“Brain Development from Sensorimotor Experiences: Handwriting and Letter Perception”
Sophia Vinci-Booher, Indiana University, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Handwriting is a visual-motor activity that is particularly effective at increasing letter recognition, a fundamental skill in early reading development. This dissertation focused on understanding the neural mechanisms that underlie increases in letter recognition after handwriting practice. A series of three studies demonstrated that the co-occurrence of the visual and motor experiences with letters that naturally occurs during handwriting contributes to the emergence of coordinated neural activity among visual and motor brain systems during perception. The emergence of this visual-motor functional connectivity was temporary and not directly related to recognition. These studies suggest, collectively, that one way that handwriting increases letter recognition is by establishing functional pathways among visual and motor brain systems that temporarily facilitate communication among visual and motor brain systems during perception. Communications among visual and motor systems during perception in early learning may prepare the visual system to function more autonomously during recognition in later learning. This research suggests, more broadly, that sensorimotor experiences with letters mold the neural mechanisms that support early reading development.
Literacy is a major determinant of academic achievement and quality of life outcomes (NAEP, 2017). One-third of American children are reading below a basic level in the 4th grade, however, and this percentage remains consistent through the high school years (NAEP, 2017). Reading interventions that focus on pre-literacy skills, especially letter recognition, are stronger predictors of successful reading outcomes in the long term than interventions that focus on early-literacy skills (e.g., letter sound mapping) (Scanlon & Vellutino, 1996; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Pace, Alper, Burchinal, Golinkoff, & Hirsh- Pasek, 2019). Efforts aimed at increasing literacy skills in America should, therefore, focus on activities that increase letter recognition at the earliest stages of literacy development.
Handwriting—producing individual letters by hand—is a sensorimotor learning activity that leads to greater gains in letter recognition in pre-literate children when compared to a variety of other standard letter learning activities (Li & James, 2016; Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou, & Velay, 2005; Zemlock, Vinci- Booher, & James, 2018). Handwriting also leads to greater activation in visual and motor brain regions during letter perception when compared to a variety of other standard letter learning activities (James & Engelhardt, 2012; Longcamp, Anton, Roth, & Velay, 2003). Prior work, therefore, suggested that gains in letter recognition after handwriting experience are supported by changes in visual and motor activity in the brain, though this relationship had never been directly tested.
Understanding the neural mechanisms that underlie learning-related changes in behavior can help identify optimal learning experiences and interventions. Behaviors arise from complex neural mechanisms and, crucially, this means that the same overt behavior may arise from different neural mechanisms. Handwriting and see-and-say training can both lead to immediate gains in letter recognition, for instance, but gains from handwriting experience last longer (Longcamp et al., 2005). Letter recognition and letter sound mapping are both skills that are associated with literacy, but letter recognition is associated with better long-term literacy outcomes (Scanlon & Vellutino, 1996; Snow, Burns, & 3 Griffin, 1998; Pace, Alper, Burchinal, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2019). Understanding the mechanisms through which handwriting molds neural processing during letter recognition at different points in literacy development can provide insight into educational practices that are most likely to lead to optimal longterm outcomes.
This dissertation focused on the sensorimotor nature of handwriting and its contribution to the neural mechanisms supporting visual letter recognition in pre-literate children and literate adults. Visual and motor experiences with letters naturally co-occur during handwriting—a letter visually unfolds while being produced by the motor system. The central claim of this dissertation was that the co-occurrence of visual and motor experiences with letters during handwriting has unique, positive effects on the neural mechanisms supporting letter recognition. This dissertation, therefore, explored the relationships among handwriting experience, letter recognition, and brain function.
Study 1 The goal of this study was to characterize brain function during handwriting and letter perception throughout literacy development to better understand the developmental trajectories of handwriting and letter perception (Study 1; Vinci-Booher & James, 2017). Forty-five participants, ranging in age from 5 to 20 years old, were asked to write and perceive letters during fMRI scanning using a novel MRIcompatible writing tablet that, for the first time, allowed the participants to see their hand as they were writing (Vinci-Booher, Sturgeon, James, & James, 2018). Writing occurred in 2 formats, with ink and without ink. Letters were perceived in 4 different formats; participants were shown dynamic and static representations of their own handwritten letters, static presentations of another participant’s handwritten letters, and typeface letters. Participants were separated into three groups: young children, older children, and literate adults. Analyses highlighted neural systems that responded stronger to one aspect of handwriting (e.g., perceive dynamic letters) relative to another (e.g., perceive static letters) and that differed among groups.
Study 2 This experiment investigated the neural effects of a handwriting intervention in pre-literate children to determine if handwriting experience could lead to changes in the communication among visual and motor brain systems during visual perception (Study 2; Vinci-Booher, James, & James, 2016). Fourteen pre-literate children were trained on four sets of letters. Training was within-participants, between-letters. There were two conditions: handwriting and typing. Participants underwent an fMRI session during which they visually perceived letters learned in the different training conditions as well as unlearned letters. We predicted that functional connectivity, a measure of neural communication, among visual and motor brain systems would be greater when children were perceiving letters trained through handwriting when compared to letters trained through typing.
