More on the vexed topic of handwriting

“Whichever way we look, written language is not going away. It is just becoming more closely intertwined with the other modes” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p.182)

I think these researchers are telling us that writing in the past was all about print (ie words and sentences) but now often includes other modes for example, images (still and moving) and sound. The texts we engage with on the Internet for example, include multiple modes or forms of meaning making. While it is important for students to learn to interpret and create multimodal texts (and they can do this from a very young age) print or written expression is often at the centre of these texts. Our children must learn how to write well – it is more important than ever (Brandt, 2015). However,

“a significant proportion of children experience handwriting difficulties throughout their schooling. More of these children are boys than girls and their handwriting difficulties are likely to impact upon their ability to compose written language”. (Medwell and Wray, 2008, p. 43)

What does the Australian Curriculum say about the teaching of handwriting?

The Australian curriculum (ACARA) is clear that handwriting should be taught from Foundation (first year of school) until Year 7 when students should have ‘a personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended period’.

However, it appears that there are students entering year 7 without having achieved the year 7 handwriting expectations.  Some parents who responded to the survey indicated that they had a child who was experiencing some difficulties with handwriting. One suggested,

It’s difficult for a child with poor handwriting to achieve the results they deserve, as their work is not always easy to digest.  

Recently I had a discussion with a Paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT) who deals with children and adolescents who have problems with fine motor skill development. She told me she receives lots of referrals for children who are struggling with handwriting from the first year of school right through to Year 12. I asked her to share the reasons for the referrals and she listed the following:

In the early years, referrals are for poor pencil grasp, not being able to make meaningful drawings, having limited ability to control the pencil, not grasping the concept of drawing letters and hand swapping. Each of these issues can make it difficult for a child to engage in writing tasks in the early years of school.

In primary school referrals relate to: being unable to write in a legible or organised manner, poor pencil grasp, being unable to write for extended periods of time, letter reversals and lack of progression. Given that from eight years of age children spend up to half of every school day engaged in writing tasks (across all subjects) this is a huge problem for some children.

High school students are referred for: illegible handwriting, slow handwriting, hand pain and fatigue. Some require special consideration or a ‘writer’ for external examinations. Given the amount of writing needed in high school, this is of particular concern.

Is there a gender difference in terms of referrals?

According to this OT “in the past there has certainly been a greater proportion of boys, however over the past 12 months the number of girls being referred has increased.”

Who refers children to OTs for handwriting problems?

  • Predominantly referrals come from schools/ teachers;
  • 30% overall from paediatricians – generally older students (grade 4 onwards);
  • 60% referrals for high school students come from paediatricians

I also wanted to know how children referred to an OT for help with handwriting feel about this.

  • the younger children are usually very responsive. Enjoy the one-one-one attention and a play based approach.
  • high school students usually demonstrate a sense of relief that someone is finally helping them and that school is going to be easier.

How do we know if a child has efficient, automatic handwriting?

While there are different assessments used to test handwriting automaticity, a simple test used by some researchers and schools involves children being asked to write as many letters of the alphabet (in lower case and then upper case) in one minute.

“Although children have plenty of opportunity to write all these letters in the course of their school work, they rarely write the whole alphabet from memory in sequence, so this task is not well rehearsed and demands organisation and retrieval of letter forms in visual memory as well as the generation of the relevant motor patterns”. (Medwell & Wray, 2014, p. 39)

According to Medwell and Wray,

At the beginning of year 1 a child should be able to:

  • Form all the letters correctly and easily when copying and in response to letter names
  • Recite and write the alphabet in correct order

At the end of year 2 a child should be able to:

  • Form all the letters correctly and easily when copying and in response to letter names
  • write the whole alphabet from memory using correctly formed letters in alphabetical order in under 1 minute (This is a test of automaticity)
  • Decide when it is appropriate to use neat handwriting

It is worth noting that Medwell and Wray also suggest that by the end of year 2 children should be able to locate all the alphabet keys (on a keyboard) rapidly in response to letter names or visual cues (like cards or letters on screen).

I wonder what the answer is for today’s children. It seems to me that they need to learn to write efficiently by hand and using digital devices, as both are used in schools on a daily basis. The temptation to think that handwriting may be a thing of the past is not realistic at this point in time. Why?

  1. School do not have the infrastructure to provide all children with digital devices for all writing tasks from the start of school;
  2. Teachers do not have the training to teach keyboarding to children in a way that would make handwriting obsolete;
  3. While we have research to link handwriting and thinking and learning processes, we do not have the same research for keyboarding and thinking and learning;
  4. We do not have the research to tell us when the optimum age is for teaching children keyboarding skills; and
  5. We do not have the research to explain how a focus on keyboarding only will impact child development processes.

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), 164-195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2008). Handwriting – A forgotten language skill? Language and Education, 22(1), 34-47. doi:10.2167/le722.0

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2014). Handwriting automaticity: The search for performance thresholds. Language and Education, 28(1), 34-51. doi:10.1080/09500782.2013.76381

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.

One thought on “More on the vexed topic of handwriting

  1. As an “older” primary school teacher, who has retired and does 2-3 relief days a week, I am continually amazed by the number of students I come across (in Years 3-6), who have never experienced dedicated handwriting lessons. While ACARA is very specific about requirements of handwriting, a lot of younger teachers throw their hands in the air and scream ‘TIME, TIME TIME’ as if this is some sort of get out of goal free card which will be more successfully handled by the next year’s teacher because they, for some unexplained reason, have more of this precious commodity.


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