Cutting to the Common Core: Sticking to the Script

Timothy Shanahan reassesses the role of handwriting in literacy development

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 the 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 the 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.” Previously, 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. (During her 30 years of research on normal reading, writing, and math development and learning disabilities in reading, writing, and math, she has authored, co-authored, or edited over 200 research publications, including twelve books.) 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 in the practice of 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 (see reference below). 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.

“What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” Maria Konnikova, New York Times, June 2, 2014

Timothy Shanahan is distinguished professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he was founding director of the Center for Literacy and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He is principal investigator of the National Title I Study of Implementation and Outcomes: Early Childhood Language Development. Professor Shanahan was director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools. His research emphasizes reading-writing relationships, reading assessment, and improving reading achievement. He is a past president of the International Reading Association. In 2006, he received a presidential appointment to serve on the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Literacy. He was inducted to the Reading Hall of Fame in 2007. Visit his blog: