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Research Review

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Why Is Handwriting Important?
Handwriting is an essential skill for both children and adults (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Even in the age of technology,

handwriting remains the primary tool of communication and knowledge assessment for students in the classroom. In

addition, greater writing speed “lessens the burden on working memory,” enabling children and adults to “create

good reader-friendly prose” (Peverly, 2006). Children spend a majority of their days using handwriting skills. In

addition, the demands for handwriting increase with age.

The demands for handwriting in the classroom do not always match

children’s developmental skills. According to a study published in

Children in kindergarten are
1992 (McHale & Cermak), 85 percent of all fine motor time in
now spending 42 percent of
second-, fourth- and sixth-grade classrooms was spent on paper their fine motor time on paper
and pencil activities. A more recent study (Marr, Cermak, Cohn and pencil activities during the
& Henderson, 2003) found that children in kindergarten are school day.
now spending 42 percent of their fine motor time on paper and

pencil activities during the school day. These studies advocate the value of children learning handwriting skills. The

addition of handwritten components to many state standardized assessments and of a handwritten essay to the

College Board SAT in 2005 further emphasize the importance of handwriting. Furthermore, good handwriting is

important long after graduation. In Script and Scribble (2009), Kitty Burns Florey writes, “…judging handwritten
applications for writing positions, I found myself drawn to those with legible handwriting and prejudiced against

scrawlers; in every case, the better handwriters turned out to be better writers as well.” She also notes: “Like it or

not, even in our machine-driven world, people still judge you by your handwriting.”

Studies have estimated that between 10 to 30 percent of elementary school children struggle with handwriting

(Karlsdottir & Stephansson, 2002, as cited in Feder & Majnemer, 2007). Research literature extensively documents

the consequences of poor handwriting on academic performance. Graham, Harris and Fink (2000) suggest that

children who experience difficulty mastering this skill [handwriting] may avoid writing and decide that they cannot

write, leading to arrested writing development. Other experts claim that illegible handwriting has secondary effects

on school achievement and self-esteem (Engel-Yeger, Nagakur - Yanuv & Rosenblum, 2009; Malloy-Miller, Polatajko

& Anstett, 1995).

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Children with poor handwriting skills will also have difficulty in other academic areas. Recent research implies that

handwriting is critical to the production of creative and well-written text (Graham & Harris, 2005). Handwriting

affects both fluency and the quality of the composition. Christensen (2005) demonstrated how children enrolled

in an eight-week handwriting intervention program outperformed their peers in all measures of writing, achieving

a 46 percent improvement in the quality of written text beyond the journal [control] group (as cited in Medwell

& Wray, 2007). These studies, along with others (Berninger, Vaughn, Abbott, Abbott, Rogan, Brooks, Reed, &

Graham, 1997; Graham, Harris, & Fink, 2000b; Graham & Harris, 2005; Jones & Christensen, 1999) offer strong

evidence that structured handwriting instruction leads to improved writing performance, academic success, and

overall student self-esteem.

Handwriting Instruction: Who Teaches It?

Though experts agree that specific and direct handwriting instruction is important, who teaches handwriting

to our children is just as important. Many individuals—from

parents to preschool teachers to elementary educators— direct Thankfully, the days of drilled
handwriting instruction. This means that children receive varying penmanship are gone, but
handwriting instruction. How do these individuals learn to teach explicit handwriting instruction
handwriting? A national survey conducted by Graham, Harris, is necessary and should be part
Mason, Fink-Chorzempa, Moran and Saddler (2007) revealed of the regular class schedule.
that only 12 percent of teachers rated their formal preparation

to teach children handwriting as adequate.

Furthermore, teachers overwhelmingly responded that handwriting should be a separate subject. Thankfully, the

days of drilled penmanship are gone, but explicit handwriting instruction is necessary and should be part of the

regular class schedule (Asher, 2006; Sheffield, 1996; Ste-Marie, Clark, Findlay & Latimer, 2004). In addition,

supplementary formal preparation, in the form of professional development, should be available to close the gap

in preparing teachers for handwriting instruction (Graham et al., 2007).

2 © 2009 Handwriting Without Tears®

What Are Best Practices in Teaching Handwriting?
Handwriting education is available through various methods and commercially available programs. Given that

handwriting is a crucial skill for children, which method provides the best outcome for classroom performance? The

answer lies in teacher implementation, the choice of curriculum, and in

student abilities. The National Association for the Education of Young 52 percent of third
Children (NAEYC) recommends that newborn to eight-year-old children grade teachers today
learn best from methods that are consistent with developmentally noted uniformity of slant
appropriate practice (1996). Their guidelines include using methods
as a problem.
that incorporate established, tested practices of child development

and learning.

