Can Occupational Therapists Help a New Generation of Children Learn Handwriting?
Karen Roston (NYU Steinhardt MA ’96, DPS ’09) remembers coming across a surprising statistic in the course of her work.
An occupational therapist (OT) who has worked in New York City public schools for more than two decades, Roston realized that many of the young students referred to her for therapy needed help with handwriting. She soon discovered that 40 percent of the students sent to OTs in the city’s school system were there because they struggled to form letters and words on the page.
“From an OT’s perspective, the main problem in schools today, at least in New York City, is that teachers don’t have time to teach handwriting,” Roston said. “Teachers have to write more reports. There are a lot of demands from testing. They have to keep track of more things. There are only so many hours in the day.” As handwriting instruction gets sidelined, occupational therapists are called in to help when children have difficulties.
“When I first started practicing, occupational therapists were only in schools to help children with identified physical disabilities,” said Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist who developed Handwriting Without Tears, a curriculum taught to millions of students worldwide. “But then, as you saw the lack of handwriting instruction, you started identifying more students who needed help.”
Given that people are more likely to type on a keyboard than use pen and paper, handwriting proficiency may seem superfluous in today’s world. In fact, cursive writing is not required by Common Core – the national math and reading standards. But the downward slide in good handwriting has consequences beyond untidy penmanship.
Written communication may increasingly become digital, but research is finding that handwriting is as important as it’s ever been. A mounting body of research suggests that children with better handwriting have greater academic success and creative thinking skills. Studies also indicate that learning to write letters on a page with a pencil (or crayon or marker) stimulates the brain in ways that help students understand more complex tasks, including composition. Some research shows that students with good handwriting tend to receive better grades, whereas students who have poor handwriting may focus so much of their attention on the act of writing that broader comprehension of concepts and content suffers.
“If a child doesn’t have a system, then they can’t develop a good handwriting habit,” Olsen said. “And if they don’t have a good habit, they have to stop and think.”
Roston agrees that handwriting is as important as it’s ever been. “Your reading gets better, your writing gets better, your language gets better.”
Olsen became interested in teaching handwriting when her young son struggled to master the skill. The teaching tools available then, in the mid-1970s, weren’t working for him, so Olsen developed her own teaching system. She eventually distilled her method into a booklet that was given to occupational therapists around the country. By 1990, Handwriting Without Tears evolved into an entire curriculum for children and teachers. The curriculum now includes keyboarding – which Olsen says is a complementary skill to handwriting, not a replacement for it – as well as cursive.
“I like teaching cursive so students can develop an adult handwriting personality,” she said. “But also so they can read primary sources.” Olsen mentioned examples such as the U.S. Constitution and “letters from World War II and recipes in your grandmother’s cookbook.”
As students, even those in kindergarten and first grade, spend more time on digital devices, pressing letters on a screen rather than forming them on the page, overburdened teachers struggle to find time to effectively teach handwriting.
When Roston noticed the uptick in handwriting issues, she decided to go beyond the existing research in the field of occupational therapy to understand how best to help students who were struggling and to build a case for more handwriting help in the school system.
“I was trying to understand, as a therapist: Am I doing the right thing?” she said.
More than a decade ago, Roston, along with Jim Hinojosa, a professor emeritus in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, began thinking about ways to tackle the problem in New York City schools. Roston decided to conduct a study in a community school to gauge the best approach. Learn more about Hinojosa and Roston’s study.
The school sent letters to the parents of all first- and second-graders to inform them that their children could be tested for handwriting skills and asking if they would like to have their children participate in a “handwriting club.” The response was so overwhelming that they couldn’t accommodate all the students – at least at first.
Roston and Hinojosa split the students into two groups, each of which received extra handwriting instruction at the end of the school day, for 12 sessions. One group received intensified handwriting instruction for 30 minutes, while the other group received only 15 minutes of handwriting instruction followed by practicing visual perception skills and other non-letter exercises, such as coloring. Each group played letter-based games, like hangman and Mad Libs, toward the end of the sessions.
At the end of the 12 sessions, they tested the children again, using objective evaluations: the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration and the Minnesota Handwriting Assessment. The two evaluation tools were norm-based and were both approved by school’s research committees. The group that received more intensive handwriting instruction vastly outperformed the one that didn’t.
“It was quite amazing,” Roston said. “Handwriting teaches handwriting.”