Brain Science and Handwriting: Precise Practice Make Perfect

Explicit, Systematic Handwriting Instruction for Every Learner

That’s coming along great. You’re getting so much better, keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve really improved!

 

It is wonderful watching our students use their handwriting skills every day and seeing them go from carefully forming a letter to writing it with automaticity. As letter formation gets easier, and recognition and recall improve, writing as well as reading feels more natural to our students. 

 

When we’re learning the basics of handwriting, we are building muscle memory and hand eye coordination. The ease that comes with daily repetition of a skill is due to a process in the brain called MYELINATION.

A Quick Guide to Myelination

Myelination is the process of making MYELIN, a fatty substance that is an integral part of neurons (brain cells). Billions of neurons connect the brain to all parts of the body, forming our central nervous system. Information is passed through neurons as a series of electrical impulses. As part of their journey, the impulses travel along a long trunk in the neuron called the AXON. The axon is wrapped in a nice fat coat of myelin, which acts as insulation, making sure the electrical signals move swiftly along their path, similar to the rubber coating on a power cable. 

 

When we are born, we don’t have a lot of myelin, but the brain quickly gets to work forming neural networks, growing neurons, and getting the axons coated with myelin so essential skills like walking and communicating become effortless. Most of the brain is myelinated by about the age of two but we continue to produce myelin well into adulthood because we’re still developing higher cognitive skills. When we start to practice a skill regularly, like handwriting, our brain recognizes that we are using certain neural pathways frequently so the neurons in those pathways start making myelin coating for their axons, and the electrical impulses move faster. That’s why daily practice makes handwriting quicker and easier. Think of it as a skinny little back road that gets frequently used so the city upgrades it to a superhighway allowing you to get to your destination sooner.

 

The flip side to this is that the neural networks we don’t utilize will be deemed unnecessary and get pruned back, which is how a lack of practice leads to our skills becoming rusty. All is not lost though, once we dust off the networks, we can still regain those skills and improve.

Perfecting How We Practice

So, practice really does make perfect.

 

Well… almost, but not exactly. Practice makes what we’re doing easier and more automatic, but it doesn’t mean that we’re doing that skill perfectly. It is only precise practice that makes perfect.

 

Imagine you learn to write your letters from bottom to top. If nobody ever corrects you, you will keep on writing letters in this manner, myelinating those axons, and reinforcing those neural pathways so that it becomes automatic to write letters incorrectly. This establishes a bad habit. And bad habits are hard to break! 

Imagine you learn to write your letters from bottom to top. If nobody ever corrects you, you will keep on writing letters in this manner, myelinating those axons, and reinforcing those neural pathways so that it becomes automatic to write letters incorrectly. This establishes a bad habit. And bad habits are hard to break! 

When students practice without supervision, they often form the letters incorrectly. The lowercase letters on this worksheet are “neat” but are all formed incorrectly. The student first made the line and then the circle. (Starting the letter d like a “c” helps to differentiate between letters b and d and prevents reversals.) Not only is practicing incorrect letter formations a waste of time – it results in learning bad habits which are hard to correct. 

This is why it is essential that we encourage early writers to strive for precision – right from the start. Explicit instruction provides students with a roadmap, with a designated route, instead of leaving them to their own devices, to figure out the right path to take.  When teaching handwriting be sure to walk around to observe students while they are writing. In this way, you can provide immediate feedback to correct errors as they occur. 

Why does it matter? While it is perhaps fine to take the long, scenic route occasionally; functional writing requires efficiency. Students who write inefficiently struggle to complete their written work.

 

Starting Early

Students are being tasked with writing at much younger ages. What used to be a first-grade curriculum has now moved to kindergarten. Expectations for sentence writing start as early as the first term in some states. Whether or not this is appropriate (hint: it’s not) is a discussion for another time. In order for students to write however, they do need to know how to write letters though. Making time to teach letter formation, before the students invent their own means of forming letters, prevents bad habits from setting in and provides an essential foundational skill that will serve them throughout their academic careers and beyond. 

 

Our young learners are imbued with confidence when they know they are doing something correctly and enjoy gaining mastery in handwriting. Using multisensory activities, such as writing letters in shaving cream, or using your whole arm to make the letter in the air, involves tactile and kinesthetic receptors – which makes learning the letter forms more memorable.

 

Children’s brains are incredible, constantly learning, adapting, and honing skills. We can help to make handwriting an engaging and positive experience for students by guiding them to learn correct letter formation early on, to practice with precision and to forge good habits!

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