The importance of #handwriting by @TeacherToolkit

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I was recently forwarded an article that looks at the importance of handwriting during a time when digital platforms are increasingly taking precedent. It says: “that handwriting still forms a unique part of our culture and identity.

Background:

As an adult, my own handwriting has always been appalling and I know this is unacceptable as a teacher of literacy. Dare I say, when handwriting school reports (only a few years ago) my handwriting was still improving before the digital-era took over! However, handwriting will always remain when marking books and writing on the chalk-face. And if I wasn’t a teacher, would I still place as much importance on handwriting as an adult?

HandwritingI have no idea why my handwriting has always been so poor, but I remember distinctly growing up as a child in Scotland, trying to ‘get to grips’ with the pen to find the most suitable and comfortable hold to use. My ‘holding technique’ had to evolve rapidly, as writing was of course a major requirement in school, much more than it is today. Not that it isn’t (equally) important today, but with digital technology all around us, I fear students have less and less opportunity to write at school.

If I think of the wide variety of school subjects I have taught, students arrive to some subjects with a ‘handwriting-attitude’. That is, they do not expect to complete extended pieces of handwriting as some subjects come with a predetermined stereotype. We know as subject experts, some subjects will not require writing as regularly as others, but this attitude must be quashed by all teachers. Students must be expected to complete extended pieces of writing in all subjects.

Less than 3 years ago, I remember attending an assistant headteacher interview where candidates were given a letter of complaint from a parent. We were asked to write a handwritten response. At the time, I relished the literacy challenge, but knew that my handwriting may go against me when being assessed. How often do we view student’s handwriting and find it harder to mark?

I do frequently. My solution; mark the work with the child.

From my time spent in 4 different primary schools, the writing technique I ended up using, was as expected. Neat and legible, nothing more. See image below left (<10 years old), and compare this to the image below right (>16 years old) which is the grip I still use today. My writing has of course improved, but the reason for my awkward grip, is that I fear I may have been forced to write, right-handed!

HandwritingIn the photo (above-left), the pen is held using a ‘precision grip’ which is pinched between the flexor aspects of the finger and the opposition of the thumb.  In the image on the right, the pen is held using a ‘power grip’ between the fingers and the palm, with the thumb lying more or less in the plain of the palm to hold the pencil.

The lack of continuity of my own education in one school, may have led my own teachers to have no time to notice or do something about my pen grip. As soon as I arrived to school, I was soon off to another school, in another part of the country! I attended primary schools in Kilbirnie (76-79), then Dundee for four years, then onto London for two years and finally Newcastle for less than twelve months in my final year at primary …

Primitive grips in the Schneck and Henderso n (1990) scale. Page 24
Primitive grips in the Schneck and Henderso
n (1990) scale. Page 24

I then attended three secondary schools! Could my schooling be a factor? Parenting? Or just my own development and preference? It appears that, according to “transitional grips in the Schneck and Henderson (1990) scale”, my handwriting grip has not developed!

Page 13
Transitional grips in the Schneck and Henderson: Page 13

Writing grips:

Using the diagram below, you can clearly see my writing grip position in number 10 below. (Download here)

Handwriting
www.thepencilgrip.com/

and a nice little video by

Research:

A study from Finnish University, Åbo Akademi, has published a Descriptive Model and Four Empirical Studies which suggests a “descriptive two-dimensional model for the categorisation of ‘pencil grips'”. The research study is based on children during the first six years of writing instruction and compares techniques used in Finland and the USA.

“The cross-cultural disparity is most likely related to the differences in the onset of writing instruction … and it seems that certain previously not recommended pencil grips might nevertheless be included among those accepted since they did not appear to hamper either fluency or legibility.”

Pencil Grip and Handwriting: Page 6
Pencil Grip and Handwriting: Page 6

Are we losing the art of handwriting?

In a BBC News article, the art of handwriting has been under scrutiny after new figures show that two-thirds of teachers admit not giving students the marks they deserve because of poor writing.

