Raise a Hybrid Writer!

By the time kids enter kindergarten today, most are, unsurprisingly, well versed in the basics of digital communication. Which isn’t a bad thing, except if it takes the place entirely of learning to write by hand.

For many kids now, that’s what has happened. When the Common Core Standards became the law of the land in 2009, handwriting curricula was not part of the package. Many schools, feeling the need to pack in more class time for technology instruction and test prep, let handwriting go by the wayside, especially cursive instruction, which was generally taught in second and third grade, but the preference today is to teach in third and fourth grade.

Then something interesting occurred.

“Lots of studies started to show that kids write more, write faster, and express more ideas when they write with a pen or pencil than when on a keyboard,” says Virginia Berninger, a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, who is a leading researcher on children and handwriting.

Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, agrees. She also says the act of physically forming letters engages young brains in unique ways. Not only does it support letter recognition, it also plays a role in early recruitment in letter processing in regions of the brain known to be connected to successful reading. “It helps with spelling, too,” Berninger adds, “because when you link letters into words, you form a spelling unit that makes it easier to pull the word in and out of memory.” Studies have also shown cursive to help children with their expression of ideas, and the accuracy of their reading.

The research that’s come out in the wake of the Common Core Standards has caused a backlash of sorts, with states (14 of them now) adopting formal handwriting curriculum back into the classroom. Yes, keyboarding is essential (and needs to be well taught, meaning attention to professional development for teachers), but there’s value in penmanship, as well. “All the research, over many, many years, points to teaching students to be hybrid writers,” Berninger concludes.

So, what does a hybrid writer look like?

  • Ages 6-8 (grades 1 and 2): learn and practice manuscript, aka block letters or print;
  • Ages 7-12 (grades 3-7): learn and practice cursive, aka script;
  • Ages 9 and up (grades 4+): learn and practice keyboarding, aka touch typing.

Let’s break it down, just a little, so we can help support penmanship at home.

In the early years, from preschool through first grade, we can help kids develop the fine motor skills they need to hold a pencil. Encourage fun activities that work the thumb and pointer finger together: pick-up sticks, crafts with chenille sticks, playing marbles, squeezing eyedroppers, and playing board games like Operation. Put your own phone down from time to time so you can model what it’s like to craft a handwritten card (get their help with affixing the stamp and mailing), create a shopping list, or write special dates on a wall calendar. “We need to show our kids how to use multiple writing tools at every stage,” Berninger says.

When cursive instruction kicks in at school, applaud it! “Every class should have an instructional handwriting class,” says Berninger. “If yours doesn’t, you should ask for it, and if it does, let teachers and administrators know you approve.”

At home don’t drill your kids, workbook style, because studies have shown that children balk when parents act like teachers. Instead, keep it fun. This is a great time to introduce kids to calligraphy, fonts, and typefaces. Check out the works of Linda Scott, the author of lots of Bubble Writer books that are super appealing for young children. Ask your kids to handwrite place cards for dinner using their fanciest script. Have markers and colored pencils in easy reach so kids get as used to picking up a writing implement as they are to pulling out their phones for quick communication.

And then there’s the process of actually learning to type. With two years of formal printing practice, and two more years of rigorous cursive, keyboarding is the final step to raising a hybrid writer. At school this will look like an integrated approach of touch typing and other keyboarding skills into existing literacy programs. “When touch typing is introduced, kids learn it quickly, and it frees them up to look at the screen,” says Berninger. The method is far superior to “hunting and pecking,” which is not efficient at all. The goal is for kids to look at the screen while they type rather than down at the keyboard so they can focus better on their thoughts and ideas. There are tons of touch-typing games online, so orient some screen time in that direction to support the instruction your school-age child is getting at school. 

Pam Abrams

Pam Abrams has written for and about children for many years, and currently serves as Program Director for Jacob’s Digs, a nonprofit organization in New York City. She has two children.