Let’s Rediscover the Importance of Handwriting



. . . the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.
—George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

Student enjoys writing

January 23 is National Handwriting Day—celebrated on the birthday of John Hancock, the founding father who, with his identifiable flourish, was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Handwriting has long been a distinguishing mark of an educated person. Yet cursive writing is more than a means of personal identification or a legal promise. It’s a commitment to expressing one’s thoughts in one’s own hand.

Neurologist Frank Wilson, in his book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, devotes a full chapter to the function of the opposable human thumb. The reciprocal, back-and-forth interaction of thumb and fingers required for cursive writing is essential to a child’s development of not only hand-eye dexterity but visual, auditory, tactile, and fine-motor integration.

Today handwriting is still included in the curriculum of many schools, although many are dropping it as well. There’s generally divided opinion about its importance in the modern classroom. Some educators believe that teaching cursive writing is too time-consuming and is out of step with our digital world of keyboards and texting. Others recognize that the act of learning to write in script plays a critical part in brain lateralization and neural development.

For more than forty years, I’ve been teaching learners of all ages and abilities to discover the critical importance of flow to the reading and handwriting process. My students learn to write and read their whole thoughts from the beginning. When they learn this way, comprehension isn’t a separate lesson. Students at any level can rediscover this flow through the rhythmic motion of such Brain Gym activities as Lazy 8s, Alphabet 8s, and the Double Doodle. They experience the written word as the fluid and expressive language that it is.

In fact, the joining of letters into a flowing communication probably calls on more of the human brain than any other activity, with the exception of speech—and so may be the single academic skill that most “grows” the intelligence.


(The theme of developing reciprocal movement for handwriting is addressed in several Edu-K courses, including The Dennison Approach to Whole-Brain Learning, Brain Gym(R) 101: Balance for Daily Life, and Optimal Brain Organization.)

Research References:

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Pam A. MuellerDaniel M. OppenheimerPrinceton University; University of California, Los Angeles, 2012.

Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Berninger VW1, Abbott RD, Jones J, Wolf BJ, Gould L, Anderson-Youngstrom M, Shimada S, Apel K., Dev Neuropsychol. 2006;29(1):61-92.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison; updated 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

You might also like these articles on handwriting:

Reading Is the “Hearing” of Written-Down Language 

A Message Across Time 

Why I Love Teaching Double Doodle Play

Double Doodle Play Brings Emotional Harmony Following a Stroke


Movement and the Brain

Today we completed a rousing Optimal Brain Organization (OBO) workshop. A primary theme in the OBO course is how, when people are under stress, they lose their bilateral integration and become more one-sided. They are then unable to cross the lateral midline or access the processing midfield, where eyes, ears, and hands ideally work together. I theorize that such a one-sided imbalance is a compensation stemming from a lack of large-motor movement developmentally (prior to school age) or during the school years. In other words, kids are sitting too much. Therefore they’re not developing the muscle tone and integrated muscle systems that would let them access both sides as a balanced context for one-sided drawing and handwriting.

Another theme of this course is that the transfer of learning is not automatic and must be taught.  The course is built around playful balances that help students reconnect with their eye teaming, head turning, and two-handedness as well as symmetrical whole-body movement. Through balances, they learn to transfer learning from one area of expertise to another.

The first theme came into play with a young woman I’ll call Elizabeth, who volunteered for the Dexterity Balance. In the pre-activity she automatically wrote with a power grip, holding the pen tightly and experiencing a stiff right thumb and a painful ache in her right shoulder. I helped her notice that, as she wrote, she was placing her paper in her right visual field, avoiding the midline and midfield. Her goal for the balance was “to write with ease.” After the balance, she automatically picked up her pen with a precision grip and wrote comfortably in the midfield, exclaiming with surprise: “I can’t believe it! My thumb usually hurts when I write. I’m writing without straining my eyes and pressing hard on the paper.”

I explained that the reciprocal back-and-forth motion of thumb and fingers in a relaxed state is needed to form the fluid clockwise and counter-clockwise curves of handwriting. The students joined in a discussion about the importance of bilateral integration over one-sided processing and then eagerly explored this processing for themselves in their own balances.

Like all Edu-K courses, the OBO course is taught in an experiential, whole-to-parts approach. I have been teaching about dominance profiles since the 1970s, when I first tested for them in my learning centers. This particular course was originally built (in 1996) on the works of a number of leading-edge researchers such as Springer and Deutsch, who wrote Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience (1989; 2001); Edward Le Winn, author of Human Neurological Organization (1977; 1997),and Gerald Leisman, who authored Basic Visual Process and Learning Disability (1975),along with other researchers with whose books I became familiar in the early years at my learning centers, soon after completing my dissertation. These works have translated well into the practical application we use in this course.

In teaching the OBO course in more recent years, I draw from the wisdom of Frank Wilson’s definitive book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. I include discussion of neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg’s revelations in The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, as I believe that it’s imperative for parents and educators to be aware of the executive brain functions that are maturing in their students and to know ways to nurture such functions. And all Brain Gym® Instructors are familiar with Carla Hannaford’s informative book The Dominance Factor: How Knowing Your Dominant Eye, Ear, Brain, Hand & Foot Can Improve Your Learning, which details the linkages between the side of the body we favor for seeing, hearing, touching, and moving and the way we think, learn, play, and relate to others. In her book, Hannaford recommends specific Brain Gym activities to cultivate each learning profile.

My latest reference for this course is the authoritative book on left and right brain: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by renowned U.K. psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist. In class, we watched the RSA Animate of a Ted Talks lecture by McGilchrist. Click here to find a summary of the animate, and a link to it.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


Cultivating the Physical Aspects of Learning

October 16:For the last two days, I’ve been teaching the Master in Depth course, where I’m happy to see both old and new faces. There are 57 students, 17 of whom are attending from Italy, so we have two translators—Italian and Swiss German. Students began by refining their goals and starting to discover how the goals we set can relate to the way we move.

During the course, I facilitated reading balances for several people. The Edu-K balance, which Gail and I developed and call the Five Steps to Easy Learning, takes people through five quick and essential stages, each identified by particular actions that support the internalization of new learning. Since I see learning as an active process, one that isn’t complete until individuals make new learning their own, I look for the “aha!”s that are evident in people’s voice or demeanor as they read.

In one demonstration, the volunteer was a woman I’ll call Anja who had for her whole life been bothered by a functionally lazy left eye. When she initially read, her reading was linear and somewhat mechanical, reflecting a left-brain language lead, as is commonly the case for right-eye-only readers. Although the brain is more complex than this, I use this simplistic metaphor to help people identify the cognitive functions they commonly use as they read, as well as those they haven’t yet learned. I explained that the left hemisphere functions temporally (over time) and helps readers to decode and analyze new words, so helpful for learning new vocabulary. For fluent adult reading and instant word recognition, the more spatial right hemisphere, working together with the left, is essential. During the balance, Anja was thrilled to discover for the first time how to access eye teaming. As she learned to track her left eye together with the right, both her reading and her handwriting became noticeably fluent and expressive.

By day two, workshop participants had fine-tuned their use of the Edu-K balances not only to improve reading and writing skills, but also to enhance their own perceptual abilities. I love working with these enthusiastic people, and enjoy guiding them to see new possibilities by moving in new ways.

© 2012 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.


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