Handwriting curricula must adhere to developmental principles to ensure success for all children. Daly, Kelley and

Krauss (2003) recommend that professionals consider the variations in maturation and skills among kindergartners

when implementing a handwriting curriculum. It is crucial that all young children learn to write well. To meet

this goal, educators rely on research and experience to guide their curriculum-based interventions. The use of

developmentally appropriate practices has become more important as more young children face higher academic

standards each year.

Because children are now spending more of their school day writing, it is important to teach a handwriting style

that is easier to learn and easier to read. Researchers tested legibility and found that children using a vertical

manuscript outperformed those using a slanted version (ERIC Development Team, 1997). They recommend that it

is beneficial and logical to teach children to write letters that are similar to letters they are learning to read.

Children learn the vertical stroke before the slanted stroke as they develop copying skills (Gesell, 1940). The

tendency to write vertical letter forms is a natural occurrence in young children. Teaching a special [slanted]

alphabet means that children will have to re-learn many letters that they can already write when they enter school.

Furthermore, Berninger, Graham and Weintraub (1998) concluded that slanted manuscript letters are no more

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successful than traditional manuscript letters when transitioning students to cursive writing. They also found that

slanted writing does not improve the overall legibility of students’ manuscript letters. In other words, there is no

support to claims that slanted forms of the alphabet facilitate transition from manuscript to cursive writing (ERIC

Development Team, 1997; Graham, 1993).

In fact, 52 percent of third grade teachers today noted uniformity of slant as a problem (Graham et al., 2007).

Graham suggests that this problem is likely due to a change in the type of script taught. Graham et al. (2007)

along with Armitage and Ratzlaff (1985), agree that this difficulty arises when children who learn a vertical

style of print are required to learn a slanted style of cursive. Armitage and Ratzlaff (1985) recommend that

initial instruction of cursive should include a vertical style of letter formation, allowing students to transition to

a slanted style after the letter forms have been mastered. Graham (1992) also found that individuals learning

a slanted style of writing tend to misshape letters, extend the

strokes above and below the guidelines incorrectly, and have Quality handwriting instruction
consistent letter size. addresses posture, grip, and
correct positioning within the
In 2006, Asher found that nine teachers who taught handwriting classroom environment.
in one school district used a variety of commercial handwriting

programs and instructional methods—as many as six. Teachers reported that under these circumstances, students

did not develop fluent handwriting skills. As a result, these students needed subsequent review and handwriting

instruction. Asher suggests using a consistent curriculum from kindergarten through primary grades to ensure all

teachers are using uniform instruction and language. This would enable children to master writing more easily.

Quality handwriting instruction addresses posture, grip, and correct positioning in the classroom. Non-proficient

writers often display inferior biomechanics [posture, grip, and positioning] to those who are proficient (Rosenblum,

Goldstand & Parush, 2006). Likewise, Smith-Zuzovsky and Exner (2004) commented that complex hand skills

[such as those used in handwriting], are affected by the quality of a child’s seated position. Therefore, it is

important to include instructions for correct positioning in manuals for professionals. Deciding on a curriculum to

meet the diverse learning needs of all students is challenging. When choosing an effective handwriting program,

it is necessary to use information from literature and exercise professional wisdom and experience.

4 © 2009 Handwriting Without Tears®

What Makes Handwriting Without Tears® the Curriculum of Choice?
Handwriting Without Tears® aims to make legible and fluent handwriting an easy and automatic skill for all

students. The unique and compelling curriculum design and teaching strategies facilitate this goal.

Handwriting Without Tears® (HWT) is based on developmental principles. Developed by Jan Olsen, occupational

therapist, HWT teaches handwriting skills using developmentally appropriate practice and multisensory

approaches. Teaching handwriting skills based on what children already know, how they learn best, and on their

developmental abilities leads to success. The developmental principles of Arnold Gesell, Ph.D., M.D., are the basis

of HWT’s readiness approach for preschool and kindergarten. Gesell explains how children gradually develop

their ability to copy forms in a very predictable order (Gesell, 1940). Starting with the vertical line, children

progress in their copying abilities to the horizontal line, circle, cross, square, and triangle. The Handwriting

Without Tears® unique teaching order begins handwriting instruction with letters that start with the vertical

stroke. Case-Smith (2002) explains that the HWT curriculum uses a developmental approach by grouping letters

by difficulty and teaching a style that uses simple vertical lines. Diverse literature supports the teaching of a

simple vertical style (Berninger, Graham & Weintraub, 1998; ERIC Development Team, 1997).

By building on what children already know and using child-friendly, consistent habits and language, the curriculum

facilitates and strengthens handwriting skills from year to year.

