Science of Reading – Aligned Handwriting

In June 2011, Carmel Bozarth, a Title 1 First Grade Level Specialist, reached out to me via email regarding the potential purchase of Handwriting Heroes for the Washington County School District. She wrote that “Handwriting Heroes goes hand in hand with the Simple View of Writing presented in our LETRS training. It meets all the criteria.”

Intrigued, I began researching “LETRS” and the “Simple View of Writing”.

The Reading Wars — and Its Impact on Handwriting Instruction

One of the most contentious debates in education revolves around reading instruction. On one side of the battlefield stands “whole language” where students are exposed to a literacy-rich environment and encouraged to discover things for themselves while the teacher facilitates this exploration. Reading is taught using the three-cueing system to figure out the pronunciation or meaning of the word. Students guess words that they don’t recognize by:

  • thinking about what word would make sense in the story
  • looking at the picture, or
  • looking at the first letter of the word.

Under the whole-language model, handwriting instruction involves having students figure out how to write letters as they need to use them. Since they are not provided with a specific sequence or direction in which to form the letters, they draw them as best they can. It is believed that since children learn to speak without any formal instruction through meaningful exposure to language, they will also learn to read and write in the same way. Unfortunately, children do not always “decipher the code” for themselves.

Opposing the whole-language method is “systematic phonics,” which uses explicit, systematic instruction to teach reading, such as phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the relationship between letters and sounds). In a pro-phonics model, handwriting instruction teaches children exactly how to form their letters in the most efficient manner. It relies on devoting time to handwriting instruction before the student is required to use letters to write words and sentences. Reading and writing are seen as skills that must be explicitly taught since they do not come naturally.

In the 1950’s, systematic phonics was replaced by whole language. Explicit handwriting instruction, such as practicing proper letter formation or correct pencil grasp was de-emphasized in favor of more open-ended writing activities that allowed students to explore and express their own ideas.

Handwriting was further diminished with the rise of keyboarding and again when Common Core omitted it as a learning objective. The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a final blow, leaving handwriting instruction in a precarious position — with most teachers conceding that they don’t know how to teach it or don’t have time to fit it into their schedules.

The Science of Reading (SoR)

In recent years, educators and parents started taking notice of the need to improve children’s literacy and are committed to reviving phonics instruction as part of a greater movement known as the Science of Reading (SoR). The SoR is a comprehensive collection of scientific studies about reading and writing that provides information about how we learn to read and write and the most effective ways to teach these skills. The SoR movement emphasizes the importance of evidence-based practices in reading instruction and advocates for the use of instructional approaches that are supported by research. The goal of the SoR movement is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn to read proficiently and to provide teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to effectively teach reading to their students.

Five key elements are considered to be essential to reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and language, and comprehension. The Simple View of Reading is a model used to explain these elements. It states that reading comprehension is the result of two main skills:

i. fluent word reading, which refers to the ability to decode words accurately and fluently, and
ii. language comprehension, which is the ability to understand and comprehend the meaning of words and sentences.

The Simple View of Writing is a framework that identifies the key components of effective writing instruction and helps educators identify areas of need for learners who are struggling with writing. It consists of three main components:

i. transcription skills, such as handwriting, keyboarding, and spelling.
ii. self-regulation and executive function, which include planning and organizing information; and
iii. translation or text generation, which is the process of using correct grammar and sentence structure to communicate thoughts and ideas.

Writing instruction should focus on developing these skills across all grade levels and should include daily opportunities to practice writing.

Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS)

Despite decades of scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of the science of reading, along with declining reading scores under the whole-language approach, the shift towards this approach continues to face significant resistance. Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) is a professional development program that has been instrumental in advocating for the science of reading by providing educators with the tools they need to implement this approach in their classrooms. LETRS emphasizes the importance of handwriting and highlights the following concepts:

  1. Start teaching handwriting early, in kindergarten, using a step-by-step approach.
  2. Emphasize correct letter formation. Poor letter formation can become habitual and hinder fluent writing.
  3. Engaging the extra neural pathways involved in the physical act of writing improves students’ memory of letters, more so than if they are only learning the letters by looking at them.
  4. Using motor skills as part of literacy instruction improves the memory of letters and words, leading to faster reading as students recognize words more rapidly.
  5. Early and regular practice of handwriting enables students to form letters more automatically, leading to improvements in writing skills, including better spelling and noticeably longer, more organized, and higher-quality compositions.

In line with the Simple View of Writing, LETRS provides guidance on recommended practices for handwriting instruction. The following infographic illustrates how Handwriting Heroes performs when evaluated according to these criteria:

In light of this information, I am proud to reflect on Mrs. Bozarth’s statement that ‘Handwriting Heroes goes hand in hand with the Simple View of Writing presented in our LETRS training. It meets all the criteria.’ The Washington County School District is presently in their second year of using the Handwriting Heroes program with great success. The growing support for the science of reading movement gives me hope that handwriting will be recognized as a fundamental skill that should be taught systematically and explicitly in all classrooms.

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