Part 1 of the survey findings

N.B.  The full survey findings will be reported in a peer reviewed research journal in the future. What I offer here, and in the coming weeks, are findings from the survey that I think may be of interest, along with some commentary.

The survey generated lots of interest. If you were one of the 353 parents (40.7% of the sample), 434 teachers (50.1% of the sample) or 79 retired teachers (9.1% of the sample) thank you for taking the time to complete the survey.

The majority of teacher respondents came from NSW and Victoria – most from Metropolitan (46%), followed by Regional Cities (28.8%), Rural Towns (19.5%) and Remote locations (3.6%). The spread was similar for parents and retired teachers.

Most respondents represented Public Schools: Teachers (57.2%), Retired teachers (76.9%) and Parents (61.6%) although respondents also came from religious and independent schools.

So what did the survey respondents say?

  • The teachers (92%), retired teachers (95%) and parents (94%) indicated that handwriting remains important in the 21st century
  • The retired teachers (92%) and current teachers (88%) indicated their belief that handwriting can affect learning in other disciplines
  • Most teachers (86%), retired teachers (87%) and parents (80%) believe that handwriting difficulties can impact a student’s self esteem
  • Most teachers (74%), retired teachers (87.5%) and parents (85%) believe that handwriting should be taught all throughout Primary School

Susan Cahill has also argued that handwriting is a critical life skill for primary school students.

“In today’s environment of high-stakes testing, handwriting is a skill that is often overlooked in order to focus on other areas of the curriculum. However, research indicates that handwriting is tied to academic achievement, especially composition and literacy skills.” (2009, p. 223)

[Cahill, S. M. (2009). Where does handwriting fit in? Strategies to support academic achievement. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(4), 223-228.]

  • Most teachers (87.5%) and retired teachers (90.5%) agreed that efficient handwriting frees up working memory so children can concentrate on their composition

Medwell & Wray (2007), suggest that one of the most important rationales for handwriting instruction is the development of speed and automaticity thus freeing up working memory.

[Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15.]

What does that mean? What is working memory?

Some suggest that we can only keep 3-5 items in our mind at once. When we are learning something new we have to pay more attention to the steps involved.

I am going to use learning to drive as an example. While we are learning to drive, we need to pay conscious attention to every element of the process: holding the steering wheel, using indicators, checking mirrors, working the brakes and accelerator (changing gears and working the clutch if the car is manual), watching the traffic, thinking about where we are going, speed etc etc. This is a complex process that takes a lot of short term working memory when we are a learner but once we have become an experienced driver, we do a lot of the steps automatically, freeing up our working memory to think about other things: what to cook for dinner, where you are going on the weekend, what the kids need to do after school etc etc. You may also be able to manage a cup of coffee, change the radio station and carry on a sensible conversation.

I wonder: Have you ever driven somewhere familiar and arrived thinking I don’t remember anything about the trip? Crazy but true. I have a friend who once admitted that she headed off down town one Saturday morning, to go shopping – but before she knew it she had pulled into the carpark at her work – nowhere near the shops. She couldn’t do that unless the steps involved in driving the car were automatic.

Writing is also complex: Writing involves understanding of how to apply Authorial skills (text structure selection – the right form for the communication – e.g. a report or a letter, sentence structure [grammar], and vocabulary choices) and Secretarial or Editorial skills (spelling, punctuation use and handwriting/keyboarding). To write well you need to have the knowledge and understandings of all of these  6 dimensions.

So, when a child is learning to write, handwriting or keyboarding are only one of 6 different elements they need to juggle. That doesn’t include content, or what they are writing about. That is a lot to learn.

If our handwriting or keyboarding is automatic and fast, we can concentrate on other elements of writing. Neither skill is practiced for their own sake or enjoyment. We hand write or use a keyboard because we have a message to convey.

Children of the 21st century need (I think) to learn both skills so they can choose the appropriate method for the task. I do not write my research papers, reports or blog postings by hand, I use a keyboard and computer. But, I do take notes by hand in meetings and I write on cards by hand. I still write my shopping list by hand. I think children should have the choice.

Enough for this week – next week I will share some more data from the survey with some more discussion around how and why primary aged children still need to learn how to write by hand automatically and efficiently. Did you know that we remember more that we write by hand than what we type? More next week. Noella

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