The transferability of handwriting skills: from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet

Thibault Asselborn, Wafa Johal, Bolat Tleubayev, Zhanel Zhexenova, Pierre Dillenbourg, Catherine McBride, Anara Sandygulova

When a child writes using two different alphabets, such as Latin and Cyrillic, are the handwriting skills transferred? Are our handwriting skills tied to one alphabet, or will a child who faces handwriting difficulties in one, experience similar challenges in the other? To answer these questions, 190 children from grades 1–4 were asked to copy a short text using the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets on a digital tablet.

A recent policy change in Kazakhstan gave us the opportunity to measure the transfer of writing skills, since the Latin-based Kazakh alphabet had not yet been introduced at the time of the study. As a result, 1st graders had 6-months experience in Cyrillic while 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders had 1.5, 2.5 and 3.5 years of experience. This unique situation created a quasi-experimental situation. It allowed us to measure the influence of the number of years spent practicing Cyrillic on the handwriting quality in the Latin alphabet.

The results showed that some of the differences between the two scripts were consistent across all grades. These differences therefore reflected the intrinsic differences in the dynamics of handwriting between the two alphabets. For example, several characteristics of the pen pressure on the tablet were very different. Other characteristics, however, revealed fewer differences between the two alphabets across classes. We found that the quality of Cyrillic writing increased from the 1st to the 4th grade, due to more practice. Likewise, we found that the quality of Latin writing increased, despite the students having no prior Latin writing experience. We can therefore explain this improvement in Latin writing as an indicator of the transfer of fine motor control skills from Cyrillic to Latin.

This result is all the more surprising since we predicted a negative transfer, meaning that the writing automation for one alphabet would interfere with the automation required for the other alphabet. An interesting side effect of these results is that the algorithms we have developed for the diagnosis of writing difficulties in French-speaking children could be relevant for other alphabets, paving the way for the creation of a translingual model for detecting writing difficulties.