The Handwriting Without Tears® method teaches the easiest HWT has a unique strategy
skills first and then builds on what the children have learned. for developing grip: using
Such instruction helps children develop good consistent habits small writing tools, crayons,
for size, letter formation, and letter placement. Thus, they will and pencils along with teacher
master handwriting more quickly. Handwriting Without Tears®
demonstration, modeling, and
guided practice.
essentially delineates the task of handwriting into specific

developmental units.

Handwriting Without Tears® incorporates activities for instruction on developing correct crayon and pencil grip,

posture, paper positioning, and other physical approaches. As outlined in the literature, we cannot ignore the

© 2009 Handwriting Without Tears® 5

physical approach to skilled hand use when teaching handwriting (Rosenblum, Goldstand & Parush, 2006; Smith-

Zuzovsky & Exner, 2004). HWT has a unique strategy for developing grip: using small writing tools, crayons,

and pencils along with teacher demonstration, modeling, and guided practice. Weinraub (1999) examined the

use of small tools for developing grip with four- and five-year-old children with developmental delays. She found

that using small tools (as recommended by Handwriting Without Tears®) significantly expedites the formation of

a tripod [mature] grasp more than the use of standard coloring tools. Following the pattern of skilled tool use

development, Handwriting Without Tears® promotes use of small crayons and pencils for children in preschool

and kindergarten to match the small size of their hands. HWT gradually introduces children to standard writing

tools as they develop proficiency with writing and grasp.

Learning to form letters correctly is a fundamental objective

of any handwriting curriculum. Handwriting Without Tears® The use of manipulatives for
begins instruction with a no-pencil, no-paper approach. In young learners and diverse
preschool and kindergarten, hands-on learning is necessary.
learning styles is a core
component of the Handwriting
Children learn best when actively engaged in playful
Without Tears® method.
learning activities. The use of manipulatives for young

learners and diverse learning styles is a core component

of the Handwriting Without Tears® method. Children develop pre-writing skills as they move, touch, feel, and

manipulate real objects. The paper style and writing guidelines comprise another unique and successful strategy

used in the Handwriting Without Tears® curriculum. Beginning in kindergarten, children learn to write capital

letters and numbers in Gray Blocks. These unique Gray Blocks encourage correct starting habits, helping eliminate

and correct reversals. Later, children learn to write lowercase letters, words, and sentences using only two lines.

They transition to writing on single lines within the student workbooks.

In 1997, Clark-Wentz reported on HWT’s unique Double Line Paper as being less confusing than typical school

paper. The Double Line Paper is particularly beneficial for students who have visual figure/ground deficits.

Handwriting Without Tears® also includes strategies with which teachers can properly instruct their students in the
use of the different styles of writing paper available in the classroom.

6 © 2009 Handwriting Without Tears®

Handwriting Without Tears® is suitable for children of all abilities and learning styles. Children enter the classroom

with a wide variety of abilities and experiences. The Handwriting Without Tears® manipulatives, instructional

exercises, and workbook format ensure success for all children. Classroom teachers benefit because all students

succeed. Administrators benefit because little or no costly handwriting remediation is required.

Kiss (2007) directed a pilot study using the Handwriting Without Tears® method within her school district. Results

indicated that students’ overall legibility improved noticeably. In addition, teachers were convinced that the time

they had spent on instruction made a huge difference for their students. Another benefit of using HWT was that

general and special education teachers were able to collaborate with district occupational therapists to help their

students develop a basic skill.

In 2004, Owens demonstrated the positive effects of Handwriting Without Tears® programs with students in inclusion
classrooms. Students from her study demonstrated statistically significant improvement in the areas of letter size and

spacing compared to students receiving traditional handwriting instruction. Teachers involved in this study were

overwhelmingly satisfied with the program’s effectiveness and usability and continued its use after the study was

completed. Incorporating a developmental approach and instructional best practices, Handwriting Without Tears®

has shown effectiveness in improving the handwriting skills in children of all abilities, including those with special

needs (Guy, 2003; Owens, 2004; Pontello, 1999).

For more information about the Handwriting Without Tears® curriculum

visit or call 301.263.2700.

