Don’t write off the value of joined-up handwriting

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Far from being ‘outdated’, writing is still vital to empower children, say experts

You can’t have failed to notice the debate that has been raging about handwriting. From Finland to Australia, handwriting – and its place in the modern curriculum – has been the subject of intense discussion for some time now.

In a technical age, the argument goes, the development of handwriting is not required – people still need to “print”, sure, but who needs developed cursive writing? We type, we don’t write, say those who make the case that handwriting needs to be downgraded in schools.

We believe the opposite. Handwriting should always be a vital part of a child’s education. Not only that, but we argue that handwriting must be actively and discretely taught as it plays a crucial role in children’s educational and personal development.

It remains a firm requirement of both the Early Years Foundation Stage and the national curriculum. It also empowers children to succeed; in our education system, we still mostly rely upon handwriting to complete tests and assessments, both of which enable staff to track children’s progress.

So, if handwriting is to be taught well, then what should teachers look for in a handwriting scheme? And how can we make sure that we teach the topic appropriately for all stages of a child’s development?

It’s not just for the youngest students

Teachers need to select a handwriting scheme that offers a whole-school approach, including the early years. The scheme should incorporate tasks highlighting the importance of students undertaking physical preparation for handwriting. This preparation is crucial for those learning to write, as well as those already proficient in it.

Younger children need to be given plenty of opportunities to develop gross and fine motor skills, which later smooth the transition to mark-making and letter formation. But older children enjoy warming up before they begin a handwriting lesson, too.

A “prepare for handwriting” classroom routine is important, whereby children loosen muscles and check posture, paper position and pen grip. Eventually, such routines support the development of a fluent, legible writing style, which is smoothly joined even when written at speed.

Make use of technology

At the early stage in particular, the use of new technologies can help to support children’s physical development for handwriting; swiping, pinching, tapping and typing on a smartphone or tablet – all demand manipulative skills that may support the fine motor skills that are also required for handwriting.

Mark-making and writing on horizontal and vertical planes is also a useful experience for children at an early stage.

On-screen resources should provide animated models of excellence that support correct letter formation and joining, and stimulate discussion about the nuances of spacing, speed, style and legibility.

Technology can prove useful while a child is learning to write. However, once children start to write independently, there is no substitute for practice with a pen (or pencil) and paper.

Take care of the details

It’s important to choose a handwriting scheme that provides carefully scaffolded units within a practice book, from which children may copy letters and joins in words, phrases and sentences. Units should systematically focus on common issues such as letter spacing, word spacing, parallel downward strokes and letter proportion, to name a few.

Writing in a designated handwriting book instils a sense of focus and pride, something that is much harder to find in a pile of scrunched-up, photocopied sheets.

A subject-specific

focus is needed

It is important that, in addition to a discrete handwriting lesson, teachers keep a weather eye on handwriting across the curriculum and throughout primary school. Neat and legible handwriting is required in a maths lesson just as much as it would be in an English or science lesson.

Choose a handwriting scheme that embeds multiple practice options in a variety of contexts, including spelling, punctuation and grammar, across a range of subjects and topics.

Creativity is crucial

Developing fluency in handwriting allows children to shift their focus from the mechanics of handwriting to the use of it as a means of expression and creativity across all subjects.

Teaching handwriting isn’t about a school establishing uniformity or leading children to conform to one ideal. Once the basic understanding and skills are in place, we should encourage children to develop a sense of their own style and flair.

Support teachers to

teach handwriting

Schools should have a clear handwriting policy and literacy CPD programme in place, to ensure that teachers’ knowledge is up to date and that their practice is informed by current research.

Choose a scheme that can support you with this and that has longevity, but that remains fresh and informed so that the highest handwriting standards can be maintained throughout the school at all times.

Tips for teaching handwriting

Warm up! Handwriting is a whole-body activity. Warming up the core muscles in the whole body before writing is important and fun.

Teach discretely and offer lots of practice Focused teaching followed by short, daily practice is the most reliable way to improve handwriting standards.

Cater for left-handed children Left-handed children need specific instruction, as writing with the left hand is not the same as writing with the right. Think about the different ways that you could model letter formation for left-handers.

Keep an eye on pencil grip A good warm-up and a correct grip should ensure that hands do not hurt after writing; a comfortable pencil grip is crucial.

Make sure children have quality tools Sharp pencils and handwriting pens with a smooth flow of ink support progress and encourage children to take pride in their work.

Correct errors as soon as you notice them It takes 200 repetitions to make a muscle memory but over 4,000 to change one. Making sure pupils learn correctly first time round is so much easier.

Be vigilant! Once you have taught a letter or join, ensure that it is used consistently and correctly in all of the pupils’ writing, not just in the handwriting lesson but across the curriculum, throughout primary school and beyond.

Gill Budgell has 25 years’ experience in education: teaching, providing training around the world and now working as a consultant publisher, researcher and writer. Kate Ruttle has been a primary teacher for nearly 30 years. They are co-authors of the best-selling series Penpals for Handwriting and Cambridge Primary English

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