A focus on vocabulary

Learning is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge, however it is not until children are reading texts that involve age-appropriate vocabulary that vocabulary becomes a significant predictor of reading comprehension.

Decoding, fluency, and comprehension all draw upon students’ known vocabulary. Text participation requires the reader to know the meaning of individual words and how their meaning is influenced by the words around them. Text participation becomes increasingly important as texts become more complex. As with reading, writing becomes more dependent upon vocabulary knowledge as writing becomes more complex and topic specific.

Listening and Speaking – competence is in advance of reading and writing competence. Children can understand much more sophisticated content presented in oral language than they can read independently. As children are developing their reading and writing competence, we need to take advantage of their listening and speaking competencies to enhance their vocabulary development.

Learners need . . . “access to the meanings of words that are used by adults (particularly teachers) and other students, as well as those used in books and multimedia, if they are to participate in their community contexts and learn effectively.”

Daffern, T., & Mackenzie, N. M. (2015) Building strong writers: Creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing, Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, Volume 23(1).

Typically, by two years of age children will have a vocabulary of approximately 50 words and by the age of three years children demonstrate an ability to comprehend and assimilate a new word after hearing it only once or twice (Hoffnung et al., 2013). This vocabulary grows to approximately 14,000 words that they can use (expressive language) by the age of six (Hoffnung et al., 2013, p. 269) with the average school student capable of learning between 5 and 10 words per day (a total of between 2,000 and 4,000 during primary and high school).

Hoffnung, M., Hoffnung, R. J., Seiffert, K. L., Burton Smith, R., Hine, A., Ward, L., . . . Swabey, K. (2013). Lifespan Development: A topical approach. Milton, Qld: Wiley.

The power of the teacher

The vocabulary modelled by the teacher will have great impact on students’ vocabularies. However, building students’ vocabularies requires more than just modelling. A teacher must be interested in words. They must be aware of the words they are using and the words that students are being exposed to through texts and multimedia resources. They must actively seek opportunities to discuss words and encourage students to do the same.

Lane, H. B., & Allen, S. A. (2010). The vocabulary-rich classroom: Modeling sophisticated word use to promote word consciousness and vocabulary growth. The Reading Teacher, 63(5), 362-370. doi:10.1598/rt.63.5.2

Word consciousness may also be promoted through the use of puns, jokes, cross word puzzles, anagrams and word games. Explicit instruction and modelling will be important as will opportunities for definitional vocabulary work, which will require students to explore different aspects of words. This goes beyond the standard dictionary definitions to include opportunities for students to see how words can change meaning in different contexts.

The power of Read Aloud

In the ‘Reading Today’ journal – ILA March/April 2015 – Pam Allyn identified five methods to instil a life time of good literacy habits in children:

  • Read Aloud;
  • Encourage close reading from the youngest age (using critical thinking questions);
  • Make the literacy journey a celebration;
  • Hand them a pen; and
  • Honour each child’s unique identity.

In the same journal, Steven Layne quotes Patrick Shannon – “The first rule of teaching literacy is to read to your children”. A worthwhile read is Stephen Layne’s “In Defence of Read Aloud” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH8-R965BcM

It has been argued that much vocabulary acquisition results from literacy and wide reading rather than from direct instruction. However, a great deal of vocabulary acquisition occurs before children are reading books that introduce unfamiliar vocabulary.

Biemiller, (2006) suggests that most children (90 percent plus) can acquire new vocabulary at rates necessary to reach “grade level” or near grade level vocabulary in middle elementary school, if given adequate opportunity to use new words and adequate instruction in word meanings.

Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In D. K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2, pp. 41-51). New York: The Guilford Press.

Vocabulary lessons should be planned and spontaneous. For example, a quick spontaneous five minute vocabulary or word cline lesson may encourage children to be more specific with word choices.

Which words should I teach?

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.). New York: The Guildford Press.

Tier 1:

These are the high frequency everyday words which are commonly used in spoken language and simple texts (e.g., run, happy, baby, dog). Most children have been exposed to these words before starting school, unless they are English Language Learners (EAL) with a background in a different language.

