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 in two different alphabets, such as Latin and Cyrillic, do the handwriting skills transfer? 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 which 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 for the pen pressure on the tablet were very different. Other characteristics, however, revealed less differences between the two alphabets across classes. Since we found that the quality of Cyrillic writing increased from the 1st to the 4th grade, due to more practice, we also found that the quality of Latin writing also increased, despite the fact that all of the students had 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 expected to make the hypothesis of a negative transfer, meaning that the automation of the writing for an alphabet would interfere with those required by 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 trans-lingual model for detecting writing difficulties.