The Link Between Handwriting, Reading, and Dyslexia/Dysgraphia: Empowering Students through Practice
Updated: May 22
Did you know that handwriting and reading are closely intertwined skills? This has significant implications for individuals with dyslexia and dysgraphia. While these learning differences present unique challenges, research suggests that practicing handwriting can have a positive impact on reading abilities. Let's take a look at some of the ways handwriting is connected to reading...
Strengthening the Phonological Connections: Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties in phonological processing, which can hinder reading. Phonological processing is a fancy way of saying "working with the sounds of the language." If the sounds of a language are like building blocks, we can put them together to build different things, pull them apart to look at individually, or switch their order to make something new. This process is challenging for those with dyslexia. However, handwriting practice can help strengthen the connection of these sounds to the letters in the brain. As individuals write, they are (or can be) working with the sounds or the phonemes, the smallest units of sound in language at the same time as writing. This kinesthetic experience reinforces the association between letter shapes, sounds, and words, enhancing phonological awareness and facilitating reading skills . While just writing "b" over and over again in any shape or form may be useless, forming a "b" consistently while saying the sound of the letter, /b/ (not the name of the letter but the SOUND) helps students to connect that this letter is connected to a specific sound (and yes, of course are connected to more than one sound or some groups of letters make just one sound).
Visual-Spatial Processing and Letter Recognition: Dyslexic individuals often struggle with letter and word recognition due to challenges in visual-spatial processing. Visual-spatial processing is how our brains see the world and work with that information. Learning to write letters by hand can support visual-spatial skills by providing a multisensory experience. The act of forming letters enhances the visual memory of letter shapes, helping dyslexic learners recognize and differentiate between similar-looking letters. This improved letter recognition contributes to enhanced reading accuracy and fluency . This can be further improved by forming letters consistently and properly. For example, if we start a "d" with a small "c" shape, go up into the air and come back down, we can differentiate this from a "b" which starts with a straight line down and then going up and around for the loop. Is there more than one way to get the same end result? Of course! But sometimes there is method to the madness of insisting a student forms a letter in a particular way. It typically takes less time, requires less gross motor work (is less tiring), and helps with letter reversals.
Orthographic Mapping and Encoding: Orthographic mapping refers to the process of connecting written letters to their corresponding sounds and meanings. Basically, it is creating a "map shortcut" in your brain so that when you read the word "table" you are not sounding out each individual sound and then pondering over the meaning. You've read the word "table" enough that it is "orthographically mapped" in your brain and you have a sense of its meaning. You can quickly tell from context whether I mean the thing you eat dinner at vs. the thing you create on a computer to sort information. Orthographic mapping takes more exposures and practice for dyslexic individuals, impacting their ability to decode (read) and encode (write) words. Handwriting practice allows students to reinforce the link between letter formation and letter-sound relationships. By repeatedly writing words, dyslexic learners build a stronger orthographic map, aiding in word recognition, spelling, and vocabulary development . Writing the letters "m - a - p" while saying the sounds /m/ /a/ /p/ creates multisensory input, and our brains love that.
Motor Coordination and Writing Fluency: Dysgraphia, a learning disability characterized by difficulties in writing, can significantly affect a student's ability to express themselves through written language. Handwriting practice can help improve motor coordination, fine motor skills, and writing fluency in dysgraphic individuals. As students gain proficiency in forming letters correctly and consistently, they experience less frustration and can focus more on the content of their writing. This enhanced writing fluency positively impacts reading comprehension as well .
Automaticity, efficiency, and speed: Many students ask me "why does it matter?" if I ask them to form their letter in a particular way. Why does it matter if they start at the bottom? Why does it matter if they make the hump first and then draw the line for the "n." The result, to them, looks the same. In addition to helping with the phonemic and orthographic processes, writing letters in a particular way is usually quicker and requires less muscle work. Students with weak handwriting skills often have to pause to think about where that "stick" will attach to the "ball" or which direction to go next. They become exhausted from the effort of forming letters and using their whole arm rather than fingers and wrist to write. This makes writing an even less pleasant task. Spending just a few minutes a day working on proper letter formation can drastically lesson the amount of mental and physical energy required to write a sentence or a paragraph.
Educators, parents, and therapists should recognize the potential of handwriting practice as a valuable intervention to support reading skills in individuals with dyslexia and dysgraphia, and for all students. By implementing targeted interventions that combine handwriting practice with other evidence-based strategies, we can empower students with these learning differences to achieve their full potential in reading and written expression.
If you are looking for a simple and inexpensive way to improve handwriting with your child, I'll let you know what I did with my youngest of four over the past few months. You see, I realized recently that he has missed imperative handwriting instruction because of covid. While we were busy "schooling at home" with 4 kids (plus a couple friend's kids as well, we simply didn't think to add this to his day (and it wasn't part of the assigned "home work" either. After assessing some of his writing this year (and hearing his older sisters shock as they looked over his work) I realized we better get some habits established quickly.
Being that I teach other people's kids 8-9 hours a day, I needed something that was simple and didn't require much work from me. I purchased "Wet Dry Try" an app from Learning Without Tears (producers of Handwriting without Tears). I was not sure if it would be enough, but since he is a neurotypical kid, I thought we would start there, and if he was really struggling I'd go to plan B. I told him he was required to learn how to form 3 new letters a day with the help of the the app, then write a line of each letter on a dry erase board. Once he had mastered a few letters, I switched to having him write 3 of each letter he had learned so far on the whiteboard. I'd look over his work, and he had to redo any he hadn't formed properly (this did require me to know how to form my own letters in the same way as the app).
Was my seven year old impressed with this new regime? Nope, not at all. But I assured him it was a quick thing to do every day and his teacher was going to be so impressed with the improvements he was going to make. It takes him about 10-15 minutes and the biggest motivator was that it was one (of a few) requirements to him earning "screen time." Once it became a habit, he complained less. And within a couple months, his writing has improved MASSIVELY. Now that he's got through the alphabet in lower and uppercase he is no longer required to write all the letters, but can instead write me a "secret message" (a couple sentences on the whiteboard which he hides somewhere for me to find) and he's done. Sometimes I write back and hide it. Sometimes the sentences involve poop and fart jokes. I don't care, I just care that he has formed a better habit.
The amount of letters and work I expected of my kiddo is a fair for him as he is neurotypical. For a child with dyslexia or dysgraphia, start smaller. One letter a day - even the same letter for a few days. Require proper formation and order, but don't expect perfection. A whiteboard or paper with primary lines on it will really help (solid lines with dotted mid-line). If you can't find one, use a sharpie and a ruler to make lines on your own whiteboard. You can vary the practice with chalk, smelly markers, window markers, etc. Encourage the child to say the sound as they write the letter - sometimes this may mean they ignore you while you say it loudly as they write until they finally decide they'd prefer the sound of their own voice over yours. PRAISE progress and have them circle the letters they think are the "best." Keep practice short, but consistent and encourage them to use the newly perfected letters outside of their practice writing.
Berninger, V., & Richards, T. (2002). Brain literacy for educators and psychologists. Academic Press.
Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2005). Dyslexia (specific reading disability). Biological Psychiatry, 57(11), 1301-1309.
Richlan, F. (2014). Developmental dyslexia: Dysfunction of a left hemisphere reading network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1-16.
Feder, K. P., Majnemer, A., Synnes
*This post was researched and written with the help of ChatGPT because I wanted to see what it could do. I tweaked it and added to it, but overall, pretty cool!*