Tier 2:

These words are often referred to as high frequency words for mature language users (e.g., coincidence, introduce). It is knowledge of these Tier 2 words that Beck et al (2002) have argued have a powerful impact on language functioning and therefore should be the focus of classroom instruction.

Tier 3:

These words are low frequency domain specific words (e.g., isotope, herpetology).

In Conclusion:

The teaching of vocabulary is an equity issue and deserving of teachers’ time and energy. There is a “marked difference between the vocabulary knowledge of children from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds has been well documented” (Berne & Blachowicz, 2008).

Berne, J. I., & Blachowicz, C. L. Z. (2008). What reading teachers say about vocabulary instruction: Voices from the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 314-323.


How children learn to write

Just recently the university created an impact narrative based upon the research work I have conducted that highlights the relationship between drawing and writing. If you are interested please click on the following link:


If this tweaks your curiosity you may like to read:

Mackenzie, N.M. (2014). Teaching early writers: Teachers’ responses to a young child’s writing sample. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(3), 182-191.

Mackenzie, N.M. & Petriwskyj, A. (2017). Understanding and supporting young writers: opening the school gate. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42 (2) 78-87.

Mackenzie, N.M. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 34(3), 322-340.

Mackenzie, N.M., & Veresov, N. (2013). How drawing can support writing acquisition: text construction in early writing from a Vygotskian perspective. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(4), 22-29.

Let’s talk about Finland: Lessons learned

In this post I am going to share some observations of my time in Finland in late 2016. For a thorough understanding of the Finnish education system I recommend that you read:

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. New York: Teachers College Press

25 years ago, Finland’s education system was not considered to be anything special – they made a conscious decision to create a system that was based upon equity. They looked at other systems for ideas, but then they decided to follow their own dream. Peruskoulu is the term used to describe comprehensive school from Years 1– 9 (compulsory schooling goes from ages 7-16).

Now, all children in Finland go to their local school (for free) and there is “little variation in student performance between schools in different parts of the country” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 6).

Before traveling to Finland in 2016 to spend time in schools and preschools, I read Sahlberg’s book and found it fascinating, but . . . I had this underlying idea that while the Finnish system was impressive, we couldn’t apply their processes here in Australia.  However, having been there in August/Sept 2016 and read Sahlberg’s book for the second time I think we can learn some important lessons from Finland that may make a difference to the learning opportunities for Australian children.

Finland has a smaller population than Australia.  True – but we have state education systems and the only Australian state bigger than Finland is NSW and it isn’t that much bigger. I wonder . . . who would dare?

Finland is not multicultural like Australia. Absolutely true – although they are taking more refugees and things are changing.

But did you know there are three official languages – Finnish, Swedish and Sami and most also speak some English? Finnish is the main language of education, with English introduced in Year 3 (by main stream classroom teachers and taught throughout primary school) and Swedish taught at high school. Many Finnish students leave school with Finnish plus two other languages (Swedish and English). Impressive!

Teaching as a profession is highly regarded and there is stiff competition to be accepted into a 5 year Research based Teacher Education Course. Teacher Education is free, but it is highly competitive. In 2016, the new intake of 90 into the Teacher Education Course at University of Lapland (where I was visiting) had been selected from 1000 applicants. Teachers are respected in the same way as doctors are in Finland. Why not in Australia? What could we do to ensure that Australian teachers were equally well regarded?

Teachers are respected for their knowledge and they are given a great deal of professional freedom – teacher judgement and formative assessment processes are pivotal. Teachers interpret the curriculum to meet the needs of their students. Primary schools teachers usually teach students for at least two years, giving them time to know their students and understand their learning needs. They do swap students to other classes if they feel that the student needs a different teacher.

Teachers in Finland teach less – the Primary School Day (at the schools I visited) goes from 8am-1pm, leaving the afternoon for planning, preparation and professional development.

“In Finland, teachers teach less and students spend less time studying, both in and out of school, than their peers in other countries” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 14).

I saw no wasted time in these shorter school days. Teaching is quite focused during each 45 minute lesson – I did not ever see a teacher NOT teaching during lesson time – whole class, small group or individual. Many lessons are conducted orally (class and group conversations) with a small amount of book work towards the end of the lesson. The only homework students have is the completion of book work (started in class but not completed). Primary school student who are efficient workers may never have homework.

