotor difficulties or disabilities, they do not require motor instruction.
4. Motor instruction did not produce better outcomes than pure handwriting instruction.
The question that they asked was, 'Does motor instruction produce greater gains that handwriting instruction?' Five studies with 175 students in total were analysed.
Motor instruction (fine, gross and sensorimotor) was compared to handwriting instruction. The effect size for legibility was not significant (ES 0.18) and for fluency again it was not significant (ES -0.06). While some studies reported positive impacts on legibility and one reported positive impact on fluency, the effects were weak overall. The five studies examined included a total of 175 students. Some had typical handwriting development and some had handwriting difficulty.
"Although the intervention conditions all involved motor instruction, the specific area(s) of focus varied across the studies (e.g., kinesthetic sensitivity, fine motor, visual-perceptual). The HW instruction conditions also differed (e.g., copying sentences, multi-component program). The amount of instruction provided in the five studies ranged from 90 to 600 min." (p.247)
The take-away: It does not seem there is much evidence to support motor instruction taking the place of handwriting instruction for students with typical handwriting ability.
5. Individualised handwriting instruction can be effective.
The question that they asked was, 'What is the impact of individualised handwriting instruction?' Individualised handwriting instruction seemed to benefit legibility (ES 0.69; statistically significant; most studies reported a positive effect) but not so much fluency (ES 0.58; not statistically significant; only half the studies reported a positive effect).
Eight studies including a total of 524 students were analysed. There was quite a degree of variability between studies. "Although the experimental condition in all eight studies shared the common, core feature of individualizing HW instruction based on students’ needs, there was some variability in other aspects, such as who designed the program and what specific instructional practices were used. There were notable differences in the control conditions, with four consisting of non-individualized HW instruction and the other four involving no intervention at all. The amount of instruction ranged from 6 sessions to 15 min per day for 8 months." (p.247)
The take-away: Individualised instruction seems to be effective but more so for legibility than fluency for students with typical handwriting ability.
6. The Handwriting Without Tears program was not demonstrated to be more effective than other approaches.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of the Handwriting Without Tears Program?' Eight studies including a total of 547 students were analysed. The effect on legibility was not statistically significant (ES 0.13), nor was the effect on fluency (ES 0.18). The amount of time spent on the program in studies varied a lot, so it’s hard to know what what was time spent versus the effectiveness of the program. The control groups also varied a lot with some involving no instruction, some involving typical handwriting instruction and some involving more student-directed administration of the program with little practice. Some studies reported positive impact on legibility but the impact was small.
The take-away: This program has not been demonstrated to be particularly effective overall when compared to other approaches, including typical handwriting instruction. Further research may change this but that’s what we know at this point.
7. Teaching individual letters with motion models can be effective.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of teaching individual letters with motion models?' Five studies which included a total of 252 students were analysed. Some studies included students with typically developing handwriting while others included students who were struggling as well. Motion models included showing students how to write individual letters (or letter-like forms) via demonstration by an adult or simulation on a tablet while "each control condition consisted of students learning from still models. The amount of instruction ranged from 22.5 to 480 min." (p.248)
The effect of teaching individual letters with motion models did not have a statistically significant effect on handwriting legibility (ES 0.26) but nearly half of the studies evaluated demonstrated positive effects. When they further analyse the data in the discussion, there seems to be merit. Fluency measures were not provided in the studies analysed.
The take-away: Using motion models can be an effective approach.
8. You can incorporate technology in your handwriting instruction, but you don’t need to.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of using technology as part of handwriting instruction?' Four studies including 105 students in total were analysed.
Use of a digitising tablet was evaluated. It should be noted that the majority of studies compared handwriting instruction via tablet to no handwriting instruction at all, while one involved typical handwriting instruction without a tablet. This means overall, this was not a direct comparison of paper versus tablet instruction. The effect size for legibility was 0.85 and it was statistically significant.
The take-away: Digital handwriting instruction is effective when compared to no handwriting instruction. We don’t have enough studies comparing digital and paper instruction to draw any absolute conclusions. In the absence of paper and pencil, digital handwriting instruction appears to be a viable option.