The original article shared with me and my thoughts about my own handwriting has got me thinking about the importance of handwriting in schools and whether it’s not more important to allow children to learn in a way which is beneficial for them (even if that’s not with pen and paper) or for the teacher? Every student learns differently and whilst some may prefer to write things out, others may find it more useful using other methods.

I wanted to pick out a couple of interesting points from the article as I feel that it’s an important subject which should be talked about. It’s been great to see lots of teachers share images of their own handwriting, following my tweeted photograph.

Writing in examinations

I think the first interesting point from the article is that handwriting is still a necessity for examinations so has a very functional purpose. In my experience, I have seen students use laptops to complete their formal examinations. As we look to technology to offer new forms of learning for those students that benefit from learning in different ways, this is important to bear in mind. Those students who have devoted time to learning to write comfortably and articulately at speed will be at a distinct advantage in examinations unless they are allocated ‘additional time’. If we think about word processing in particular, there’s always a worry that students become too dependent on tools such as spell-check and synonyms. Consequently, any student who is too dependent on these tools will find it difficult to replicate the same standard of work during their examinations.

Cognitive skills

The other important point raised in the article is the cognitive argument that writing by hand has advantages for learning that can’t be replicated in other ways. As mentioned in the article, the act of writing by hand has been proven to help individuals remember things better. This is due to the fact that writing engages certain parts of your brain that aren’t used in other tasks, for instance when typing. For revision, this is incredibly important as the process of writing out class notes will allow students to remember information easier.

Is there any research to suggest that ‘typing’ notes to replace handwriting supports cognitive development?

These are just a couple of important points that I picked out from the article but there are also other interesting points, for example about identity which raises other important questions. New technology is offering much more variation in the classroom, however, handwriting should not be discredited and we should encourage discussion on the subject before this vital skill is dismissed.

After-all, you all know I love to tweet and blog and by writing and blogging about my thoughts on education, this has itself, improved my literacy. But, blogging has not improved my handwriting. We will always need a pen and piece of paper to hand, so let’s make sure we can still use them well. Really well!

You can download the Finnish research paper A Descriptive Model and Four Empirical Studies by Ann-Sofie Selin.

Teacher photographs:

These 20+ examples were kindly shared by teachers today:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Samples:

I have added two images below that show my own handwriting in greater detail. I had to dig these out from my BAEd dissertation from 1996!

Sample by @TeacherToolkit
Draft dissertation sample by @TeacherToolkit (circa. 1996)
Sample by @TeacherToolkit
Draft dissertation sample by @TeacherToolkit (circa. 1996)

p.s. I do not claim to be a handwriting expert, just a teacher, conscientious of my own handwriting and the importance of developing this skill in students.

Related:

Do read the first link with caution. As Kate Gladstone has pointed out in the comments below: “Many commenters thereon, took a step that the author did not expect. They went so far as to actually look up the research which the author was citing, then to note the discrepancies between the actual research and its representation by the author of the article that claimed that research as support.” So, do read it very carefully! The author admits that “his article and views were of another writer’s summary of the research”.

@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of being most influential in the field of education. He remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing resources and ideas online as @TeacherToolkit, he has built this website (c2008) which has been described as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the UK Blog Awards (2018). Read more...

24 thoughts on “The importance of #handwriting by @TeacherToolkit

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  • 27th May 2014 at 6:39 pm
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    Great post. I have fought with my primary head about teaching reception children cursive handwriting. Why? Well most do not have the strength in their fingers to be able to master cursive letters. This year I won and children have been taught basic letter formation with lots of fine motor skills activities available. My Y1’s do not do cursive but as I will also have them next year they will need to learn cursive writing. But what happens if the grip is wrong? Do we force the reluctant writer (summer born boy) to hold the ‘correct’ way but then he doesn’t want to write or do we let him carry on and actually get some writing from him? Anybody got the answer for me….
    BTW my handwriting is poor. Both my children are lefties, my OH is right handed so was I forced to write right handed as a child when really I should be left?