© 2009 Handwriting Without Tears® 7

Armitage, D., & Ratzlaff, H. (1985). The non-correlation of printing and writing skills. Journal of Educational Research, 78,
(3), 174-177.
Asher, A. (2006). Handwriting Instruction in Elementary Schools. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 60, 461-
Berninger, V.W., Graham, S., & Weintraub, N. (1998). The relationship between handwriting style and speed and legibility.
The Journal of Educational Research, 91, 290-296.
Berninger, V.W., Vaughn, K.B., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., Rogan, L., Brooks, A., Reed, E., & Graham, S. (1997). Treatment
of handwriting problems in beginning writers: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 89, 652-666.
Case-Smith, J. (2002). Effectiveness of school-based occupational therapy intervention on handwriting. American Journal
of Occupational Therapy 56, 17-25.
Clark-Wentz, J. (1997). Improving students’ handwriting. OT Practice, 2 (10), 29-33.
Daly, C., Kelley, G.T., & Krauss, A. (2003). Relationship between visual motor integration and handwriting skills of children
in kindergarten: a modified replication study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57, 459-462.
Engel-Yeger, B., Magauker-Yanuv, L., & Rosenblum, S. (2009). Handwriting Performance, Self Reports, and Perceived Self-
Efficacy Among Children with Dysgraphia. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63, 182-190.
ERIC Development Team (1997). Six Questions educators should ask before choosing a handwriting program. ERIC Digest
[ED 409 589].
Feder, K.P., & Majnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development, competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine
& Child Neurology, 49, 312-317.
Florey, Kitty Burns (2009). Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.
Gesell, A. (1940). The First Five Years of Life: A Guide to the Study of the Preschool Child. New York: Harper and Row.
Graham, S., Harris, K.R., Mason, L., Fink-Chorzempa, B., Moran, S., & Saddler, B. (2007). How do primary grade
teachers teach handwriting? A national survey. Reading and Writing,
Graham, S. & Harris, K.R., (2005). Improving the writing performance of young struggling writers. The Journal of Special
Education, 39, 19-33.
Graham, S., Harris, K.R., & Fink, B. (2000a). Extra handwriting instruction: prevent writing difficulties right from the start.
Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, 88-92.
Graham, S., Harris, K.R., & Fink, B. (2000b). Is handwriting casually related to learning to write? Treatment of handwriting
problems in beginning writers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 620-633.
Graham, S. (1993). Are slanted manuscript alphabets superior to the traditional manuscript alphabet? Childhood Education,
71, 91-95.
Graham, S. (1992). Issues in handwriting instruction. Focus on Exceptional Children, 25, 1-15.
Guy, J.M. (2003). Effect of proprioceptive input combined with Handwriting Without Tears on the handwriting of children
with learning disabilities. Master’s thesis. Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Jones, D., & Christensen, C. (1999). Relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students’ ability to generate
written text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 44-49.
Kiss, D. (2007). Handwriting Consultation in Elementary Schools. OT Practice, 12 (14), 11-14.
Malloy-Miller, T., Polatajko, H., & Ansett, B. (1995). Handwriting error patterns of children with mild motor difficulties.
Canadian Occupational Therapy Journal, 62, 258-267.
Marr, D., Cermack, S.A., Cohn, E.S, & Henderson, A. (2003). Fine motor activities in Head Start and Kindergarten
classrooms. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57, 550-557.
McHale, K., & Cermack, S.A. (1992) Fine Motor activities in elementary school: preliminary findings and provisional
implications for children with fine motor problems. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 46, 898-903.
Medwell, J., Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: what do we know and what do we need to know? Literacy, (42), 10-15.

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NAEYC. 1996. NAEYC position statement: Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving
children from birth through age eight. Washington DC: Author. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://www.
Owens, L.L. (2004). The effects of the Handwriting Without Tears program on the handwriting of students in inclusion
classrooms. Master’s thesis. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.
Peverly, Stephen T. (2006). The Importance of Handwriting Speed in Adult Writing. Developmental Neuropsychology,
Pontello, K.M. (1999). The effectiveness of a structured handwriting program. Unpublished master’s thesis. Lakehead
University, Ontario, Canada.
Rosenblum, S., Goldstand, S., & Parush, S. (2006). Relationships among biomechanical ergonomic factors, handwriting
product quality, handwriting efficiency, and computerized handwriting process measures in children with and
without handwriting difficulties. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 60, 28-39.
Sheffield, B. (1996). Handwriting: a neglected cornerstone of literacy. Annals of Dyslexia, 46, 21-35.
Smith-Zuzovsky, N., & Exner, C.E. (2004). The effect of seated positioning quality on typical 6-and 7-year-old children’s
object manipulation skills. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 58, 380-388.
Ste-Marie, D.M., Clark, S.E., Findlay, L.C., & Latimer, A.E. (2004). High levels of contextual interference enhance handwriting
skill acquisition. Journal of Motor Behavior, 36, 115-127.
Weinraub, D.L. (1999). The effects of the use of broken crayon upon grasp development in conjunction with occupational
therapy. Unpublished master’s thesis. Touro College, Far Rockaway, NY.

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