9. Getting students to self-evaluate their handwriting can be effective.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of using self-evaluation as part of handwriting instruction?' Four studies including a total of 337 students were analysed. All studies reported positive effects, but the combined effect size was 0.66 and not statistically significant. There was a big variation in time spent on self-evaluation via transparent overlays or printed models, from only four sessions through to 1000 minutes which could have influenced results. Further analysis of the data by the authors indicates merit.
Take-away: Self-evaluation can be an effective strategy in handwriting instruction.
10. Multi-sensory handwriting instruction was not demonstrated to be more effective than other approaches.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of multi-sensory handwriting instruction?' Four studies including a total of 478 students were analysed. Two studies only included students with handwriting difficulties while the other two studies had students with the full range of handwriting abilities included. The intervention was multi-sensory instruction and the control was non-multi-sensory instruction in all studies. The was a range of intervention times, from five sessions through to 480 minutes. Positive results were only noted in one study. Multi-sensory handwriting instruction did not produce a statistically significant effect on handwriting legibility (ES 0.02). Fluency was not reported on.
The take-away: Handwriting instruction does not need to be multisensory.
11. Copying letters from a model or a memory of a model can be effective.
The question that was asked was, 'What is the impact of copying letters from models or memory?' Four studies involving a total of 162 students were analysed. Studies were mixed in that two had student with handwriting difficulties, one had students with all abilities, and one study only included students with typical handwriting ability.
"In three studies, the intervention condition involved students copying letters (or letter-like forms) from models. In the fourth study, students either copied letters from models or studied a model and then recalled what they remembered. Three control conditions involved no (or unrelated) instruction, whereas the fourth involved copying a letter once (compared with multiple times in the intervention condition). The amount of instruction ranged from 22.5 to 480 min." (p.250)
All studies reported positive effects on handwriting when students copied a model letter or produced a letter after studying a model, but the combined result was not statistically significant (ES 0.26). Further analysis of the data by the authors in the discussion would indicate there is some merit.
The take-away: Copying from models and memory can be effective.
What does this all mean for instruction?
Explicitly and directly teach handwriting as it enhances both fluency and legibility. Spend a lot of time on it in the early years. The longer we spend on it, the more legible and fluent the handwriting. Additionally, handwriting instruction results in improved writing quality (including sentence structure), length and fluency (Graham, 2018).
Individualising instruction and using technology to teach handwriting can improve handwriting performance for some children.
Interventions that are designed to improve handwriting through improving motor skills are ineffective.
From this paper when read in conjunction with many others including Graham (2018), we can conclude that the following should be included in handwriting instruction. Note, this is not an exhaustive list:
- Model how letters are formed when teaching them.
- Use visual cues (e.g. numbered arrows) to guide letter formation.
- Provide a lot of practice in tracing, copying, and writing letters from memory.
- Encourage students to evaluate/correct letter production during practice.
- Give students many, many opportunities to write to increase fluency.
- Get students to set goals for improving their handwriting.
- Implement appropriate learning processes for left-handed students.
- Teach students how to position a piece of paper or a writing book as well as how to hold a pencil/pen in a comfortable and efficient manner and practice this multiple times.
- Reinforce/praise students’ successful letter production.
- Provide regular and explicit corrective feedback.
- Provide additional handwriting instruction to students who struggle.
- Allocate up to 75–100 minutes of handwriting instruction per week from Foundation through to mid-primary school. This is about 15-20 minutes per day.
Note, this is not intended to be a highly comprehensive review of the literature. It is a broad summary of some general findings from the most recent handwriting meta-analysis. There are many, many studies out there that are more specific and detailed about how to go about handwriting instruction including Berninger’s significant body of research that includes commentary on the cursive approach and how to best support students with handwriting difficulties. This meta-analysis is at the macro level and was discussed as Graham tends to provide clear conceptual big picture overviews on various aspects of literacy instruction.
I recommend reading the meta-analysis as Santangelo and Graham (2016) discuss the portions of students with and without handwriting difficulty included in some of the studies, as well as some further details about the individual study methods and findings. Some individual study findings are useful for practice but did not find their way into the broader meta-analysis discussion.
“Despite the advances made in scientifically identifying effective practices for teaching handwriting, there is much still to be learned.” (Graham, 2018, p.1371)
References in this post
Graham, S. (2018). Handwriting instruction: a commentary on five studies. Reading and Writing, 31(6), 1367-1377.
Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016). A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 28(2), 225-265.