Study 3 This experiment investigated the neural effects of the co-occurrence between the visual and motor experiences of handwriting to determine if this co-occurrence could lead to changes in the communication among visual and motor brain regions during visual perception (Study 3; Vinci-Booher, Nikoulina, James, & James, 2019). This experiment also investigated the relationship between training-induced changes in neural communication and visual recognition. Twenty literate adults were trained on four sets of novel symbols. Training was within-participants, between-symbols. There were three conditions: handwriting (motor, visual), handwriting without ink (motor, no visual), and watching a handwritten symbol unfold (no motor, visual). Participants underwent 3 fMRI sessions during which they visually perceived symbols learned in the different training conditions. All fMRI sessions were one week apart: 1 pre-training, 1 post-training, and 1 after a no-training delay. Training occurred between the first and second fMRI sessions and included four 1-hour training sessions over the course of 4 days. A symbol recognition test was administered after each training and fMRI session. We predicted that functional connectivity would be greater during the perception of symbols trained through handwriting when compared to the perception of symbols trained in the visual and motor control conditions and, further, that these changes would be related to changes in visual recognition.
Study 1: Functional Brain Systems Supporting Handwriting and Letter Perception Change with Literacy Development
Handwriting was supported by a parietal-frontal neural system in each group; ventral-temporal cortex was incorporated into this system in only the older children and adults. The functional response during passive letter perception also differed across groups. The response in the youngest children was restricted to ventral-temporal cortex and to the variability present in handwritten letters. The response in older children included ventral-temporal and parietal cortex and was associated with the category of letters. The response in adults included ventral-temporal, parietal, and frontal motor cortex for the category of letters. These results suggest that (1) adult-like letter perception processing emerges earlier in ventral-temporal cortex than in parietal and frontal motor regions and that (2) the visual perception of handwritten forms that occurs during handwriting may contribute to this developmental trajectory. These results also suggest that (3) the incorporation of ventral-temporal cortex into the neural system supporting handwriting occurs when ventral-temporal cortex begins to respond to letters as a category.
Study 2: Visual-Motor Functional Connectivity Supports Letter Perception After Handwriting Experience
Functional connections among visual and motor brain regions were stronger during the perception of letters with which preliterate children had received handwriting practice than during the perception of letters with which they had received typing practice. This result demonstrated handwriting experience, and not general motor movements (i.e., typing), can lead to changes in the communication among visual and motor brain systems during visual perception, at least in preliterate children. This result suggests, further, that the activation in both visual and motor regions during letter perception reported in prior work (James & Engelhardt, 2012) was driven by the onset of communication among visual and motor brain regions associated with handwriting experience.
Study 3: The Visual-Motor Nature of Handwriting Leads to Changes in Visual-Motor Functional Connectivity During Perception and Related Changes in Recognition
Participants recognized symbols learned by handwriting faster than symbols learned in other
conditions where motor and visual experiences were not coupled. Participants also demonstrated changes in functional connectivity among visual, motor, and (surprisingly) auditory neural communities that were associated with the co-occurrence of the visual and motor experiences during letter production. After a week-long no-training delay, participants were still better at recognizing symbols learned by handwriting compared to symbols learned in the other conditions, but the functional connections observed immediately after training had returned to their pre-training baseline. Taken together, these results suggest that the visual-motor functional connectivity among communities observed during perception after handwriting training was not directly related to the concurrent gains in recognition.
This dissertation focused on understanding the neural mechanisms that underlie changes in letter recognition after handwriting practice. The primary claim of this dissertation was that the temporal coupling between the visual and motor experiences of a letter that naturally occurs during handwriting is important for the development of neural mechanisms that support letter recognition. The results of the studies reported in this dissertation have implications for our understanding of brain development from sensorimotor experiences. They suggest, collectively, that sensorimotor learning experiences have unique, positive effects on visual perception that are related to the temporal coupling between the sensory and motor aspects of the learning experience.
The influence of information from sensory and motor brain systems acquired from sensorimotor learning experiences may be most important when children are first learning to recognize letters. Functional connections among visual and motor brain regions were observed during letter perception in preliterate children (Study 2) and during symbol perception in literate adults (Study 3). The presence of visual-motor functional connectivity indicated that the processes occurring in visual and motor brain systems during visual perception were not completely independent of one another but, rather, that there was a certain degree of information transferred among them. The co-occurrence of visual and motor experiences with letters during handwriting contributed to the emergence of this information transfer and concurrent gains in visual recognition (Study 3).
The ability to recruit sensory and motor information from prior handwriting experiences may be important when children are first learning to recognize letters. The ability to recruit sensory and motor information during perception is likely a transient phenomenon. Training-induced changes in visual-motor communication returned to pre-training baselines after one week of no-training while training-induced changes in visual recognition remained elevated (Study 3). These results suggest that sensorimotor experiences can induce temporary increases in communication among sensory and motor neural communities that are not, in and of themselves, directly supporting gains in visual recognition. A recent study reported a similar finding: communication between primary visual and motor brain communities was strongest during the early stages of learning a piano sequence and faded as performance increased (Basset, Yang, Wymbs, & Grafton, 2015). Sensory and motor information during perception may be more important in early learning than in later learning.
Neural communication among sensory and motor systems may be a developmental mechanism that prepares sensory systems to function more autonomously in later learning. Prior work has demonstrated that local activation in ventral-temporal cortex is related to visual letter recognition (Garrett et al., 2000). Older children and adults demonstrated greater ventral-temporal activation than younger children during letter perception, suggesting that ventral-temporal activation associated with recognition is more prominent in later learning than in earlier learning (Study 1). Sensorimotor experiences may initialize the development of ventral-temporal representations in communication with the motor system, forming the foundation for developmental trajectories with optimal literacy outcomes.
Knowledge gained from this dissertation is of potential significance for early elementary education. It provides an understanding of how handwriting and pre-literacy development are related at the neural level. At the neural level we can detect potential differences in developmental trajectories that are not readily observed in behavior but may have crucial downstream effects on literacy development. Understanding the neural mechanisms through which handwriting increases letter recognition provides an opportunity to understand the nature of early learning processes and their cascading effects on literacy development.
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