When the mechanical process of handwriting is taught in tandem with the more creative process of composition, the result is improvement in both skills, a study of Seattle first-graders shows. Ironically, the discovery comes at a time when the teaching of handwriting is less emphasized in the schools because of the presence of the computer. However, children who have poor handwriting in first grade are likely to have trouble with written expression when they are older, say Virginia Berninger and Robert Abbott, co-directors of the study and professors of education at the University of Washington. Their research since 1989 shows a direct carry-over from handwriting to compositional length and quality throughout the elementary grades.

For the study, first grade classes in eight public schools in the greater Seattle area were screened for problems with handwriting, using test measures and teacher recommendations. From this group of more than 700 children, 144 with writing problems were selected and randomly assigned to one of six types of remedial work. The children met in groups of three with a trained graduate student tutor who worked with them for 20 minutes about twice a week until 24 sessions had been conducted.

Group one took the conventional approach now most often used in the schools. Tutors showed the children a letter from the alphabet and asked them to copy it. Group two was shown the motor movements for making the letter before being asked to copy it. Group three was asked to study the letter marked with numbered arrows to show how it was to be formed and then asked to copy it. Work in the other groups involved memory. Group four saw the unmarked letter, then were asked to cover it up before doing their own version. And group five was asked to study the letter with the numbered arrows, and also were asked to cover it up before writing it. Group six formed a control group. They spent their time on a technique of analyzing the sounds of spoken words which is thought to be related to reading but not to writing.

In all groups, the children practiced all 26 letters of the alphabet in a session, writing each from one to three times. This differs from usual practice, which has children copy several rows of a few letters at a time. The goal, Berninger says, was to get the children to make the letters accurately and automatically. Automatic production of letters frees up mental resources for the process of composing.

The differing treatments were done in the first 10 minutes of the tutoring sessions. All groups spent the remainder of the time writing compositions and reading them to each other.

When the children were re-tested at the end of the study, the treatment that combined numbered arrow cues and memory retrieval (group five) was found to be superior to that of all the others in improving the children's writing-both in the accuracy and automaticity of letter production and in composition skill on a nationally normed test. The treatment also boosted reading skills, probably the result of better letter recognition which in turn led to better word recognition, Berninger says. And although not every child enrolled in the study was helped by the treatments, those in the treatment groups as a whole did better than those in the control group.

Berninger says the results are in line with the findings of neuroscience in several ways:

* Handwriting is not just a motor process; it is also a memory process for letters-the building blocks of written language. To make handwriting automatic requires more than just copying letters over and over; getting the letters firmly embedded in the memory and being able to retrieve them at will is just as important. The numbered arrows helped the children to, in effect, write a "standard program" to store in memory, and writing the letter from memory created a routine for retrieving the stored program.

* If you have a set of mental symbols-like the alphabet-with a restricted number of items, practicing the whole set at the same time helps you organize it in your memory. Thus practicing the whole alphabet a few times is more effective for embedding it in memory than making multiple copies of a few letters.

* When the mechanical skill of handwriting is taught close in time to the more creative skill of composing, then the two are better coordinated in the mind of the learner. The children saw that the handwriting was a tool for making meaning, not just an isolated exercise.

One of the positive side effects of the study was that the children began to enjoy writing. "Sharing their writing with others was very motivating for them," Berninger says. "These were kids who usually had a hard time with a pencil, but we got them interested in the process of using writing to say what they wanted to say and so they started to derive some pleasure from it."

This squares with the researchers' original hypothesis that older students with writing disabilities probably have had early difficulty with handwriting. "Older students who have done poorly from the beginning come to think of themselves as not being writers, so they don't like writing and avoid it. As a result, their higher-level composing skills don't get developed," Berninger says. "We think that if we intervene early with handwriting and spelling instruction, we can prevent problems with written expression later."

Another lead author of the study, recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, is University of Maryland Professor of Education Steve Graham. The work was funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.