The school assemblies I observed were limited to one per week – whole school – 10 minutes – the principal was the only speaker – short and sharp.

Starting school – the year children turn 7 in Finland, they start school. My observations of children starting school in August 2016, they are ready to go to school and ready to cope with the expectations of the teachers – they know how to listen, they know how to concentrate, they know how to engage, they know how to communicate, they know how to collaborate. There doesn’t seem to be a rush to get children reading and writing although the process starts on day one of the first year of school. Teachers refer to 9 year old students as ‘beginner readers and writers’.

Free hot lunches – All children in Finland preschools and schools are provided with a freshly prepared hot meal five days per week. They learn to try new things and eat together. This is the right of every child in Finland. The meals are good. I ate with the children while I was visiting, although I, like the teachers, had to pay a small fee for each meal (about 7 Euros). This is an interesting equity decision. No children bring food to school. All children eat the same food. If they have an allergy, they bring a doctor’s certificate and the school kitchen caters for their needs. I saw little of this. All children are encouraged to try a little of everything – and they do.

Creativity – I was amazed to see so much time devoted to create endeavours – art and handicrafts. The art and craft supplies were beautiful quality and time was provided under the careful guidance of the preschool and classroom teachers. Children developed their fine motor skills through these activities as well as their creativity. A recent post on the EduResearch Matters by Susan Davis (UCQ) challenged us to consider how Arts education fosters creativity and innovation –

“Creativity and innovation involves putting things together in new ways, it involves risk-taking, experimenting and refining, valuing the role of productive failure, and it involves making and doing, and is often collaborative and co-creative”.

Extra Support for Learning – Teachers’ aides are highly respected and actively involved in preschools and primary school lessons. Special Education teams are also evident in schools. According to Sahlberg (2015) almost half of all Finnish students “receive some sort of special education, personalised help, or individual guidance during their time in school”. This is a source of pride.

Preschool is free and is for one year only – the year children turn 6 years of age. It is free, and groups of 20 children are guided through preschool by a team of 4 qualified adults. Usually two qualified preschool educators and two qualified aides. Preschool is organised around play – half of the four hours daily is free play and the other half is structured play. However, free play has structure created by the resources that are provided. Board games, Jig saw puzzles and creative activities dominate although there are the usual Barbie Dolls, Home Corner, Lego and outside activities. Literacy instruction is restricted to learning how to read and write your name and to read and write the letters of the alphabet in Upper Case letters. There is no rush to learn to read or write, although about 25% of children ‘accidentally learn to read at preschool’.

What do children learn at preschool? Dispositions for learning that stand them in good stead for school:

  • Creativity
  • Concentration
  • Collaboration
  • Communication (includes listening skills)
  • You start something, you finish it

Our children can be at school from 4 ½ with Foundation classrooms often including children from 4 ½ to 6. Why couldn’t we model what we do in the first year of school on the Finnish Preschool with a greater focus on Play (structured and unstructured), Creativity and the development of Learning Dispositions and less on measurable outcomes? Why is play at school only what happens at recess and lunch?

These are my thoughts about some on the things I observed in Finland in 2016. It is interesting to note that the Finnish economy has also improved over the past 25 years along side their education system.

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

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.

Part 2 of the survey findings

In the last blog I finished with a question to get you thinking about handwriting and memory. The study I was referring to was conducted in Norway in 2015. Mangen, Anda, Oxborough and Brønnick tested a group of 19-54 year old volunteers. The task involved a comparison of how many words the participants could remember after writing them down. The participants were tested on a computer keyboard, a tablet and by hand. All of the study participants could remember more words that they had written by hand, than on the computer or the tablet. Fascinating!

[Mangen, A., Anda, L. G., Oxborough, G. H., & Brønnick, K. (2015). Handwriting versus keyboard writing: Effect on word recall. Journal of writing research, 7(2), 227-247. ]

Have you noticed how you can write a shopping list, leave it at home or in the car, and still remember most of what you wrote on the list? Did you study by writing things down by hand? Do you take notes by hand in meetings or on a tablet?  So why might we remember more that we write by hand? According to Kiefer and others (2015), it is

‘the meaningful coupling between action and perception during handwriting, which establishes sensory-motor memory traces’.

