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Handwriting practice – it’s like sneaking broccoli…

Watercolour pictures of different types of vegetables

Teaching kids handwriting is akin to getting them to eat their veg – essential, but often tricky…

Dr Jane Medwell
by Dr Jane Medwell
Scarlett Fife teaching resources
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

There are some things we all know are good for us, but it can be hard to engage children with them without specific strategies.

In the same way as we strive to include veggies in our kids’ diets, teaching efficient, legible handwriting is an essential part of a well-rounded education – the ‘class diet’, if you will.  

There is no doubt that fluent, automatic and legible handwriting is good for children and has both short and long-term benefits for the quality of their composing.

If a child can generate letter shapes automatically, without giving the process cognitive attention, there is plenty of evidence that this leaves them much more capacity to focus on content.

But correct letter formation needs to be learned, and failing to master automatic letter generation can have serious consequences.

A child who is struggling to generate those letter shapes automatically is disadvantaged because their cognitive attention is going to the lower-level process of handwriting, when that attention should be going to composing.

The challenge facing all pupils is learning to make those letter shapes accurately, consistently and automatically, and then learning the basic joins that they will take into adulthood.

This takes practice, which again, like eating vegetables, is not every child’s favourite thing.  

So, how can we learn from mealtimes? How can our veggie strategies be applied to teaching handwriting

Handwriting letters

Getting children to eat healthily is so much easier if they have been doing it since they were tiny. In early years settings, we want pupils to engage in writing for their own purposes and to use their ‘emergent’ writing to express themselves.

However, we also want them to learn the correct letter movements, so they become automatic and can be easily joined up later.

Those shapes are not obvious to young learners just from looking at letters. For example, b, p and d all look similar in a world where an object, when rotated, is still the same object, yet these letters require entirely different movements.

So, just as we might repeatedly present children with the same veggies in different ways – steamed, roasted, pureed, snuck into smoothies! – we need to introduce a variety of methods of practising those letter movements.  

There are so many tactile ways to practise letter movements that take very little time, but are still valuable: tracing movements on sandpaper letters; tracing letter shapes in trays of jelly, cornflour or damp sand; or making letter shapes in porridge or soft playdough.

These are all fun ways to share the understanding that there is a ‘right’ way to make each letter shape and that it’s the movement that counts.

Once children are used to this idea, they can look for starting dots and practise letters in other ways, gradually learning control over the size and orientation. 

How to improve handwriting

Lots of children like familiar dishes they can identify – there is something to be said for simplicity in terms of introducing new flavours.

So, if you are choosing the handwriting style in your school, think about what is essential and keep it simple.

Most adults end up writing an efficient, mostly joined style with a simple letter formation. Very few adults use handwriting joins that involve complex loops or changes of direction.

So it makes sense to choose a handwriting programme that teaches a simple letter formation and emphasises the common joins for children, too. It also makes handwriting easier to master.  

The same goes for practice activities. Sometimes pupils like the familiarity of short, simple exercises like those planned in the published handwriting schemes.

Think of these like the ‘frozen peas’ of the handwriting world: activities that are easy for teachers to fit into the school day, that children are familiar with and that they can achieve easily.

Successful handwriting practice (like a well-cooked frozen pea) can be surprisingly satisfying! And of course, handwriting schemes structure the introduction of new joins and patterns effortlessly for busy teachers.

A good handwriting scheme is convenient, nutritious and reliable, and will have materials for parents to use. For some children, a regular five to 10 minutes of handwriting homework can be satisfying and very effective.

As with veggies, little and often is important, and – let’s be honest – more sustainable than huge portions. 

Realistic expectations

Some children like healthy food more than others, and some children find handwriting easier than their peers. In both cases, we try to have clear minimum expectations.

What are the basics all children need to learn? The fundamentals boil down to producing correct letter movements automatically, joining letters and gaining control of the size and orientation of their writing.

A good school handwriting programme will structure the introduction of these handwriting aspects for teachers and parents alike.  

However, some children love handwriting and are good at it. For these pupils, it is important to recognise the aesthetic and creative pleasure of really neat writing, perhaps by encouraging them to develop their own style as they get to the end of primary school, or even to try calligraphy.

It is also important to offer praise for neatness as an achievement when children have really worked hard on a final piece of writing.  

At the end of the day, each young person engages with vegetables at their own pace; this is the same with handwriting. Your class may not all progress at the same rate, but with specific strategies, they can all be successful.  

Handwriting activities

Variety is the spice of life! Handwriting, like a sneaky piece of broccoli, can be slipped into children’s daily routine almost invisibly. Here’s some easy ways to introduce practice little and often:  

  1. Produce folded A4 sheets with practice activities on each side. These can be made from existing activities from whole-school schemes, so won’t demand a lot of preparation. To encourage a sense of achievement, pupils could paste them into a scrapbook or string them on a washing line when they are done.  
  1. For younger children, use big chalks to write letters on outside walls or on the playground, so they have a chance to practise casually between playtimes.  
  1. For older children, write a letter join you’ve recently taught in the corner of the classroom whiteboard each week (cl, or, at, etc.). Ask children to find as many words as they can that include that letter combination. At the end of the week, pupils can share their findings with their table group and each write a list. 

Jane Medwell is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, researching and writing into handwriting and primary education. She is the series editor of Happy Handwriting from Collins.

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