Part 3 of the survey findings

Since my last post I have had some further discussions with colleagues about the realities of the here and now and the issues of today’s students having the skills to write efficiently at school. Basically, students are required to write in all disciplines with much of their school day involving writing of some kind. However, as I have discussed in previous blog postings less than 40% of the teachers I surveyed had a computer for every child in their classroom. This suggests that more than 60% do not. I would also wonder about the ongoing IT support for the classrooms where there are computers for every child. What happens when a computer doesn’t work? Can the school afford to ensure that the software is up to date?

Which tool should I use? I believe children need the flexibility to choose the appropriate tool for the task – just like I do. But that means they need the skills to type efficiently on a keyboard as well as write efficiently by hand. That in turn means we need to teach both of these skills – not one OR the other.

But what did the parents in the survey say? We had responses from 336 parents who send their children to school and 17 who home school. Let’s see what they had to say:

  • 93.8% of parents indicated that handwriting was still important in the 21st century with 85.1% suggesting handwriting should be taught all throughout primary school.

How hard is it to learn to write by hand? Handwriting has in the past been seen as a relatively easy mechanical part of writing – this has now been questioned – the process is in fact both cognitively and physically quite demanding – until it become an automatic process. This suggests the need for explicit teaching and considerable practice opportunities. This is further explained by Medwell and Wray (2014):

Handwriting does not merely involve training the hand; it involves training the memory and hand to work together to generate the correct mental codes for production of letters and translate these into motor patterns of letters – as a language act, rather than just a motor act used to record writing” (Medwell & Wray, 2014, p. 35)

I share with you a very insightful comment/question from a parent which is relevant to this part of the blog (how hard is it to learn to write) and the next (is there a connect between handwriting and academic achievement):

‘Bad handwriting is not a sign of poor academic achievement but of poor fine motor skill processing. Is there a link between poor fine motor skill processing and academic achievement? THAT’s the question.’

As this parent rightly indicates, the handwriting and fine motor skill issue is a complex one. I know a lot of very successful people (including in academia) who have poor handwriting. But for them it is no longer an issue. For many, when they were at school it was just something they learned to deal with as there was no alternative.

Interestingly a Pediatric Occupational Therapist tells me that she gets lots of referrals for primary and high school aged students whose problems with handwriting are getting in the way of their learning.

What about handwriting and academic achievement? I asked this question because of the research which has described this connection.

  • only 46.8% of parents saw a link between handwriting and academic achievement, with 30.8% disagreeing and a further 30.4% who were unsure.

This response is quite similar to the responses from teachers (50.8% agreed, 23% disagreed and 25.6% unsure) and retired teachers (46% agreed, 27% disagreed and 27% unsure). However, quite recent research from Lifshitz & Har-Zvi demonstrates that acquisition of handwriting is necessary for success in school – ‘Proper acquisition of handwriting is required for success in school’ (2015, p. 47).

Where it is tough, is for children in schools, who are still learning in contexts where they need to write efficiently by hand in order to engage fully with the learning opportunities and expectations of school, but also spend a great deal of their leisure time on electronic devices. Poor handwriting may be holding them back if they do not have access to keyboards at school or do not have the skills to use a keyboard efficiently.

To date, few schools have been engaged in actively teaching keyboarding skills (touch typing) to primary age students. Therefore to succeed in school, handwriting is still necessary. Our students are learning at a difficult time in history when the assumption is that keyboarding may be the way of the future. However, given we need to support children’s learning in the present, while we also prepare them for the future, handwriting remains an important academic enabling skill. As yet we do not have the research that can compare handwriting and keyboarding because the two are, at present, intertwined – at least for children in schools.

Enough for now – Thanks for reading and sharing I will be back with more in a couple of weeks. Noella

References for this post

Brandt, D. (2015). The rise of writing: Redefining mass literacy. Cambridge, UK: University Printing House.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4 (3)

Lifshitz, N., & Har-Zvi, S. (2015). A comparison between students who receive and who do not receive a writing readiness intervention on handwriting quality, speed and positive reactions. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(47-55).

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2014). Handwriting automaticity: The search for performance thresholds. Language and Education, 28(1), 34-51.

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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