Over the years, one curious claim that I have seen pop up from time to time, is that handwriting practice improves reading outcomes. I must admit, this claim does not sit well with my personal biases, as I tend to emphasize typing far more than handwriting or printing in my language classes, for a myriad of reasons. Typing is faster, which allows students to practice more writing, in shorter periods of time. Word processor tools also come with spelling and grammar tools, which I would argue provide students with immediate instructional feedback. Realistically, most future professional and academic work for students will have to be typed. And let's be honest, typed work is far easier to read/mark. Of course, I’m likely somewhat biased in this regard, as I have spent most of my teaching career teaching students in grade 7 or older. I will readily admit that printing practice is likely more important for younger students.
Aside from the benefits of typing, I also think handwriting or printing practice seems unlikely to transfer over to reading skills, as there is too little specificity in the connection. In other words, I do not see the connection between one's reading level and their ability to make letters aesthetically pleasing. Personally, I have terrible handwriting; however, I do believe I am a fairly competent writer. That being said, my position for evaluating the efficacy of a pedagogical tool, is of course, as always, what does the meta-analysis data show?
I was able to find two meta-analyses that looked at the impact of teaching students handwriting. The first meta-analysis was conducted by Graham, Et al, in 2015. This analysis included 80 high quality K-12 studies. I must admit, I am immediately biased towards accepting these results, as I have found Graham’s work to always be of very high quality. Indeed I constantly cited his work in my book The Scientific Principles of Teaching.
This paper found high impacts for handwriting instruction on students' writing length, and writing quality. The paper also found moderate impacts on writing fluency, and writing legibility. Interestingly, the study showed higher results for technology based instruction, and low results for multi-sensory instruction, and motion modeling. The paper did not look at reading outcomes and I therefore, regrettably, cannot assess the claim of whether or not printing instruction transfers to reading skills, based on this analysis.
The second meta-analysis was conducted by Feng, Et al. This paper included 19 K-12 studies; however, did not specifically exclude studies without control groups. Moreover, it was looking at correlation effects not experimental effects. This is not necessarily problematic; however, I believe it makes the results less conclusive.
The above results show moderate evidence for the impact of printing practice on fluency, and weak evidence for the impact of printing on writing quality and spelling. Interestingly this study compared typing practice to printing practice and showed moderately higher results for typing practice than printing practice. While it is tempting to declare that this meta-analysis proves the efficacy of typing instruction vs printing instruction, it is important to note that this effect size was only based on two correlation studies and is therefore, not even in the ballpark of definitive evidence.
When I started researching this issue, I wanted to find evidence relating to the efficacy of printing practice on reading. I could find no meta-analysis data on the subject. I therefore, do not believe any definitive answers can be given for the question. However, I believe the above meta-analyses do provide strong meta-analysis data for the efficacy of printing practice on writing outcomes. I must admit I am biased towards typing practice over printing practice; however, I could find little to no meaningful evidence on this issue either. I therefore think the only evidence based recommendations I can make, as of writing this article, are that students should be taught handwriting, not for the purposes of improving their reading, but for the purposes of improving their writing. Moreover, I think it is rational to say, printing and handwriting practice should be emphasized more in the primary grades, where students are still developing their basic hand-eye coordination. However, we do have moderate evidence for handwriting instruction in seemingly any grade.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Edited: 2022-05-20
Feng, L., Lindner, A., Ji, X.R. et al. The roles of handwriting and keyboarding in writing: a meta-analytic review. Read Writ 32, 33–63 (2019). https://doi-org.ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/10.1007/s11145-017-9749-x
Santangelo, Tanya & Graham, Steve. (2015). A Comprehensive Meta-analysis of Handwriting Instruction. Educational Psychology Review. 28. 10.1007/s10648-015-9335-1.