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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Handwriting in the Time of Common Core

September 24, 2014

My father, who had no more than an eighth grade education, wrote in a beautiful Palmer hand. His oneroom 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.

For more information on teaching and assessing reading, writing, and literacy visit Dr. Shanahan's blog.


So much is lost in technology. I love the writing of writing . . . a lost art.

I know a 5 year old who taught himself to read and write using his iPad. He can type very fast and compose long pieces with correctly spelled words like "building." Learning to write with a pencil is very hard for him and frustrating because he can type faster than he can write. He will continue to be a child to study as we figure out what to do about handwriting which I think is very important.

I've used Dr. Berninger's research in working with teachers and parents. I believe she says cursive writing is better for concentration in the brain than using print. Some schools have even started with cursive instead of using printing at all! Students of mine have said they felt it was unfair for school to teach print and then switch to cursive--but then Junior High kids will complain about most things.

I agree that handwriting is very important to a child in developing his/her own voice.

Yes, I firmly believe in the importance of a legible and neat handwriting. Being an English teacher, it is quite astonishing to see Teachers not laying enough stress on handwriting. I am glad this issue is being discussed and in favour of it.

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