    Reply
    • 27th May 2014 at 7:26 pm
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      Sounds very familiar. You raise some very valid points about children having the strength to grip a pen/pencil to be able to attempt cursive writing successfully. I wonder (honestly) how many primary teachers are aware of this?

      Reply
  • 27th May 2014 at 7:45 pm
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    As a left hander myself, a mum to 2 boys both left handed and a headteacher of an infant school, the importance of getting ‘the grip’ correct is crucial, as it takes months/ years of hardwork and pain to undo poor grips. When my oldest stated pre school I had only 1 request they did not let him fist grip a pencil! I then worked very hard with him in a fun way with appropriate resouces to teach him how to hold a pencil correctly. At 4 and 1/2 he now holds a pencil beautiful and lovers drawing and writing. The children in my school also work through a very detailed handwriting programme which promotes gross motor skills first and developing upper arm strength before moving into handwriting. As a result the majority of pupils by the end of year 1 have beautiful handwriting and correct grips. Paitence is the key and not rushing pupils before they are ready!

    Reply
    • 28th May 2014 at 6:11 am
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      I would be very interested in knowing the details of the programme you use. Thank you.

      Reply
  • 27th May 2014 at 10:00 pm
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    I think that handwriting in exams will continue to be important for the time being. My experience of marking exams from candidates who have been allowed to wordprocess their answers is that they are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fluency and sophistication of their answers when compared with handwritten answers. This is particularly noticeable when their short answer questions have been of a very high standard, their longer answers are not as good.

    Reply
  • 27th May 2014 at 10:32 pm
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    I never really thought about strength as an issue – would other fine motor tasks help develop strength? On the leftie thing, I am a leftie with a standard pen grip – I can write neatly provided I can tilt the paper and sit side-on to it (i.e. with my legs not under the table). I did not discover this until I left school – school desks don’t really facilitate unorthodox sitting positions! My leftie 5 yo has had a standard pen grip since she was very little – presumably she just copied me. However I do notice that the handwriting sheets she brings home encourage letter formation that is unnecessarily difficult for lefties – for example crossing ‘f’ and’t’ from left to right (which means a leftie has to push the pen rather than pull it, which is more fluid).

    Reply
  • 28th May 2014 at 12:08 pm
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    A poignant article topic Ross. As an educator, I stand conflicted by the obligation of joined writing in the UK curriculum standards and wonder why? The development of fine motor skills for legible and consistent handwriting is of far more importance than forcing children to join for the sake of a standard and subjective expectation. I believe in the quality of content and pride in presentation, as opposed to the need for joined writing. Handwriting teaching should be more focused on a child’s developmental needs and stages, which do not take away from the purpose – to communicate.

    Thank you for the interesting information! 🙂

    Reply
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  • 29th May 2014 at 8:47 am
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    Both my sons are dyspraxic-my eldest son severely so. This means that he could not manage fine motor skills and still, at the age of 20, has the handwriting of a KS1child even though he is now in his final year at University and looking to do a Masters next year. He loved writing in KS1but it was gobbledygook and he was unable to access most of the curriculum at that stage due to the emphasis on verbal and fine motor skills. it didn’t help that he was an August born baby. I finally employed a private tutor for him at the age of 8 and she taught him cursive writing-success-his hand was always on the paper-so some form of control-and it was at least partially comprehensible. He still never got his work displayed on the wall and suffered from low self esteem watching his female peers always perceived as gifted and talented because of their beautiful writing. Once he got to secondary school he submitted all exam papers using a word processor ( though this was not available to him during ordinary lessons). His infantile handwriting style still left him stigmatised and underestimated throughout. However he is now at University and doing very well-using digital technology throughout. My other son was rejected in an 11plus entrance exam ( on the basis of his handwriting) and never identified as G and T but went on to get 3 A*s at A level in Maths and Science based subjects. in my view handwriting is used far too much to disadvantage boys, summer borns and dyspraxics ( who are 3-5% of the population).
    I am an examiner for a major Board in An A level subject and this year we have noticed a massive increase in typed exam papers. one centre had 12 out of 27 candidates typing. My view is that they had a significant advantage over handwriting candidates -some were typing at what I estimated to be approx. 30 words a minute throughout a 90 minute exam -non-stop and wrote massively more than their handwriting peers. They must have been taught touch typing skills ( the SPG accuracy was also high). Why not just extend this to everyone?…..

