I wrote this article for the February edition of Teach Secondary magazine. If you are interested in subscribing, take a look HERE. Here is the article in full:
The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous rocks in all of history, providing one of the keys to the history of language as we know it. When it was found in 1799, the inscrutable script foxed the world – but by 1822 it provided the key to the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
So, what has this mini history lesson got to do with handwriting? Is it a subtle criticism of your local doctor’s illegible scrawl, or a symbol of the creative ways we can daub words on the page? Well, no. As the Rosetta Stone provided help for us to unlock a precious ancient language, it proves an appropriate analogy for how developing strong handwriting skills can unlock success more generally for a student.
Struggling to write can seem a self-fulfilling prophecy enacted; given the evidence on the page in front of them, children can easily come to believe they are simply ‘not good writers’ – and with their confidence dimmed, their writing development stutters and stalls still further. The handwriting rich thus get richer over time, and the poor get poorer.
A barrier to thinking
We know that from a very early age ‘good writers’ develop fluent handwriting so that it becomes automatic. Once they have mastered the skill, they rarely need to expend much mental energy on their handwriting, so they can concentrate on tailoring their content for an audience, selecting apt vocabulary, and more.
In stark contrast, students with handwriting difficulties can have their thinking slowed, and as their working memory is strained by the process of forming legible letters, words and sentences, their focus on spelling and organising ideas into paragraphs etc. can suffer. Weak writers may even suffer a vicious circle: to hide their spelling issues, they may try to keep their writing unclear, attempting to mask their attempts at certain words with small, deliberately ambiguous letter formations.
Issues with handwriting can extend into adolescence and may have a damaging effect on student attainment. We know from evidence that issues with handwriting legibility can affect examination performance. Without fluency, a student can struggle at all levels of understanding. Also, examiners can betray an unconscious bias, unfairly judging students with poor handwriting.
Focuses for support
The National Handwriting Association (nha-handwriting.org.uk) offers some very good advice regarding questions to address any concerns about handwriting. The organisation poses six major areas of concern to probe:
Legibility: are all the words legible?
Neatness: is the handwriting neat or poorly controlled?
Comfort: is the student strained or in discomfort when writing?
Pressure: is too much or too little pressure being applied, or is it variable?
Speed: is the student writing too slowly, or when writing quickly, becoming inaccurate?
Motivation: is the student reluctant to write, or do they tend to give
We know from research by Steve Graham and his colleagues, clearly entitled, ‘What Letters Are Difficult for Young Children?’, that ‘q’, ‘j’, ‘z, ‘u’, ‘n’ and ‘k’ account for 45% of miscues and illegible attempts when writing lowercase letters, with ‘q’, ‘z’, ‘u’, ‘a’ and ‘j’ making up a huge 54% of all miscues. Given this evidence, all secondary school teachers should pay close care and attention to supporting students who struggle with these letters particularly. Given the potential to zoom in closely on small groups of letters with focused, deliberate practice, we offer our students a chance to make quick gains with a crucial skill for life.
Targeted, explicit handwriting instruction can help. For example, a common issue involves ‘descenders’ – letters like ‘p’ and ‘f’, that should neatly drop below the line on the page, but that too often float aimlessly above it. With habitual practice of very clear challenges like this, supported by teachers and at home, students can develop their handwriting overall.
It took some time for the Rosetta Stone to be deciphered, but with our support, it needn’t take so long for our teen students to crack the handwriting code.