Handwriting, keyboarding or both?

Handwriting, keyboarding or both?

This blog posting was written for those people who attended the ALEA Riverina Murray Local Council Launch held at the Albury Town Library on Wednesday 18/10/17 although it may be of interest to others.

This is a huge topic and one that I could only briefly touch on in the short time we had together. In the following I hope to re-visit and expand on some of the key messages from the session, starting with a couple of definitions.

Writing refers to the complex process of text creation. Contemporary writing incorporates a variety of traditional, digital, multimodal and visual literacy forms. The written word is still central to most texts.

Transcription usually refers to handwriting/keyboarding and spelling. Sometimes, handwriting, keyboarding and spelling are described as secretarial skills, along with punctuation. Text structure, sentence structure and vocabulary use are referred to as authorial skills. It is important to note that the authorial skills depend upon secretarial skills – therefore we teach secretarial skills to support authorial skills.

Handwriting is a “complex perceptual-motor skill encompassing a blend of visual-motor coordination abilities, motor planning, cognitive, and perceptual skills, as well as tactile and kinaesthetic sensitivities” (Feder & Majnemer, 2007, p. 313) requiring “sustained attention, sensory processing, and the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip” (Lust and Donica, 2011, p.560).

Why continue to teach handwriting?

Figure 1

  • handwriting is still common at home and work;
  • handwriting is still predominant at school;
  • handwriting can influence teachers’ judgements about the quality of a child’s text;
  • handwriting can impact a writer’s planning and text generation;
  • handwriting activates motor, visual, and linguistic areas of the brain and has a direct relationship with improving math, spelling, and science outcomes in later years;
  • handwriting supports cognitive and motor skills development, learning letters, spelling, reading, memory, composition quality and academic success;
  • decoding knowledge, including letter, sound, and phonological awareness is related to a child’s ability to write recognizable letters fluently; and
  • even adults have been shown to benefit from taking their notes by hand.

Poor handwriting skills and a lack of automaticity with handwriting increase the cognitive load of a child and consequently reduce his or her ability to draw on other cognitive capacities to improve the content of writing (e.g. McCarney et al., 2013)

Do we need to provide explicit instruction in handwriting and keyboarding?

Children in Australian schools are expected to be taught to write by hand. This process starts in the foundation year with cursive writing introduced at Year 3. The aim is that children will all have “a personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended periods” by Year 7 (ACARA, 2016, p. 22).

According to Medwell & Wray (2007), by the end of Year 2, children 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 one minute (this is a test of automaticity); and
  • decide when it is appropriate to use neat handwriting.

Letter formation needs to be explicitly taught including where to start and which way to go – to support automatic processing – that way the writer can concentrate on their message. While copy books can help, we must check that children are forming the letters correctly. Otherwise they may be practising incorrect letter formation.

Remember that learning to write by hand is combined with all the rules associated with concepts about print – where to start, which way to go, leaving spaces.

In Australia we tend to teach upper and low case letters together. Upper case letters have been shown to be easier to learn than lower case letters.

What about keyboarding?

Keyboarding involves the coordination of motor, perceptual sensory and cognitive skills in order to be able to type efficiently (Mangen & Velay, 2010). The sensory, motor and perceptual skills for typing differ from handwriting, the writer is required to use a search and type motion in place of the refined motions necessary to control a pen or pencil when forming letters (Kiefer et al., 2015).

Typing  requires the coordination of both hands and sequential finger movements to type letters in correct order (Freeman et al., 2005). Some young writers find computers challenging to navigate and the process of typing/keyboarding slow. Their hands and fingers are small, they are unsure of the locations of the keys, and have difficulty coordinating their fingers to press keys in the correct order. This can make being asked to type very frustrating, disengaging them from the writing process.

As with adults, children who use digital devices efficiently are able to write faster than those using pen and paper, enabling them to spend time thinking about what they were writing and to check, edit and improve what they had written. To achieve this level of automaticity takes explicit instruction and a great deal of practise.

The need for ongoing instruction in handwriting has been well established in the literature. Students need continuing handwriting instruction as well as explicit keyboard instruction (touch typing) beyond fourth grade. . . the continuing handwriting and keyboard instruction does not have to be intensive, but rather can be viewed as periodic tune-ups once or twice a week when students do warm-ups, like the athletes before the game:

(a) writing the alphabet from memory,

(b) copying interesting target sentences containing all the letters of the alphabet,

(c) writing letters that come before and after other named letters, or

(d) exchanging papers and circling letters that are illegible and discussing how to make them legible to others for purposes of written communication.

These warm up, tune-ups should be followed by more cognitively engaging writing tasks for authentic communication purposes (Alstad et al., 2015).

Most of us who work in jobs that require written communication that could be described as ‘hybrid writers’ (Alstad et al., 2015). That means we are able to use a number of tools (pens, computers, tablets, smart phones) and processes (handwriting, typing, texting) and we choose the best tool and process for the purpose. This should be what we are aiming for for our children.

If you want to know more about the handwriting and keyboarding survey, please refer to earlier blog postings on this site that discuss this topic specifically.

If you want to read more on this topic, watch out for:

  1. Mackenzie, N.M., & Spokes, R. (2018). Handwriting and keyboarding skills. In M. Mackenzie & J.A. Scull (Eds), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.
  2. Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R. (2018). The Why, Who, What, When and How of Handwriting Instruction. Practical Literacy: the early and primary years, (available in Feb 2018).


Alstad, Z., Sanders, E., Abbott, R. D., Barnett, A. L., Henderson, S. E., Connelly, V., & Berninger, V. W. (2015). Modes of alphabet letter production during middle childhood and adolescence: Interrelationships and each other and other writing skills. Journal of writing research, 3, 199-231. doi:org/10.1239/jowr-2015.06.03.1

Feder, K., & Manjnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(4), 312-317.

Freeman, A. R., Mackinnon, J. R., & Miller, L. T. (2005). Keyboarding for students with handwriting problems. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 25(1-2), 119-147. doi:10.1080/J006v25n01_08

Kiefer, M., Schuler, S., Mayer, C., Trumpp, N. M., Hille, K., & Sachse, S. (2015). Handwriting or typewriting? The influence of pen-or keyboard-based writing training on reading and writing performance in preschool children. 11(4), 136. doi:10.5709/acp-0178-7

Lust, C. A., & Donica, D. K. (2011). Effectiveness of a handwriting readiness program in head start: a two-group controlled trial. AJOT: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 560.

Mangen, A., & Velay, J. L. (2010). Digitising literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing. In M. H. Zadeh (Ed.), Advances in Haptics (pp. 385-402). Rijeka: InTech.

McCarney, D., Peters, L., Jackson, S., Thomas, M., & Kirby, A. (2013). Does Poor Handwriting Conceal Literacy Potential in Primary School Children? International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 60(2), 105-118. doi:10.1080/1034912X.2013.786561

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9345.2007.00453.x

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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