Should we worry about handwriting?

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley15 Comments

My nine-year old boy, Noah, has been working hard on his handwriting this week. 

He fizzes with ideas when he writes, but most often his handwriting and his spelling simply cannot keep up. You can see the sheer physicality of his writing as shifts and squirms on his chair: each thought sparking a shuffle of stray arms and jittering legs. 

Understandably, given he has spent more time working from home than in the classroom since March, he simply hasn’t practised writing as much as he would have done in school. 

Though he has the privilege of technology to hand (his typing speed is pretty sharp), his writing stamina and his handwriting has slipped somewhat. He is not alone – OFSTED indicate a loss of writing skill and stamina was an issue when talking to schools.

When you hear the refrain – ‘oh, handwriting doesn’t matter – we have laptops, voice recognition technology, and more’ – you could be forgiven for thinking handwriting doesn’t matter, but it does. 

Handwriting and hardwiring learning

Lots of research by psychologists builds a clear picture that handwriting matters a great deal to writing and learning. It is much more than neat presentation or the flourish of a signature. 

Studies with young children have shown that when writing was composed by hand, children generated more words and more quickly, with more ideas, than when typing on a keyboard. Research also indicates that older students are more effective when they make notes by hand, than when they do so on their laptop

We should care a great deal about the access to technology for pupils right now, but we should not assume that access to technology guarantees effective learning. Indeed, with a potential over-reliance on tech, some key skills may slip through disuse.

Writing experts have also shown that handwriting is a crucial foundation for writing success. The ‘Writer Effect’ reveals that unless handwriting is fluent and automatic, it interferes with the act of skilled writing. For Noah, along with many pupils, handwriting effort can take up too much mental bandwidth. As a result, spelling slips, punctuation goes awry, and meaning making is compromised. 

Put simply, the better your handwriting – and the more automatic – the more you can focus your mental energy on picking the right words, playing with sentence structures, and much more. 

The notion of just ignoring handwriting legibility and going the easy route could actually inhibit more effective methods of writing and learning. 

Not only is writing foundational for skilled writing, there is a real ‘Presentation effect’ too. That is to say, the judgements of teachers, and pupils, are influenced by legible handwriting and correct spelling. Potentially, two equally effective pieces of writing could be judged differently by a teacher or an examiner. 

Handwriting matters. 

What is the impact of the pandemic on writing?

There is so much we don’t yet know about the impact of partial schooling, lockdown, and the interruptions to the lives and learning of pupils.

Of course, helping with handwriting feels rather insignificant when considering the well-being of our children. And yet, I want Noah, along with every other pupil, to be happy and healthy first, but also flourish in the classroom too – now and in the future. 

Back in the autumn, when comparing the writing attainment of large national cohorts, No More Marking found that groups in years 5 and 7 seemed to have gone backwards in their writing attainment compared to the previous year. Though we cannot attribute this dip to the partial lockdowns with exactness, lots of teachers from around the country have described a similar loss of writing stamina – and quality – from their pupils. It is likely recoverable with skilled instruction and support. 

Speed and legibility of handwriting may both matter for our pupils writing success. Post-pandemic, they may require close attention.We should explore the problem with care. Handy teacher-friendly resources, like the ‘Handwriting Legibility Scale’, offer a useful diagnostic tool to take a closer look at handwriting.

With Noah, small supports will help. For a start, he could do with sitting with a little more of a still posture (we talk repeatedly about ‘his base’ – i.e. the not-so-simple act of having his feet on the ground!), and there is lots to do still with his spelling and sentence construction. But with some concerted focus and support, and practice, I am sure his handwriting will recover and his writing will begin to reap the benefits. 

We can be confident that handwriting instruction will make a big difference to pupils who need it. Perhaps then we needn’t worry too much right now, but for many pupils, we should pay close attention to their handwriting, because it will matter to their future school success.  

Comments

  1. I liked this article. My own research on information shows the importance of writing to speech, language & development of ideas. This needs promoting in an age when verbal thinking is less developed.

  2. You are spot on, Alex. Children learn to read (especially emerging readers learning sound/symbol relationships) and write far more easily when handwriting is explicitly taught and practiced on a regular basis. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Best wishes to Noah!

  3. Fascinating! Very much agree Alex that the physicality of writing, drawing and mark making embeds learning for all of us…is it the joined up process/loop of see/process/response? There may also be benefits to good mental health from physically creating a tangible visual, tactile form (writing, drawing etc.)
    Have you explored the use of fountain pens in cursive writing? I have seen some very encouraging results with students struggling to right legibly but when using dip pen and pots of ink their writing transforms. Slower pace? Thinking about the letter forming process? Not sure yet but it’s an area I’m pursuing!

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  5. Interesting article and food for thought especially as evidence suggests writing creates new neurological pathways in the brain. It uses different cognitive abilities, which in turn reinforces learning and memory recall. These pathways are different from those created when we learn, say audially or visually. However, my SEND learners have different abilities and will no doubt play a different role in society with very little need for handwriting. Many learners have flourished in writing code and building architecturally exquisite websites. Are we witnessing an evolution in human abilities with a massive leap in how the brain can process information? Pen and paper may well become an archaic “has been.” Having said that they get super excited when I give them bright coloured gel pens and sharpies that smell of watermelon…”purple ink strawberry smelly Noah?”

    1. Author

      Thanks Sabena! I do understand how typing may dominate in future, but there is something uniquely valuable to learning about handwriting, that every SEND learner may benefit a great deal from. Yes – many literacy habits are changing – but the human brain changes far, far slower than our means of communication. Motor skills still matter; handwriting may offer unique resources for the human memory. Let’s keep this skill firmly in mind for every pupil whilst the evidence stands for its importance.

      1. Completely agree Alex just thought I would throw it in there as I marvel at the unique skills of the younger generation.

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  7. Some detailed research on the benefits of handwriting can be found in brainspring article: https://brainspring.com/ortongillinghamweekly/why-handwriting-matters/ I have always been on the side of the need to teach handwriting – even when there are laptops and keyboards.
    Teaching kids remotely, it’s impossible to maintain a great level of handwriting practice. But parents can definitely help with that. Be sure to find an understanding with them on this issue. You have provided excellent resources.
    I also wish the kids stay healthy first and foremost, but also practice and learn even if remotely no one is forced to learn something as often.

  8. Any ideas on A level students in lockdown doing all their notes and essays in word, then going back to handwriting for the assessment we’re setting. Is handwriting practice important at A level?

    1. Good point Dordeena having got to handwrite for 3 hours when the last time you did that would be the mocks! Massive hindrance which no doubt is reflected in their grades.

    2. Author

      I think it really is important. While the exam is in that format, not being hampered by handwriting is essential. It may be a marginal difference by that stage, but these margins matter.

      1. I fear you may be right. I was hoping that some research would say it doesn’t make any difference, because I hate reading handwriting and I’d rather not mark it. So the next task is to get all exams done on little exam portals. Probably stuck with reading handwriting for a while then…

  9. I am a primary teacher of 30 years – I marvel at our technology capable pupils but have been shocked at how exhausted they are after a mere few sentences of handwriting. I found it fascinating in the international schools how the Korean children, using chopsticks for their lunch had developed such dexterity and had super handwriting.Tiring of the covid classroom, I have recently embarked on a website of resources, aimed to be used with technology, but I have handwritten on the video tutorials (albeit with an apple pencil – the only stylus that allows for proper pencil hold) for the very reason that children still need to be modelled and exposed to handwriting. Print has taken over the classroom with powerpoints and commercial resources. I hope, in a small way, I can keep handwriting alive.

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