Do we really need joined-up handwriting in schools?
The lack of joined-up research on the benefits of joined-up handwriting has led to the tide turning against the cursive style, as the latest official literacy guidance attests. Kate Parker reports
Nina and her teacher have reached a stalemate over handwriting. “Why does it matter how I write?” Nina asks, for the third time. Her teacher is stumped. Nina is not a bad student. But she doesn’t want to use cursive handwriting. And, right now, the teacher can’t come up with a good enough reason as to why Nina should, other than it being school policy.
So she falls back on the received wisdom: “Because it’s faster.”
But is that really the case? And even if it is, is that a good enough argument for teaching children to use cursive?
For years, the teaching of cursive handwriting – in which the letters are joined up – has divided opinions in the UK. Many schools have placed a strong emphasis on the style, teaching lead-in and exit strokes in Reception and expecting teachers to adopt it in their own writing, too.
Others have ditched cursive altogether.
But this summer, the introduction of a new reading framework, Teaching the foundations of literacy, has shifted the conversation dramatically in favour of those schools that have been phasing cursive out.
How important is joined-up handwriting?
“Learning to form letters and spell words requires considerable effort and attention. Schools, therefore, should consider the advantages to children of delaying the teaching of joined handwriting,” the guidance states. It goes on to explain that “nearly all the headteachers in the schools Ofsted visited for its ‘Bold Beginnings’ survey did not teach a cursive or pre-cursive script in Reception”.
They told inspectors that they believed “it slowed down children’s writing at a point when they already found manual dexterity tricky, and the muscles in their shoulders, arms and hands were still developing.”
Lucy Moss, a deputy headteacher in Lancashire who describes herself as a “handwriting purist”, welcomes this guidance with open arms.
In her opinion, cursive handwriting is limiting – especially for those students who struggle with motor control – and she believes that schools should ditch policies that require students to use the style.
“I’m a fan of handwriting but, surely, as long as it’s neat and recognisable, that is what matters,” she says.
Moss is aware that this view is unpopular with some. The reason for that may be because, up until a few years ago, the national curriculum stated that all children needed to be able to write in a cursive style when they left Year 6.
Today, guidance states that writing must be neat and legible. But many schools had already run with the notion of cursive writing, perhaps spurred on by research emphasising its importance.
And some of that research is persuasive. In one 2019 paper, “Teaching of cursive writing in the first year of primary school: effect on reading and writing skills”, a group of Italian academics – Cristina Semeraro, Gabrielle Coppola, Rosalinda Cassibba and Daniela Lucangeli – studied 141 students in the first year of primary school.
All the pupils had a typical development and did not exhibit any cognitive or sensory disabilities, nor display motor disorders that could significantly hinder the execution of the writing task around which the study was based.
The researchers split the students into two groups – a control group and an intervention group, with the latter being taught cursive writing exclusively. They found that the children in the intervention group showed a greater improvement in their writing and reading skills than those in the control group. Specifically, those using cursive as the only handwriting type had better results in producing orthographically correct words.
The researchers also observed that the children who only learned the cursive type made faster improvements in reading.
They hypothesised that this might be because the linking of letters in cursive text makes it easier for students to memorise and recall full words.
The research concludes that the “temporal control of discontinuous movements” involved in printed handwriting may present more of a challenge than the continuous movements of cursive handwriting. In other words, raising your pen’s nib from the paper and lowering it again is a more labour-intensive process, and this, the researchers argue, represents a greater cost in terms of attention and cognitive resources. As a result, cursive handwriting might be easier for young children to learn, they suggest.
The Italian researchers also quote another study, published in 2012: “The effects of manuscript, cursive or manuscript/cursive styles on writing development in Grade 2”. This research found that children who learn to write using only cursive show superior performance in both spelling and syntax when compared with their peers.
So, does this evidence about the benefits of cursive writing mean that the new reading framework is pointing teachers in the wrong direction? Not exactly, says Dominic Wyse, a professor of early childhood and primary education at UCL Institute of Education.
He says that we must exercise caution when looking at studies in this area and that, actually, no extensive, reliable research has been conducted on the impact of cursive writing. “I’m not talking about one-off studies but a group of studies through a meta-analysis or systematic review,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s any robust research evidence – by robust, I mean a randomised controlled trial, ideally, with a really good process evaluation – looking at whether teaching cursive handwriting at a young age helps children to write better. We just don’t have the evidence.”
Wyse believes that as long as handwriting is legible and fluent, it doesn’t need to be cursive, and warns against being “obsessed” with writing styles.
“There are so many things that we need to do to help children learn to write better. But if we obsess about handwriting, we are not doing our job properly,” he says. “We do have the evidence that teaching handwriting is really important, but whether it’s cursive or not, it doesn’t matter. We know that children need to become legible and fluent. There is evidence that pupils who don’t write with good legibility suffer in examinations. It’s not just that it can’t be read as easily but markers have an irrational prejudice about people who have sloppy handwriting.”
Fundamentally, he says, writing is about communicating messages – and schools, teachers and policymakers lose sight of that too often.
But Moss certainly hasn’t. While there are some aspects of handwriting that she claims to consider “non-negotiables” – ascenders and descenders, letters of a standard size – she believes the overall emphasis for teachers should always be on what the children are writing, not how.
Looking at the wrong thing
“We are hampering children by forcing them into a cursive style that might not necessarily be achievable for them,” Moss says.
“I’ve seen moderation meetings in which nursery, Reception and Year 1 teachers are panicking because the children don’t have joined-up handwriting, and yet those children have written a sentence. Why aren’t we focusing on that? We’re looking at the wrong thing. It really worries me.”
In particular, she’s concerned about students with additional learning needs.
Some of these children, she says, will simply never be able to write in a cursive style. So, why put them through the stress?
“I had an email from a parent this week thanking me for not making her autistic son use cursive. She said it’s so much better because he’s more comfortable printing, and was getting stressed out with cursive,” she says.
“If we make them do it, then they’ll just throw in the towel and completely disengage. It’s not required at the end of Year 6 any more, so why are we doing it?”
Perhaps, ultimately, that is what it comes down to. Cursive writing is not prescribed on the curriculum; no teacher is required by the government to teach it. And without, as Wyse says, “robust evidence” proving the benefits of cursive, maybe it’s time to do away with the expectations of joined-up handwriting – and the stress it can cause children.
Instead, perhaps the focus should be on the message being communicated, in whichever style suits the individual child best.
Kate Parker is schools and colleges content producer at Tes
This article originally appeared in the 8 October 2021 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Cursive writing”