‘Children as old as 11 or 12 can’t write their own names’

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
Handwriting experts urge schools to prioritise vital skill

In an overcrowded curriculum, certain subjects tend to be seen as indulgent anachronisms. Ancient Greek. Rhetoric. And, now, handwriting.

“I’m seeing children as old as 11, 12, who can’t write their own names,” said Melanie Harwood, who provides handwriting coaching in schools. “And they’re being passed through the system.

“Some children are being bullied because of their handwriting. Their friends are taking pictures of their writing and tweeting it. Kids comment on the writing: ‘They’re not very bright, because their handwriting isn’t very good.’ Good God. It’s horrific. You can’t have that.”

Ms Harwood was among a number of teachers and handwriting experts who met in central London last week for a round-table discussion about whether handwriting lessons are necessary in the digital age.

Reverting to type

In more than 40 US states, the requirement to include handwriting lessons in the curriculum has been abandoned in favour of teaching keyboard skills. In the UK, however, handwriting still forms part of the primary curriculum. And Ofsted has recently added handwriting to its assessment list, so the legibility of pupils’ written work can now affect the rating a school receives.

Increasingly, though, secondary pupils are typing their essays. And there is concern that children may eventually lose the skill altogether.

Charlotte Clowes, deputy headteacher at St Alban’s Catholic Primary School in Cheshire, pointed out that children needed to build up their gross motor development – shoulder, elbow and wrist movement – before moving on to the fine motor skills required for handwriting. But, with the advent of computer games, sedentary children’s development was being held back.

“One might link that to not doing things we all did – playing in the playground,” she said. “As schools, we need to make sure that we’re providing opportunities for motor skills to be developed, gross and fine. It’s not just about getting straight to handwriting.”

And, once handwriting has been taught, it needs to be practised. “It is largely a motor skill,” said Dr Angela Webb, former teacher, psychologist and chair of the National Handwriting Association. “You wouldn’t expect to be good at playing the violin without practising.

“Anything that is difficult is not pleasurable. If I had to do car mechanics every night, I’d be in tears. But, if you work at it in the right time and the right way, it will become automatic. You’ll just do it.”

Fluency and freedom

Learning handwriting is about more than acquiring a handy skill. According to Professor Rhona Stainthorp, who researches reading and writing at the University of Reading, studies have repeatedly shown that the more fluent children’s handwriting is, the better the content of their essays will be.

“If you can automate handwriting and you can automate spelling, then writing takes up less processing space in your brain,” she said. “So there’s more cognitive processing available for what you put on the page itself, and the quality of what you produce is enhanced.”

And it is a process that cannot be matched by typing words instead of writing them. “The point about typing is that you’re selecting a letter,” graphologist Adam Brand said. “When you’re writing, you’re actually forming it.

“When you have a keyboard, you have a pattern. When you have a piece of paper, you can write however you want. It frees up your creativity. It’s the difference between playing a violin and hitting a triangle. The subtlety required for handwriting is so much greater.”

Unpredictable future

Besides, there is no guarantee that typing will be remotely useful by the time today’s primary pupils reach adulthood, according to Dr Webb. “With voice recognition and Google glass, why are we wedded to the keyboard?” she said.

She also pointed out that it was a mistake to assume handwriting was irrelevant to modern children’s lives. Most adults rarely picked up a pen, but the same was not yet true of students, who were still expected to sit exams with pen and paper. And, she added, although adults might not use handwriting in their daily lives, they nonetheless had the option to use it.

“We have at our fingertips a range of modes of writing,” Dr Webb said. “We’re very fortunate. Think about taking away a whole area of skills from future generations. They won’t have that choice.”

A specialist teacher in every school?

Teachers and handwriting experts have called for schools to employ writing specialists, just as they currently employ reading specialists.

“Every single school needs to be teaching handwriting to the highest level possible,” says Melanie Harwood, who provides handwriting coaching in schools. “We cannot have children falling through the net. That’s why every school needs a handwriting specialist teacher.”

Charlotte Clowes (pictured), deputy headteacher at St Alban’s Catholic Primary School in Cheshire, is often approached by teachers to discuss the problems individual children are having with reading. “It would be really good to have that with handwriting as well,” she says. “It’s a really ambitious idea, but it would be really good for teachers.”

Ms Clowes feels that it might be more financially viable to have one handwriting specialist per cluster of schools. But Ms Harwood suggests that corporate sponsorship could fund a handwriting expert in every school.

‘Capitalise on phonics knowledge’

There is a potential conflict between the teaching of reading and the teaching of writing, according to a leading literacy academic.

Rhona Stainthorp from the University of Reading points out that phonics lessons inevitably begin by teaching the words “sat” and “pin”.

“But no handwriting programme on earth would start with ‘s’,” Professor Stainthorp says. “It’s much too difficult. You start with ‘l’ or ‘t’.

“From the start, there can’t be one-to-one correspondence between teaching reading and handwriting. However, once you’re well into the phonics programme, you can then ensure that, as you’re teaching them to form the letters, you’re capitalising on what they know in terms of phonics.”

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