Handwriting: A Window to Our Students’ Brains

Handwriting gives us a view into a student’s brain. I have found that ninety-seven percent of the time I can view a student’s handwriting, and almost immediately make a very close estimation of their grade—and I’m usually correct. Viewing a student’s handwriting gives us teachers insight into several aspects of how students’ brains function and the process by which the information transfers from their brains, through their hands, and onto the paper. If the writing is fast and sloppy, the students usually haven’t taken much time to process their thoughts or to write carefully, and it shows visually as well as in their written content.  

Carefulness or Carelessness?  

I have consistently found that my “98s” (my term for those careful, hard-working students who almost always make A’s—not necessarily because they are brilliant, but because they are careful and tedious) have neat writing. I have also found that the students who make Cs and Ds almost always have sloppy writing.  

There are several very helpful suggestions we teachers can glean from these observations.  

First and second grade teachers: please emphasize handwriting. Teach it, preach it, encourage it, and demand it. If you cement into students’ brains the importance of writing slowly and carefully when they are young and very impressionable, all the teachers who will have your students in the future will thank you—and the students should as well, because you will be instilling a process that will serve them well the rest of their lives. If they approach writing, and thus their assignments and school in general, with a slow and careful approach, they tend to have more of an “achiever” mentality. It’s instilling an attitude of “I’m going to do this purposefully and carefully,” versus a fast and sloppy “I just want to get this done as fast as possible” attitude—which is the default course for many students.

I remember at the very beginning struggling with my own imperfect writing until my kindergarten or first grade teacher gently placed her hand over mine and showed me how to press down harder and to grasp the pencil more firmly, guiding my hand and helping me write the letters correctly. It worked, and from then on, I knew how it was supposed to feel. I still do this for my own students, and just recently one of our kindergarten students was struggling to write the letter “H.” His teacher who is left-handed wisely called me over to help him with this exact technique because I am right-handed like he is. (Note: This should be done very appropriately and carefully, with only hands touching.)   If a student does write sloppily, erase it, and have them do it again. With my younger students, I will often have them tell me the answer for the first written word on the page, then I will write it on the blank for them, modeling neat, careful, slow writing. I will have them write the next word on their own, erasing any sloppiness, and encouraging them to stay in the lines before sending them back to their desks to finish the rest on their own. This way they have begun the page neatly—setting a precedent for that assignment—and will hopefully finish it that way. If needed, I do this daily all year long with my first graders to instill the process.  

 Teachers from third grade up: Make neat handwriting a priority. Remind your students often (I sometimes do this hourly) to slow down and write neatly. When students slow down with their physical writing, it also often helps them to process their thoughts in a more deliberate manner, causing their work to not only look neater, but to be of better quality because of the thought processes used.

How Do We Make It a Priority?  

I have found a few ways that I believe have helped students in grades 3-12 to slow down and try to have neater writing.  

  • Model neat writing yourself. Whether it’s diagramming sentences or writing a math problem on the board, the grade you write on their papers, or anything that students see you write, make it neat and model good penmanship for them. Draw attention to it, too. Tell them, “See how neatly I’m writing? I expect you to write like this too.”
  • Teach a short “review” lesson as the first academic assignment for the day every day. This helps them remember first thing in the morning that neat handwriting is a priority. I have done this in two ways.
    • The first is to go through the alphabet A-Z with both the capital and lowercase letter, reviewing one letter each day. I have students write these in their journals as it only takes the space of a few lines. I have students put down their pens while I model writing the letter on the board slowly and carefully, emphasizing the “art” aspects of cursive writing. Then I will have students write three to five of that letter in their journals, and then I dictate a few short words that begin with that letter and have both capital and lower case letters (e.g., A – Adam, Aunt Amanda; B – Bob the Barber). The dictation adds a fun aspect and adds yet another skill: listening and writing, rather than the regular reading and then writing.  
    • The second method I have used is to have students complete one-half of a page from a handwriting curriculum. I choose ones that have fonts that are not too small or squished together, and ones that have assignments that are not too tedious. My favorites are listed below. I tear out the pages so that they lay flat, and always encourage students to have two to three sheets of scrap paper for “padding” underneath. I can always tell when my students have not used padding, because their writing appears extra wobbly. I always have a stack of scrap paper handy in my room, because once students get used to it, they ask for it often.  
  • Stress using the lines. That’s half the battle. If the letters touch the lines, using them as a guide, the students are thinking about what they are doing in a very tangible concrete way, and it really cleans up their writing. Touching the lines is also something easy to remember and achieve.
  • Give verbal reminders every time students are beginning assignments and tests. I usually say something like, “Write neatly in cursive! It’s art. Make it smooth and spacious. Have mercy on my eyeballs.” Note: This is important in math as well when writing and lining up numbers—especially for algebra.
  • Demand excellence. Especially on handwriting assignments, I circle any words which are too sloppy and make students rewrite them neatly. If I cannot read the words on other assignments, I just mark them wrong.
  • Set your expectations high. I have found that if I remind and challenge students consistently, and give short review lessons daily, that the handwriting really does improve. It is an amazing thing to see the transformation.
  • Praise them! If they’ve worked hard and improved their writing, tell them out loud or write a note on their papers letting them know that you’ve noticed. They will appreciate it and hopefully continue to try harder.

Other Handwriting Notes  

Let students use their favorite pens or pencils. I allow my students to use whatever they prefer—pens, pencils, gel pens, colored markers—as long as the writing is neat, and the color is dark enough that I can read it. This adds to the “art” aspect of writing, I believe. Bic Cristal pens have been my favorites since I was in high school because they write smoothly and easily.  Every year I give my students one of these pens to encourage them to find pens which they enjoy using.   The only writing that I think can be allowed to be sloppy is when students have some great ideas and quickly jot down a fast little outline to get those thoughts onto the paper. But, as they write their essay, I expect legible, neat handwriting.

What About Computers?    

Call me old school, but I’ve seen far too many instances of computers in the classroom being a distraction, a crutch, or a method for plagiarizing for me to believe that they need to be easily accessible for most real K-12th grade learning to take place. This is just my opinion, but I have seen greatly improved results when students use pen and paper for almost everything in school except for writing research paper rough drafts, which is about the only time I allow my students to use them during class. After a hand-written outline is written for other assignments, I don’t mind if students use computers to type their papers, but I very rarely allow laptops to be open on their desks while I’m teaching.  

A Startling Perspective  

In most of the schools in Germany, students after the third grade are required to use fountain pens—the kind you have to dip the tip in an inkwell or use ink cartridges—to write all of their assignments. Why? Because it makes them think more about what they are doing. The process of writing with these kinds of pens is much more conducive to students writing carefully and purposefully; and thus, results in better handwriting and thought processes. Even the kindergarteners usually learn to write using ballpoint pens, advancing to fountain pens around fourth grade when they are old enough to not make a mess with them. Some schools even have students complete writing booklets and award “fountain pen awards” when they have achieved a certain level of neatness in their writing.  

If we as teachers emphasize neat handwriting, remind students about it, give them tangible ways to practice it, and expect them to fix any sloppy writing, we can indeed achieve a much higher standard of writing in our classrooms.    

My favorite writing curricula:

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