Does handwriting matter?

by Jane Medwell.

In 2012 a survey of 2,000 people in the UK reported in the British press found that one in three people had not written anything by hand in the previous six months and two thirds of people said that anything they handwrote was only meant for their own eyes, such as scribbled notes. So it is reasonable to ask whether handwriting still matters. Is it really worth teaching handwriting to our children? After all, parts of the USA and Finland no longer teach joined writing.

We think there are some persuasive reasons why it is still important for both young children and older learners to learn handwriting..

Why handwriting matters for young children

The research evidence suggests that handwriting plays a part in young children’s cognitive, sensory motor and phonological development. Learning to write involves a complex mix of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (Jones and Christensen, 1999) including fine motor control, bilateral and visual–motor integration, motor planning, in-hand manipulation, visual perception, sustained attention, and sensory awareness. These skills support early reading with a clear causal link having been identified between early printing and reading acquisition (James and Atwood, 2009).

James and Engelhardt (2012) used MRI technology to observe the effects on brain activation of 4 and 5 year old children engaging in a variety of writing-like activities, such as writing letters by hand, tracing letters and typing letters. They found that areas of children’s brains previously associated with reading (the so-called ‘reading circuit’ (Wolf, 2007) were activated when the children wrote letters to a much greater degree to when they engaged in other forms of sensorimotor activity – including typing of letters.  They suggest that that writing letters by hand was somehow implicated in the development of reading in young children.

Writing skills developed before children enter formal schooling can predict young children’s academic achievement years later. Dinehart and Manfra (2013) examined the links between the fine motor skills of 3000 preschool children on tasks (such as building blocks, weaving string, lacing beads, cutting with scissors, copying letters, numbers and shapes, and drawing simple objects) and their academic achievement two years after starting school. All fine motor skills examined had some link with these achievements, but writing skills were consistently the strongest predictors of reading and mathematics achievement.

In other words- learning to write by hand helps children to learn to read, to remember sound- symbol correspondences and may well help them to think about literacy.

Handwriting is still important for older learners

The most important issue in handwriting as children develop is not how it looks (though legibility is useful) but how automatically they can produce it (Medwell and Wray, 2007). Automaticity in writing (the ability to produce letters without allocating cognitive attention to it) frees up that attention to allow writers to tackle the difficult parts of writing- collecting ideas, sorting out the order, choosing words and grammatical combinations. In short, automatic handwriting frees writers to focus on composing. Our own research with children aged 7 and 11 revealed that for a seven-year-old child achieving a score of less than 12 alphabet letters per minute on an automaticity test correlated highly with not achieving the expected national writing score (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2007). For the eleven-year-olds the relevant score was 22 alphabet letters per minute (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2009). Simply put- children who don’t have to give cognitive attention to handwriting can compose better. Sadly, many writers are not automatic even at the end of primary school, and it holds them back right across the curriculum.

Speed also matters. Graham and Santangelo’s meta-analysis of writing proficiency (2012), noted that the students using pen/cil and paper wrote more words, wrote words faster, and expressed more ideas than those who used keyboards. Connolly et al.’s (2007) comparative study of students in Years 5 and 6 found that apart from a few cases, students’ handwriting speed was consistently faster than their word processing speed. The compositional quality of students’ hand written text was also superior to that produced through word processing.

So should we teach handwriting?

Some children do figure out how to form some letters on their own, but for the vast majority of children and letters, handwriting needs to be taught! For some children, a moderate amount of teaching and practice does the trick, and they seem to “catch” it. But Graham (1999) has made the point that if teachers only give specific emphasis to handwriting when children have failed to ‘catch’ it, then poor habits become progressively harder for teachers to remedy and the children who have not developed automaticity become progressively more disadvantaged!

Our project

We are focusing on mark making and letter formation in the foundation stage. We all know early reading has a very high profile in both schools and homes. We’d like to find ways to make writing as high-profile.

We are working a group of Early Years Teachers, supported by the University of Nottingham’s What Matters programme and Newall Brands (the home of Berol, Papermate and Sharpie). We aim to research ways to promote mark making and letter formation for Foundation stage children.

Teachers from schools in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and Leicester aim to answer these questions:

  • What do settings and homes do already to promote mark making and letter formation?
  • What more can we do to promote mark making and letter formation?

Questions you might want to share your views about:

When do you use handwriting?

Do you think joined handwriting is important? Why?

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

References

Connelly, V., Gee, D. & Walsh, E. (2007) “A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed”, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 77 No. 2, pp. 479-92.

Dinehart, L. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 1-22

Dinehart, L. and Manfra, L. (2013) Association between early fine motor development and later math and reading achievement in early elementary school. Early Education and Development 24(2): 138–161

Graham, S. & Santangelo, T. (2012) “A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of teaching handwriting”, Education Psychology Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 225-265.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2163175/Could-forget-WRITE-The-typical-adult-scribbled-hand-weeks.html

James, K. and Engelhardt, L. (2012) The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1(1): 32–42

Jones, D. and Christensen, C. (1999). The relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students’ ability to generate written text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 44-49

Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2007) “Handwriting: What do we know and what do we need to know?” Literacy, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 10-15.

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2007) ‘The role of handwriting in composing for Y2 children’, in Journal of Reading, Writing and Literacy, Vol. 2 (1), pp. 18-36

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2009) ‘The links between handwriting and composing for Y6 children’, in Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 39 (3), pp. 329-344

Wolf, M. (2007) Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper

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