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Why Handwriting and Spelling Drills, Done in Isolation, Miss the Point

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're back with Virginia Berninger, an educational psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

RS: A study she and her colleagues did found that children in fourth and sixth grade wrote longer essays when they were writing by hand than when they were typing on a keyboard. The children also wrote the words faster, and they wrote more complete sentences.

AA: But while children should learn good penmanship, Berninger says teaching handwriting by itself misses the point.

VIRGINIA BERNINGER: "What our research and other people's research is showing is, starting around kindergarten, first grade, kids really do best when you integrate writing with the reading and you start with idea expression. You have them put their ideas on paper, and then you build into that some instruction in handwriting and spelling.

"But the ultimate goal is to express their ideas. And they can do it. We do not recommend drill of handwriting or spelling in isolation. It is always taught in a way for the children to transfer it, to idea expression, which is the true purpose of writing. And that cognitive writing emerges around age six."

AA: "And you're saying it should be taught that way."

VIRGINIA BERNINGER: "Oh, absolutely."

RS: "What I hear you saying is that it should be taught in context, which is how language -- second language learners learn a language. Or any language learner learns a language best."

VIRGINIA BERNINGER: "We teach a strategy -- and this was developed by Jennifer Katahira in the Seattle public schools -- 'What I think, I can say. What I say, I can write.' So the teacher models a very, very short sentence. Starting with kindergarten, it might be a sentence or two long. Then the children think out loud, and they use little cue cards that help them with forming letters and getting sounds that go with letters.

"So as they say their ideas out loud, they then think about the sounds and the letters that go with it. They write it down. At the end they always read it to their writing buddies. We have audience from the beginning. And what we found, when children do that kind of writing, they actually become very good readers, too."

AA: "I'm curious, how common is it from your experience, that writing is taught in isolation? In just drill-and-kill, maybe is what you might call it."

VIRGINIA BERNINGER: "Now a colleague of mine, Steve Graham, does surveys of teachers' practices, and he finds either teachers are only teaching handwriting and spelling incidentally -- you know, when they think it's appropriate, it's very casual -- or they're very into the skills, you know, just drilling the skills.

"From my experience working in the schools, there are fewer people integrating the teaching of the handwriting and spelling with the idea expression. They either do writers' workshop and idea expression and social context, or they work on skills for the sake of skills -- kind of drill in isolation, the old penmanship model. That's not what our research is showing works. It's the combining of the two approaches: writing for idea expression, and then teaching the transcription skills."

AA: "What do you think, based on all your experience -- I mean, what we hear now is, we see the kids texting and typing on their computers and so forth, do you have any sense ... I know your research is restricted to the younger kids, but in terms of idea expression or creativity, do you have any sort of hunches of what this is meaning? Because the trend seems to be away from handwriting, the old fashioned way, more toward computer mediated writing."

VIRGINIA BERNINGER: "We haven't done the studies with adolescents. There are some people in other countries doing this research now, and I'm aware of some that are finding similar things. We do know from a lot of writing research that computers are very, very good for the revision process. It may just be that that first draft benefits by producing it by hand."

RS: Virginia Berninger is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. She's put together a list of resources for teaching writing. You can find it, along with the first part of our interview, at our Web site,

AA: Where you can also send us comments and get our weekly podcast. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.


The following was prepared by V. W. Berninger, Ph.D., director of the University of Washington Literacy Trek Write Stuff Intervention Project and Longitudinal Study, and the Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center:

Books on Evidence-Based Writing Instruction

1. Graham, S., MacArthur, C., & Fitzgerald, J. (2007). "Best practices in writing instruction." NY: Guilford.

2. Berninger, V. (2007). "Process Assessment of the Learner II User’s Guide." San Antonio, TX: Harcourt/PsyCorp. (CD format) ISBN 0158661818 Second Revision issued August 2008. Contains lists of resources for writing instruction and explains how to link writing assessment and writing intervention. Has published writing lessons from the UW research program that can be downloaded. Is in the "PAL II Test Battery for Reading and Writing."

3. Morris, R. & Mather, N. (Eds.) (2008). "Evidence-based interventions for students with learning and behavioral challenges" (pp. 215-235). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (LEA).

4. Troia, G. (Ed.) (2008). "Writing Instruction and Assessment for Struggling Writers From Theory to Evidence Based Practices." New York: Guilford.

Book on Evidence-Based Issues in Motivation for Writing (Social/Emotional Issues)

S. Hidi, & P. Boscolo (Eds). "Motivation in writing" (pp. 159-179). Originally Amsterdam, Elsevier, now Emerald, Australia.

Integrating Transcription (Handwriting/Spelling) With Composition

Berninger, V., & Abbott, S. (2003) Lesson Sets 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 in "PAL Research-Supported Reading and Writing Lessons," Harcourt: San Antonio.

Integrating Writing and Reading in Motivating, Authentic Contexts

1. Berninger, V., & Abbott, S. (2003). Lesson Sets 13 and 14 in "PAL Research-Supported Reading and Writing Lessons," Harcourt: San Antonio. Lesson Sets 8, 9, and 10 for composition only.

2. Berninger, V., & Wolf, B. (2009a). "Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and science." Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

3. Berninger, V., & Wolf, B. (2009b). "Helping students with dyslexia and dysgraphia make connections: Differentiated instruction lesson plans in reading and writing." Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. Spiral book with teaching plans from University of Washington Research Program.

