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Handwriting practice – How to roll, skip and stir your way to improved longhand

Handwriting is still a necessary skill, so follow these top ideas for keeping on top of it in your class…

Juliet McCullion
by Juliet McCullion

Handwriting can be like a fingerprint – unique to its owner and an expression of identity – and plenty of handwriting practice is essential.

At the start of a new academic year, how long does it take us to be able to distinguish the child belonging to an unnamed piece of work?

Probably just a couple of weeks – days even – before we can identify the owner based on their handwriting alone.

If handwriting is a piece of us on a page, often for others to see, it’s understandable that some feel their handwriting is a representation of their self.  

Struggling with handwriting can cause frustration over time: some even find it embarrassing.

Someone brimming with ideas but unable to record them legibly could become disengaged with writing as a whole. 

Is handwriting practice important?

There’s plenty of emphasis on handwriting in the EYFS profile, and throughout the KS1 and KS2 English national curriculum.

Yet it splits opinion in terms of its purpose in the digital age. While some would posit that it is not a skill worth pursuing these days, recent research suggests that writing by hand, rather than typing on a device, activates the brain. It creates ‘much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain’ (van der Meer, 2020). This helps us to both learn and remember more effectively.

Fluent handwriting will support writing stamina too.  

Once pupils have achieved fluent handwriting, cognitive capacity is freed up to concentrate on the higher-level writing skills. Expending all energy on thinking about the shapes that represent sounds leaves little room for coming up with something interesting to say.

Furthermore, research suggests that practising words in fluent handwriting over and over can help us spell, using muscle memory.

With increased automaticity in spelling too, children can focus on composition when transcription is no longer a chore.  

How to teach handwriting

With their gross and fine motor skills developed, children will be better prepared for the demands of accurate and consistent letter formation. (For ideas on how to do this, try the activities listed at the end of this article).

While it can be tempting to teach handwriting along with phonics as children learn each grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC), teaching children groups of letters based on their formation makes independent writing easier.

If a child has mastered formation of the letter ‘l’, working on the letters ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘t’, ‘j’ and ‘y’ will be easier; each starts with a vertical, downwards stroke. Likewise, forming ‘c’ correctly will greatly support writing ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘g’, and so on.  

The National Handwriting Association sets out great guidance in their ‘Good Practice for Handwriting’ toolkit.

This fabulous, free resource explores the four ‘P’ checks: posture, pencil, paper, pressure and the eight ‘S’ factors: shape, space, size, sitting, stringing, slant, speed, style required for the process and product of handwriting.

Understanding each of the four Ps and eight Ss of handwriting will allow direct teaching of each aspect. This supports children in ‘getting it right’ to begin with.

Diagnostically assessing pupils, using these criteria, will allow you understand the barriers children are facing.

Set a short writing task for your class and take time to monitor each child. How are they sitting? What is their pencil grip like?

You can then tailor the support offered based on your assessments. When we identify the ‘tricky bit’, it is easier to make specific interventions to address and overcome the challenge.  

Classroom strategies

The ‘gold standard’ 

Work with a child to identify a piece of work they are proud of in terms of handwriting and presentation (not handwriting practice).

Photocopy and stick it into the cover of the child’s book as a pull-out flap. The child can then open this up whenever they start a new piece of work.

This is their own ‘gold standard’ below which they would not wish to drop.  

Small steps pathway 

Supporting pupils to improve letter by letter will have a snowball effect. Identify one or two letters that the child is consistently writing incorrectly.

Model the letter formation explaining what you are looking out for.

Then, get the pupil to practise with you, and give them feedback. Challenge the child to start each piece of work with a row of these letters.

Which ones are they proud of? Continue each week with a new letter, recording the previously addressed letters on a bookmark. 

Building stamina 

Build stamina gradually. Can pupils give you one line of their ‘gold standard’ (possibly joined) handwriting today before they drop back to a more relaxed script? What about two great lines tomorrow and a short paragraph next week?

Could they choose a short section of a written activity to edit and publish in polished form?

This technique is particularly useful when you have children who can’t sustain a joined script when writing at speed. They can write in a joined hand for a while, then revert to print if they find that easier or quicker until they have developed the skill.  

Writing at speed 

Consider if you need to introduce an element of writing at speed into handwriting practice.

Set out the expectations for a lesson at the beginning, e.g: “These notes are for you, so make sure you can read them at the end,” versus “This poem is going on display so do your best joined script today and take your time with presentation.”  

A two-pronged approach 

If children struggle with handwriting so much that it is a genuine barrier to their learning, take a two-pronged approach.

Whilst some activities and lessons are dedicated to developing the skill of communicating in handwritten form, ensure others remove that barrier so pupils can concentrate on the task at hand.

Can the child use the speech-to-text function in Word to dictate their ideas? Can you build the child’s typing skills? The final point looks ahead to skills for life.  

Practical activities for handwriting practice

Children who have had plenty of opportunities to develop motor skills through play and exploration in their early years are more likely to have developed foundations for writing. Try these activities to build these skills: 

  • Rolling, climbing and skipping will not only support children to develop their arm and shoulder strength, core strength and flexibility, but it will also prepare them for using tools such as pencils more confidently.  
  • The variety of motion in activities such as threading, stirring, doing up buttons, using spray bottles and making models with clay lays the foundation for the directional movements necessary for letter formation.  
  • Children require the ability to cross their midline. Take note of whether they can they paint or draw a long horizontal line across a large piece of paper/on the floor from their left to right or vice versa without swapping hands. Can they use one hand to roll a car along a track from their left to their right? If not, you could try playing hand clapping games, kicking a ball, rotating the upper body, or creating big art with large circular motions. How about getting out the gymnastics ribbons to trace large shapes and letters in the air?  
  • Some older children will benefit from revisiting gross and fine motor activities to strengthen the muscles and develop the dexterity required for writing. Once ready to put pen to paper, mark making and pre-writing shapes can continue to build fine motor skills and develop hand strength and co-ordination, alongside a rich diet of ‘busy fingers’-style activities. 

Juliet McCullion is primary English teaching and learning adviser at HfL Education. See more on Twitter @HfL_Education 

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