    Reply
    • 29th May 2014 at 9:03 am
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      Hi. Some very interesting and saddening points you raise. Glad to read your children’s stories, despite the barriers and stigma, they have gone on to further success. My son would have been born in August, if he wasn’t born 3 months too early. At 3 years old, I am very keen to learn more about child development.
      Interesting stats. regarding examinations too. I think I would opt for a keyboard if I had to do all my exams again!

      Reply
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  • 29th May 2014 at 11:23 pm
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    Regarding the first of two articles cited/linked at the end of this piece — that article (“What Cursive Does To Your Brain,” which alleges that cursive makes you intelligent) relies heavily upon upon misquoted (and otherwise misrepresented) research. This fact becomes evident, when one reads the extensive and vociferous comment-threads attached to that article.
    Many commenters thereon, you see, took a step that the author did not expect. They went so far as to _actually_ _look_ _up_ the research which the author was citing, then to note the discrepancies between the actual research and its representation by the author of the article that claimed that research as support.
    As they did, it soon became evident that its author (a prominent veterinary neurosurgeon) had not in fact _read_ the original research before deciding to present it as support for his belief that using cursive makes you smart. All that he had read on the subject, as he eventually admitted in comments of his own, had been another writer’s summary of the research — and that summary had been itself written to accord with its author’s position on cursive, which the author was working very hard to promote.
    (In fact — by the end of the series of comments, those made by author of “What Cursive Does to your Brain” had made at least one comment retracting his earlier position and admitting that the research in fact dies not say what he had been misled into asserting it had said.)

    Would you please re-consider the reliability, hence the link-worthiness, of “What Cursive Does To Your Brain”?

    Reply
    • 30th May 2014 at 12:19 am
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      Hi Kate. I have approved your comment above and quoted you before the actual link to flag up those that choose to read it. From the thousands of blog views on this article already, only 4 people have clicked the link to read it.

      Reply
    • 7th June 2014 at 9:45 pm
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      I was a remedial teacher for many years and would love to read the artical about what cursive writing doe to your brain. Thank you

      Reply
  • 29th May 2014 at 11:24 pm
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    Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than “printed” handwriting of equal or greater legibility. More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    Further research demonstrates that the fastest, clearest handwriters are neither the “print”-writers nor the cursive writers. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them – making only the simplest of joins, omitting the rest, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive matters, still — just because cursive exists where one cannot avoid the need to read it. However, even quite young children can be taught to read handwriting which is more complex than what they are taught or encouraged to produce? Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there’s even an iPad app to teach how: named “Read Cursive,” of course — http://appstore.com/readcursive .) So why not simply teach children to _read_ cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, such as some handwriting style that’s actually typical of effective handwriters?

    Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers from all over North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling “print”-writing, others resembling cursive. When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, or nicer, or beautifully graceful — that it adds brain cells — or instills proper etiquette, grammar, and patriotism — or confers other blessings which are in fact no more frequently found among cursive’s learners and users than among the rest of us. Some devotees of cursive allege that research supports their notions — citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no traceable source,

    or

    /2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is perennially misrepresented by cursive’s defenders as a study “comparing print-writing with cursive”),

    or

    /3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    What about signatures? Here in the USA, at least — where children grow up being told by their elders that “signatures require cursive to be legal” — cursive signatures in fact have no special legal validity over any other kind. (This is quite surprising to the occasional well-meaning schoolteacher who finds out that one of her students is the child of an attorney, and who asks that parent to visit the class and “please help me make sure that the students know the law requires cursive for signatures”!