Self-Regulated Writing Strategies (Handwriting, Spelling, Composing)

1. Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2005). "Writing Better. Effective Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties." Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

2. Harris, K. R., Graham, S., Mason, L., & Friedlander, B. (2008). "Powerful writing strategies for all students." Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Web Site with Resources for Students Learning Written English

Web address for the software English Discoveries. Once you reach the Web site, you can navigate it by clicking on one of the menu items on the left hand side of the page.

Overview of Writing Skills and Instruction for Parents and Teachers:

Carter, A., Carroll, S., Page, L., & and Romero, I. (Eds.) (2008). "Helping Children at Home and School: Handouts for families and educators." Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. (2008). See Handout by Berninger and Dunn for Writing in Intermediate and Secondary Grades. Also for the Preschool and Elementary grades.

Resources for Teaching Handwriting

1. Zaner-Bloser Zaner-Bloser handwriting programs for use in general education. See

2. Slingerland or phone 425 453 1190 Slingerland, B. & Aho, M. (1985a) "Manual for Learning to Use Manuscript Writing" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy. Details how to teach and review letters of the alphabet, usually used in Kindergarten, first and second grades.

Slingerland, B. & Aho, M. (1985b) "Masters for Learning to Use Manuscript Writing" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy

Slingerland, B. & Aho, M. (1985c) "Manual for Learning to Use Cursive Writing" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy

Slingerland, B. & Aho, M. (1985d) "Masters for Learning to Use Cursive Writing" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy.

Slingerland Institute for Literacy. (2008) "Binder Size Handwriting Charts" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy. Manuscript and Cursive upper and lower case letter patterns for easy student reference. (1998) "Slingerland Masters for Lined Handwriting Paper" Bellevue, WA: Slingerland Institute for Literacy. Reproducible masters for various sizes of handwriting paper.

3. Rubel, B. (1995). "Big strokes for little folks." Tucson, AZ: Therapy Skill Builders.

4. Benbow, M. (1990). "Loops and groups: A kinesthetic writing system." San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.

5. Olsen, J. (2004). "Handwriting without tears." Cabin John, MD.

Resources for Teaching Typing

1. Fry. "Keyboarding for Beginners." Teachers’ Creative Materials, Inc.

2. "Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor" (

Resources for Teaching Spelling

1. Masterson, J., Apel, K., & Wasowicz, J. (2006). SPELL 2 Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language and Literacy (Spelling assessment software for grade 2 through adult.) Learning by Design. Also, SPELL-Links to Reading & Writing - A Word Study Program for K-Adult. (Assessment linked to instruction.) Learning By Design, Inc.

2. Fry, E. (1996). " Spelling book. Level 1-6. Words most needed plus phonics." Westminster, Calif.: Teacher Created Materials, Inc. Contains lessons with words and strategies for teaching children to spell high-frequency words alone and in dictated sentences and apply phonics knowledge to spelling. Provides placement test for placing children at their instructional level.

3. Dixon, R., & Englemann, S. (2001). "Spelling through morphographs." DeSoto, TX: SRA/McGraw-Hill. Excellent program once students have mastered Fry program.

4. McGraw Hill: "Spelling Connections and Spelling Mastery."

5. Henry, M. (2003). "Unlocking literacy. Effective decoding and spelling instruction." Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing. Explains how to teach decoding of words of Anglo Saxon, Latinate and Greek origin based on the phonological, orthographic and morphological units in words.

6. Gentry, J. (2004). "The science of spelling. The explicit specifics that make great readers and writers (and spellers!)" Heinemann:

7. Bear, D. Ivernezzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2000). "Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction" (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

8. "Effective Decoding, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction." Click on "training modules" on left side of screen. Then choose Module 13 or the numbered one for major prefixes and suffixes for Latin roots and Greek combining forms.

9. Berninger, V., & Abbott, S. (2003). PAL Research-Supported Reading and Writing Lessons. San Antonio, TX: Harcourt. Lesson Sets 4, 5, and 7: Phonological Stage of Spelling Development.

Resources for Teaching Composing

1. Wong, B., & Berninger, V. (2005). Cognitive processes of teachers in implementing composition research in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. In B. Shulman, K. Apel, B. Ehren, E. Silliman, & A. Stone (Eds.), "Handbook of Language and Literacy Development and Disorders." New York: Guilford. (This chapter shows teachers how to apply the cognitive processes model of writing to teaching composing explicitly -- making instructional plans, implementing them in practice, reviewing student progress on a regular basis, and revising instructional approach when necessary. It also illustrates Wong’s model for integrated lessons for using the computer in the instructional program in writing with middle school and high school students. It calls attention to the importance of teaching students explicit strategies for managing time in completing assignments outside class.)

Resources for Teaching Sentence Construction

1. Farbman, E. (1989). "Sentence sense. A writer's guide." Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Resources for Teaching Discourse Composition

1. Carlisle, J. (1996). "Models for writing, Levels A, B, and C." Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications. also reproducibles for classroom use.

2. Auman, M. (2003). Step up to writing (2nd ed.). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

3. Traits of Good Writing (gr. 1-2, 3-4, or 5-6). Remedia Scottsdale, AZ 1-800-826-4740

4. Nelson, N., Bahr, C., & Van Meter, A. (2004). "The Writing Lab Approach to Language Instruction and Intervention." Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. Offers practical suggestions for teachers to use in scaffolding instruction for students with language learning disability and for using software to support the composing.