Thibault Lucien Christian Asselborn, Wafa Monia Benkaouar Johal, Pierre Dillenbourg
Do handwriting skills transfer when a child writes in two different scripts, such as the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets? Are our measures of handwriting skills intrinsically bound to one alphabet or will a child who faces handwriting difficulties in one script experience similar difficulties in the other script? To answer these questions, 190 children from grades 1–4 were asked to copy a short text using both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets on a digital tablet. A recent change of policy in Kazakhstan gave us an opportunity to measure transfer, as the Latin-based Kazakh alphabet has not yet been introduced. Therefore, pupils in grade 1 had a 6-months experience in Cyrillic, and pupils in grades 2, 3, and 4 had 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5 years of experience in Cyrillic, respectively. This unique situation created a quasi-experimental situation that allowed us to measure the influence of the number of years spent practicing Cyrillic on the quality of handwriting in the Latin alphabet. The results showed that some of the differences between the two scripts were constant across all grades. These differences thus reflect the intrinsic differences in the handwriting dynamics between the two alphabets. For instance, several features related to the pen pressure on the tablet are quite different. Other features, however, revealed decreasing differences between the two scripts across grades. While we found that the quality of Cyrillic writing increased from grades 1–4, due to increased practice, we also found that the quality of the Latin writing increased as well, despite the fact that all of the pupils had the same absence of experience in writing in Latin. We can therefore interpret this improvement in Latin script as an indicator of the transfer of fine motor control skills from Cyrillic to Latin. This result is especially surprising given that one could instead hypothesize a negative transfer, i.e., that the finger controls automated for one alphabet would interfere with those required by the other alphabet. One interesting side-effect of these findings is that the algorithms that we developed for the diagnosis of handwriting difficulties among French-speaking children could be relevant for other alphabets, paving the way for the creation of a cross-lingual model for the detection of handwriting difficulties.