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Write Now – Why we Still Need to Teach Handwriting

Fitting the explicit teaching of handwriting into a busy curriculum can be difficult, but Suzanne Murray explains how you can do it, as well as why you should...

  • Write Now – Why we Still Need to Teach Handwriting

The word ‘write’ comes from old English ‘writan’: to score, form (letters) by carving. The earliest example we know of, dates from 3,000 BC.

Signs, used to document transactions, were pressed into damp clay, using a wedge – the origin of the word ‘cuneiform’. (You can read about the history of writing here.)

I still have a bump on the finger of my right hand where the pen or pencil would rest. I would furtively seek this bump to remind me which was my right!

These days, I write less and the bump has diminished. But luckily, I know left from right now.

Be a detective

What does this tell us? I know I struggled with handwriting because my mum taught me cursive just before I moved to High School. This summer, I will do the same with my son. It tells us I pressed too hard, it tells us I struggled to hold the pencil/pen.

What do I often hear from children?

  • ‘I hate my handwriting’
  • ‘My handwriting was huge in primary, so I made it smaller and smaller so no one could see’.

I was lucky to visit the dyslexia archive in Oxford recently and I was struck by the quality of the handwriting. I was shocked because I so strongly associate poor handwriting and dyslexia.

So, what is different now vs then?

We simply don’t place the same importance on the art of handwriting.

There is a lot to fit into a school day, the curriculum is content-heavy. However, handwriting is a key skill which underpins everything else in demonstrating learning.

These days, there is more knowledge taught and strong emphasis on demonstration of knowledge through written work.

Laura Dinehart, in the US, published a study in 2014 with strong implications for practice.

The ultimate aim of handwriting practice is to produce legible handwriting, at speed. The word ‘cursive’ comes from the French word ‘courir’ – to run – and words should ‘run’ across the page.

What factors are involved?

  • Hand-eye coordination and orthographic knowledge, gross and fine motor control and core strength
  • Can the child draw the oblique cross? Children who can, tend to be able to reproduce more letters than those who can’t – a simple indicator

As with other difficulties, behaviours are sometimes misunderstood. So how best to probe behind the behaviour to the need?

For one, the BEERY VMI is a good predictor of handwriting difficulties in young children and therefore worth considering.

And similarly, the DASH is a useful tool to examine underlying difficulties with handwriting in older children and teens as assumptions are often made about these children and their application to the writing process vs ‘do they find writing difficult?’

In young children, performance on visuo-motor integration strongly correlates to their ability to form and copy letters.

Writing skills have long been associated with aspects of academic achievement and some studies have shown links between visual-motor performance and academic achievement.

So, what to do?

  • Ensure a whole-school commitment to handwriting with the relevant training.
  • Teach cursive handwriting from the start.
  • Make time to teach and practice handwriting daily.
  • Choose a handwriting scheme and stick with it. Use of an entry stroke is better because it helps writing to ‘flow’ and is less likely to lead to letter reversals.
  • Make it fun for children, put relaxing music on and praise the outcomes. Make them as proud of their handwriting as they are of their reading skills.
  • Don’t just praise those who can, and this is really important, seek the small improvements: the detail, specific joins and letter shape. Children who find handwriting difficult need this.
  • Integrate the teaching of handwriting with teaching of vocabulary and spelling.
  • Pay attention to the physical: how the child sits, holds the pen, positions the paper.
  • Have a variety of aides and ensure they are used: pencil grips, slanted boards, wobble cushions.
  • Ensure the children have had plenty of movement before handwriting so that they can sit comfortably and concentrate. Activities that provide input through the forearm and into the shoulder girdle are great: chair push ups, wall press ups etc.

Children with difficulties will need more practice because writing does not become automatic as quickly.

Want to learn more?

Try these search terms:

  1. Figure-ground discrimination
  2. Visual Closure
  3. Macrographia

Suzanne Murray is a dyslexia tutor, assessor and trainer. She is a passionate campaigner for dyslexic strengths and attainment for all.

Find her at thinkpix.blog and follow her on Twitter at @thinkpixsuze.

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