Handwriting and Literacy

Handwriting and LiteracyHandwriting and Literacy

Did you know that research has indicated that perceptual and motor systems become linked only when individuals learn through self-generated actions?  Basically, we learn more by doing an activity ourselves versus watching someone else complete the same exact activity.  Babies and little ones learn coordination, visual-spatial skills, and motor skills through self-generated actions.  So the question becomes – why do we teach children how to identify letters only by showing them letters?  Is there a connection between handwriting and literacy?

By providing a multi-sensory approach to learning letters through movement, children can increase the connections between the perceptual and motor systems.  One way to do this is through movement and learning through active play.  For example, children can move their bodies into the shape of the lettersAction verbs starting with different letters of the alphabet can be used to further illicit self-generated actions.

Use Handwriting to Teach Children How to Identify Letters

Another option to teach children how to identify letters is through handwriting.  Some research has demonstrated that we learn symbols better if we write them by hand during learning than through other forms of practice, including visual, auditory, and even typing.  In order to determine how handwriting facilitates symbol learning, researchers carried out brain imaging studies on four-year-olds.  They investigated whether experience printing letters by hand creates the perceptual-motor brain network that underlies letter identification and what kind of manual production is important for creating these brain networks.  The brain imaging compared a “see and say” method of learning letters to printing letters without saying the letters.  The results showed that only after the printing training did the visual regions that later become specialized in the literate individual for letter recognition become active.  In a separate study, the “see and say” method was also compared with tracing, printing, and typing.  Again the results showed that only after the printing training, the children’s brain recruited the letter recognition network.

The researchers wanted to take it even one step further to determine how the visual and motor systems become connected in the brain.  Again using brain imaging, they concluded that the visual regions that are active during letter perception (the fusiform gyrus) become functionally connected to motor regions only as a result of handwriting experience.  Further research indicated that the reason handwriting creates these connections is that children are forming many different variations of the same letter versus tracing and typing where it does not vary.

The final study looked 6-year-old children learning a new script—letters written in cursive—either through self-production or through seeing an experimenter produce those same letters in a variable manner.  The brain imaging results indicated that only when the letters were self-produced did seeing the letters recruit the perceptual-motor network.  Learning even variable letters did not result in recruiting the reading network unless the letters were self-produced. Although viewing and tracing variable instances of a given letter was helpful for letter categorization.

The researchers concluded that handwriting experience plays a crucial role in the formation of the brain network that underlies letter recognition.

James, K. H. (2017). The Importance of Handwriting Experience on the Development of the Literate Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 502-508.


Do you need a handwriting activity with variable letters?  Missing Letters includes the materials to play a game where you turn over a letter flash card, visually scan to look for the missing letter and write OR trace the letter. The first player to write all 26 letters is the winner! There are 5 different types of font.

Missing Letters

The ABC’s of Active Learning © offers readers tons of multisensory literacy activities based on each alphabet letter.  This book, based on years of experience as school-based therapists, is written by Laurie Gombash, PT with a Master’s degree in Education and Lindsey Justice, OT.  FIND OUT MORE.

ABC's of Active Learning

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Handwriting and Literacy