Do we teach handwriting skills to young writers – OK – when and why?

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Recently I was in team meeting where teachers were discussing when to teach 5 year olds handwriting. It got me to thinking about why of my age and the old pen licences which we scrapped at least 10 years ago.

In fact our 2015 foundation year booklist has black, blue, red and green pens and grey lead pencils. Our students write using black or blue pens or grey lead pencils, revise using a green pen and edit or proofread in red. The colors help young people delineate the various stages of the writing process.

I typed in Google “teaching handwriting” and was flooded with newspaper articles from around the world with a variety of articles and an equally wide variety of opinions.

  • Lawmakers continue to fight to keep handwriting in the classroom, despite the growing power of the keyboard (Time)
  • Students’ handwriting remains the mark of learning (Sydney Morning Herald) 
  • Keyboard classes take over from handwriting lessons in Finland’s schools (The Age)
  • Teaching cursive handwriting is an outdated waste of time (the conversation) 

Some of the articles quoted conflicting research with no reference lists provided e.g. “handwriting improves brain development”. Other articles argued that students were losing their fluency and muscular strength to write 3 hr essays.

Clearly, at the very least, handwriting is about still learning motor patterns and developing muscle memory and strength in their fingers and wrists. AND last I looked we still wrote notes and lists so yes the need for handwriting remains.

Handwriting is also in our National Curriculum: e.g. Year 3 standard reads

Write using joined letters that are clearly formed and consistent in size

Although there are different versions of the handwriting style across Australia  in Victoria and Western Australia we use the modern Victorian cursive font.

Some teachers at the meetings were expressing a desire to link learning to write a letter with learning its sound-symbol relationship. While there is some link here I think we ended up agreeing that we should at least model the correct letter formation when we are teaching sound symbol relationships but that at this stage its not about explicitly teaching handwriting and having children practice the letter writing patterns.

Why you may ask?

Firstly we don’t want young writers to focus on having to write the correct pattern when for example drafting a recount of a life experience or narrative (even if its still at the emergent stage of writing – e.g. letter like shapes or drawings with a few letters below) as this shifts the focus to one of handwriting and not searching for meaning in words.

What I have repeatedly seen when the focus shifts to “perfect motor patterns” is young writers slowing down and losing meaning or interest as the process becomes laborious. This point was stressed in many education texts including the Tasmanian Education Departments sites:

If very young children are forced to hold a writing tool with the correct grasp before they are developmentally able to do so, their interest and motivation to engage in the writing process can be impaired.

https://www.education.tas.gov.au/documentcentre/Documents/Handwriting.pdf

Secondly it’s generally accepted that when we start to teach handwriting we do so with a sequence of letters or small groups of letters that have a similar characteristics (e.g. these letter have the same anti clockwise movement:  c, d, a, s, o).

Why – so that the students can use their metacognitive processes to observe and remember motor patterns or similarities of movement in handwriting? A child’s task is to learn efficient movements not to copy model shapes.

So when do you start to teach handwriting – well my point here we need to collect evidence that the child is ready by such as observing their physical dexterity, eye hand coordination or fine motor skills even their efforts to copy on their own.

My own experience here as a prep or foundation level teacher was that I found young writers at different stages of readiness therefore most of my handwriting instruction was done in smaller groups for most of the year. It wasn’t till well into year 1 that we did some practice sessions as a whole class and that changed again when we started to teach connecting letters around year 2 and 3 as the standard suggests.