Brain Science and Handwriting: The Interaction of Writing and Reading

Explicit, Systematic Handwriting Instruction for Every Learner

Learning handwriting improves reading skills! How does that happen? Well, we can thank NEUROPLASTICITY. Brains are neuroplastic which means their cell structure changes and grows as we experience new things and overcome challenges.

Our brains are made of billions of cells called NEURONS. Neurons pass messages between the brain and the body to control everything we do. Neurons connect with other neurons forming NEURAL NETWORKS. The more connections we make and the more we use our neural networks, the stronger they become. Things that were once difficult, like handwriting, become manageable, and eventually easy. Not only that but those neural networks get used to learn other new skills too.

NEUROSCIENCE 101

Neurons are nerve cells. They run all over the body making up our CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM, which includes the brain, the spinal column, and all the nerves that radiate out from the spinal cord to all parts of the body. Some neurons are very small, a millimeter or so, but some can be over a meter long!

When we practice handwriting, neurons communicate throughout our body from the eyes to the brain down the spinal column to the arm, hand, fingertips, and to the rest of our body to adjust our posture.

As we grow from infants to adults our brains get larger and heavier because we are creating neural networks and changing the structure of our brain. When we learn a complex skill like handwriting, we make new growth in our neurons, and when we continue to practice it, we strengthen the neural networks so writing becomes easier. 

Think of it like rain falling on a hill, at first there are many trickles, but the water seeks out the most efficient way down the hillside and starts forming select channels. Every time it rains the water finds its way to those channels and flows through them making them deeper and more permanent. 

HOW DOES THAT AFFECT READING?

Because the brain is plastic and adaptable, it will use pathways forged through learning handwriting to benefit reading. Reading becomes easier because handwriting has given us a larger, stronger neural network to support it.

Here are a few ways writing supports reading:

1. Learning to write enhances visual processing of letters. This makes it easier for the brain to recognize letter shapes when reading.

2. As children learn to write letters, the movements are stored in what is called “kinesthetic memory”. These are the memory centers in the brain that are related to movement patterns. It is the first memory center to develop and provides for the longest lasting memories – for example, the memory of the movement patterns for how to sit or walk. This memory center allows writing to become an automatic motor response, as stated above. When a child learns to read, he or she can draw upon this memory center to remember how the letters on the page are formed and to draw conclusions on what those letters are.

3. Both reading and writing use the same temporary working memory system to take in information, analyze it, and use it. Working memory takes what the eye sees and interprets it based on what is stored in a person’s long-term memory. Letters and words are processed through this same system no matter what their source. If working memory can draw upon kinesthetic memory to identify letters, then the brain will respond to the letters and words on a page faster. Reading and writing also interact through working memory during spelling and composing written work.

4. Children learn to write letters from top down. This follows the same visual movement pattern as reading since people read text starting at the top of the page and working their way down. When children learn to write, using proper top-down letter formation, it reinforces the visual organization necessary for reading.

5. Children also learn to align and sequence the letters they write from left to right on the writing paper. This reinforces the left to right visual tracking that is required for reading.

6. Writing is rhythmic and predictable. Because of its rhythm and repetitive nature, writing practice facilitates writing fluency. This fluency leads to an automatic motor response, allowing a child to think less about the actual motor actions of writing and more about what he or she is writing. The ability to focus on reading the letters while writing them leads to more proficiency during the act of reading.

Simply put, the more we write, the easier reading becomes! So, sharpen those pencils and grow some neurons!

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