“There are so many stages that need to be gone through before a child is at a stage when they are ready to sit and write at a desk,” explains Jo Atkinson, research fellow in the school of psychology at the University of Leeds and lecturer in the school of applied health professionals at the University of Bradford.
Speaking on the latest episode of Tes Podagogy, the qualified occupational therapist explains in detail how complex a skill handwriting is and why the way EYFS professionals and primary teachers facilitate its development is crucial to a child’s eventual success (listen below).
So how should we be teaching a child to write?
How to teach handwriting
In the early stages (2-5 years), it should be preschools, nurseries, Reception teachers and parents working together to provide “enabling environments”, says Atkinson.
“We start out with a very cylinder grip using our whole hand,” she explains. “But then as muscles and motor skills develop, you are able to use your hand in a more advanced way.
"So for young children, it is very important they have the chance to manipulate objects, to go on swings and hold the swing, to climb the slide holding the handrail, to play in mud, sand, water – they need the sensory and motor experiences so they can develop.
“When you use the hand, you need to be able to identify what you are feeling and to know where you are in space. So chalk on a playground floor is another wonderful way of getting sensory feedback from the bumpy surface. Chalk boards are also great; the vertical surface develops the wrist extension you need to hold a pen. “
Early handwriting positions
Indeed, while much debate goes on as to whether a child should write sat at a desk or laid on their belly, Atkinson argues that vertical surfaces are just as important.
“Vertical surfaces are great – if you can paint a door with blackboard paint, or if you have a whiteboard, that is wonderful,” she says. “The anatomy of the wrist – you need a position of extension for writing. Through writing on a vertical surface – hopefully not your lounge walls! – what you are doing is encouraging the building of extension in the wrist and helping it to develop.
“You want horizontal writing as well. Laying on your stomach is wonderful for shoulder girdle strength and head control.
"Really, for young children, the worst thing they can do is sit for long periods of time. The more they can vary their positions, the better.”
All this work should mean the physiology, sensory and motor skills, and self-esteem of the child, will be in the right place to begin writing meaningfully.
Handwriting development stages
Atkinson puts a rough estimate on development as being: random scribbling at around 12-24 months; some controlled scribbling between the ages of 2-3; from the age of 3, you will get some children writing, but mainly you will be expecting pictures between the ages of 3-5.
Does that mean no sitting at desks until children are above the age of 5?
Atkinson argues that it depends on the child – where are they in their development? – but also on what else is happening in the classroom.
“Even for adults, the saying is 'the best posture is the next one' – even we do not want to be sitting down for too long,” she explains. “We do know that for children aged 5 and upwards, they need at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise per day, and then on three of those days across a week they need resistive work for building strong muscles and bones.
"For the under 5s, the advice is that they should not be sat for extended periods of time.
"So if you are going to get them to sit at a desk, what are you doing around that?”
Should children sit down to write?
She adds that there is huge variability in any Reception intake, so a blanket rule would be nonsensical.
“Very simply, it is a really rapid stage of development between the ages of 4 and 5,” she reveals. “If you look at visual perception as an example, for those born in August the ability to make an 'x' shape, that does not typically emerge until 4 years and seven months. So if you are expecting the younger children to write the zig-zag letters, developmentally that is not really appropriate.
"So you get this variation like that because of age differences. On top of that, you have all the experiential and environmental factors mentioned earlier. If a child does not have those opportunities, those hand skills are not going to develop as they could or should.
“There is also the issue of height – some children cannot place their feet on the floor in the chairs in EYFS, and that gives them an immediate disadvantage as the posture for writing is so important, you need a firm base of support. Chairs that are too small are also an issue.”
The best pen grip?
Atkinson is also wary of absolutes when it comes to pen grip – another contentious issue.
In the controversial Bold Beginnings report from Ofsted, released in 2017, an indicator of good practice was that children “hold a pencil correctly and comfortably using the tripod grip”.
That caused much criticism from early years practitioners, and Atkinson agrees that singling out this grip as "best" is problematic.
“The dynamic tripod grip is often recommended as the best grip, but what the latest evidence suggests is that there is a range of grips that can still be accepted,” she says.
“So instead, I like to talk about immature or mature grips. Some grips, that use more fingers on the pen, can be very effective and very legible. Every person’s hands are different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The key thing is legibility, speed and comfort – if it hits those three things then that is usually fine. I am not saying, 'Don’t teach the dynamic tripod grip.' I am just saying it might not be best for every student.”
In the podcast, she goes on to discuss handwriting responsibilities for teachers of later year groups – even into secondary – common handwriting issues, and a new research project she is part of for the Education Endowment Foundation looking at handwriting interventions.
You can listen to the podcast via the player above, or type "Tes - the education podcast" into your podcast platform (also via Spotify).
Tes has a series of video tutorials around handwriting, featuring Sendco Nancy Gedge . Part one is below: