Laura Dinehart, an assistant professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, was pretty sure that preschoolers' development of fine motor skills—such as handwriting—wouldn't predict their level of achievement later in school.
But after conducting a study funded by the Children's Trust, she was excited to discover that she was wrong.
Dinehart found that preschoolers' early writing skills did predict both their grades and standardized test scores in second-grade reading and math.
The results were "very significant," Dinehart said Tuesday from her university office. Her study is expected to be published this summer in the journal Early Childhood Education and Development.
Dinehart's study examined the grades and standardized test scores of 3,000 second-graders in Miami-Dade County public schools and linked them back to information about the kids' skills as preschoolers.
"Students who received good grades on fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in reading—B averages. Those who did poorly on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in reading—C averages," according to a report on the university's website.
Also, preschoolers who performed well on fine motor writing tasks "scored in the 59th percentile," or just above average, on the Stanford Achievement test (SAT) for reading in second grade and in the 62nd percentile on the Math SAT. Preschoolers who had performed poorly "scored in the 38th percentile on the Reading SAT in second grade and in the 37nd percentile on the Math SAT."
Dinehart, whose research focuses on the development and early academic outcomes of children from birth to age 5, believes her study is the first to examine the link between preschoolers' development of writing skills— their ability to copy letters, shapes, and numbers—and their later academic achievement.
The study's results add to the growing body of knowledge about how early learning can impact how well students will do in school, she noted.
But she acknowledged that the study doesn't definitively predict that kids with poor writing skills in preschool won't do well in school, or that teaching handwriting to preschoolers will promote academic success later.
"If we teach fine motor skills, does that automatically improve academic skills later on? We're not 100 percent sure," she said. "There are lots of questions to be answered."
Still, that shouldn't stop parents and preschools from urging kids to learn to write the old-fashioned way—with pencil and paper, instead of pushing a button or swiping the screen on an iPad, Dinehart said. In a column published Tuesday on cnn.com, she provides tips on how to get kids to write, including keeping lots of crayons, markers and sidewalk chalk around the house.
"It's not realistic to say that [kids] are not going to play with electronics at all, but one shouldn't replace the other," Dinehart said.