    You would think that the teachers would have learned better, by now —but more than a few of them have quite calmly said to me, and presumably to anyone else who ventures to inform them upon the subject, that they would far rather misinform children in their care about the law of the land than provide correct information which threatened in any way the classroom reverence paid to writing with every letter joined up and variously re-shaped as necessary in order to make that possible.

    I suspect that questioned document examiners (specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) must run into the same teacherly stubbornness if they ever tell a teacher what they tell me: namely, that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest (including the “print-written” ones).
    Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
    All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why any teacher of small children can immediately identify (from the “print-writing” on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

    Mandating cursive in order to preserve the skill of handwriting resembles mandating tall silk hats and lace petticoats in order to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /3 Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Handwriting research on cursive’s lack of observable benefit for students with dyslexia/dysgraphia:

    “Does cursive handwriting have an impact on the reading and spelling performance of children with dyslexic dysgraphia: A quasi-experimental study.” Authors: Lorene Ann Nalpon & Noel Kok Hwee Chia — URL: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/234451547_Does_cursive_handwriting_have_an_impact_on_the_reading_and_spelling_performance_of_children_with_dyslexic_dysgraphia_A_quasi-experimental_study

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE —
    http://youtu.be/3kmJc3BCu5g

    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING —
    http://youtu.be/s_F7FqCe6To

    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —
    http://youtu.be/Od7PGzEHbu0

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    handwritingrepair@gmail.com • HandwritingThatWorks.com

    Reply
    • 30th May 2014 at 12:22 am
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      Hi Kate (again), this is all incredible stuff and I will work through what you have added. Can I just say, the my original blog was to raise the profile of handwriting and the importance of it. I wanted to share how poor my handwriting was a a teacher and reflect back on my years in school. I had no intention of contributing to the ‘cursive’ debate. The seems to have been a spin-off from all the photos I have shared and this blogpost. However, I will re-read what you have commented on and report back. Thanks. Ross

      Reply
  • 30th May 2014 at 11:36 am
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    Im a leftie with dyslexia and dyspraxia. I was forced to use my right hand in school until my mother stormed in demanding that they allow me to use my left. The result is that while I write with my left hand, I do everything else with my right and i know that if I ever broke my left hand, ill get by with using my right for a few weeks.
    My writing is very neat and (I dont mean to toot my own horn) neater than most people my age (23).
    I found that if im facing the desk straight on, I have to turn my paper so it is horizontal. I then write toward my body (almost vertically). If I had the paper vertical and my body facing straight on, my body gets in the way. This is what seems to cause a lot of lefties ‘hook’ hand. If my page is vertical, them I have to twist my body to the left (I noticed another commentor did this!).this means that im still writing vertically in effect.
    My pen holding is the standard point grip, though the joint in my thumb will rest of the fingertip of my index finger as I found my pressure was too hard amd rigid if I ‘pinched’ the pen tip and as a result, my handwriting less fluid.
    I think everyone has their own way of doing it but it is only a problem if the handwriting is still messy. I suppose its like the saying “if it’s not broke, dont fix it”. If the handwriting is neat then clearly the method works for them (provided they are not risking long term injury to the hand or wrist).
    My niece is 6 and we have noticed that she also is left handed so my sister has asked that I help with her handwriting as she didnt wanted to force her into uncomfortable right-hand bias methods.
    Since showing my niece to turn the page etc, both her writing and drawing has improved considerably, alongside this, she is getting more ticks in her work books. We suspect its not because shes any smarter than she was 3 weeka ago, but because her teacher has a lesser issue of understanding her writing.

    Reply

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