Handwriting and spelling

Where is your memory? In your brain certainly. But it also seems to be in your muscles. When you write a very familiar word or even just a string of letters as part of a word, you don't stop and think about the spelling, your hand just does it. You have gained automaticity: that is, you do something without really thinking about it (like changing gear when driving). The great thing about automaticity is that it frees up your conscious attention for dealing with higher-level tasks. In writing this means you can be thinking about how to express your ideas rather than how to spell the words. It's what people who are learning to spell should be striving for.

So how can learners gain this automaticity when it comes to spelling? Handwriting is an important consideration. If students 'print', that is, they write each letter separately and individually, they are missing out on valuable opportunities to get the hand to remember spellings of whole words or common chunks of words (letter strings) such as '-ing' or '-tion'.

Learners from languages that are written from right to left sometimes start to write a letter on the right and work towards the left. So in the common string 'wh', they may start writing 'w' at the top right of it and then when they get to the top left of 'w' they have to skip back to the right ready to write the 'h'. All the flow from one letter to the next is thus lost. This needs to be corrected if at all possible.

In Melvyn Ramsden's Rescuing Spelling, he recommends that children are encouraged to join up their letters or at least write letters that can be joined up (i.e. they have those little tails on them - called ligatures). He suggests they should write the letters in each morpheme together, so their hand learns to automatically make that shape. So when writing '-ing' at the end of a word, the pen shouldn't leave the paper and the 'i' should be dotted last, after the 'g' has been written. He gets his children to say out loud "ing" when they dot the 'i'. Neat! I'm going to try it out with an adult English language learner who has this problem.

Here's a video I just found of Melvyn Ramsden in action:


Interesting, but I found it a bit uncomfortable to watch. What do you think? Are children taught to print or join up their writing when they start learning to write in your country?


  1. Actually, the memory of handwriting must be in the brain rather than the muscles, as is seen by the fact that if you write very big letters on a blackboard, using your whole arm and keeping your fingers perfectly still, you have exactly the same handwriting as when you are writing normally and only moving the fingers fingers. Furthermore, people who know both English and Russian, say, have fundamentally the same handwriting in both: even letters with no equivalent in the other alphabet belong to the "same style" as all the rest, and it doesn't seem to matter whether you learned to write both languages at the same time or at widely separated times.

  2. Hi Johanna,
    Melvyn suggested that I check out your site. Just curious -- what about watching the video is uncomfortable?

  3. Hi Gina,

    Thanks for getting in touch. Don't get me wrong I was impressed with the work Melvyn was doing and with Solomon's output. I think I felt that HE (Solomon) looked uncomfortable at times, perhaps because he was being filmed. I think it must have brought back something from my own childhood!

    I hope he is getting on well with his spelling.

    Best wishes
    Johanna (johanna.stirling@gmail.com )

  4. Hello good day to you!

    I’ve read your blog and find it very much interesting. Can you do me a favor? Can I ask you to post my link in your blogroll/sidebar? In return with that I’ll write an article for you which are related to your blog. In this way, we both can benefit since there would probably more visitors in your blog and mine as well. It would be my pleasure if you will accept my request. Thanks in advance!

    Keyword: Study Languages
    URL: http://www.study-languages.com

    Best regards,
    Audrey Morales

  5. Dear Audrey

    I'm glad you find the blog interesting. I hope your students and teachers will too.

    I'm afraid I don't do reciprocal links in this way. My blog is just for people interested in spelling not those who are looking for a language school.

    I write all blog entries myself (although I may occasionally ask an expert in spelling to contribute in the future). I do it because I have something to say.


  6. Fair enough -- he probably was somewhat uncomfortable, although more because he had an audience of 10, more than because he was on video. When I watch the video, I can see him learning.

    And his spelling is coming along nicely, thank you! Writing too!