[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.]

This may also help to explain why learning to form or construct letters helps children to learn their letters.

Handwriting is more than a simple fine motor task. Handwriting requires:

  • performance in perceptual-motor skills,
  • motor planning,
  • visual perception,
  • visual-motor integration,
  • bilateral hand skills,
  • in hand manipulation,
  • kinesthesia,
  • sustained attention,
  • sensory processing, and
  • the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip

[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. ]

Handwriting is something that humans have engaged with since the 8th Century BC, although initially handwriting was largely a monastic discipline rather than a skill learned and applied by the masses. Scribes re-created books, usually religious manuscripts. Interestingly the invention of the printing press did not lead to the demise of handwriting – in fact quite the opposite happened. Today more people have the skill to express themselves by hand than ever before.

However, writing is not a natural extension of spoken language. We are not biologically predisposed to write like we are to communicate using spoken language. Writing must be taught, and learned, and perhaps in the future, handwriting will become part of our history rather than our present. But – in the here and now, handwriting is possibly the most portable and equitable form of written communication, particularly in Australian classrooms.  

Back to the survey. One of the questions I asked related to the future of Cursive Writing – or joined letters. Teaching Cursive writing is still a requirement on the Australian Curriculum. The descriptor for year 3 states:

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

Joined letters are also mentioned in the descriptor for year 4, although in years 5-7 the emphasis is on personal style, fluency, automaticity and by year 7 the ability to ‘write for extended periods’.

  • While 82% of retired teachers who responded to the survey indicated that cursive writing should still be taught in school, only 58% of current teachers agreed.

This finding suggests a shift in attitude in recent times. In a previous blog posting I discussed how Finland’s new curriculum, introduced in August 2016, no longer included Cursive Writing. However, correct letter formation and handwriting instruction is still explicitly taught in preschools (Capital letters) and the first two-three years of school (printing) with the aim of automaticity and legibility in handwriting.(Don’t forget, children in Finland start preschool the year they turn 6 and school in the August of the year they turn 7, which means they have explicit handwriting instruction from 6 -10 years of age as a minimum.)

There seems to be a commitment in Finland to teaching handwriting skills (printing) and keyboarding. Keyboarding is not seen as a replacement for handwriting, rather it is an extra skill necessary in contemporary times. The early years classrooms I visited in 2016 (Years 1 and 2) were mainly focused on handwriting with a little keyboarding experience (shared class sets of laptops and tablets). Interestingly, one of the year 2 classes had a class set of high quality laptops that had been bought by the local university. This class had been introduced to the laptops from the start of school (Year 1). The children were very familiar with the laptops, and the teacher was very positive and confident in her ability to support the students’ use of the laptops.

I asked the teacher to invite her class to do some writing for me as part of my research, and to give the children the choice of writing by hand or on the laptops. Only 6/20 of the children chose to write on the laptops. 2/6 had computer problems associated with their laptop or the server and the teacher spent considerable time sorting out these technical problems. One child lost most of her story. The remaining 14 students wrote their stories by hand.

While in Finland they seem to start with handwriting and then add keyboarding,  the findings from my survey indicate mixed understandings of whether or not handwriting proficiency is necessary before a focus on keyboarding skills

  • 61% of teachers, 61% of retired teachers and 42% of parents think this is not necessary to teach handwriting first, although 21% of teachers, 22% of retired teachers and 48% of parents believe children should be proficient at handwriting before being introduced to keyboarding instruction.


  • Most teachers (66%), retired teachers (62%) and parents (57%) suggested that keyboarding should only be taught in upper primary school. That leaves a lot who do not agree.

We know that from quite a young age children can spend up to half of their school day involved in some kind of writing – across disciplines. So, to expect them to use keyboards or tablets from the start of school means:

  • that all children would need access to working, up to date computers (and for small children these would need to be suitable for small hands and fingers);
  • the technology would need to be combined with appropriate furniture so that children can sit comfortably for long periods of time looking at a computer screen (my Osteopath tells me he sees lots of young adolescents who are having neck and shoulder problems from spending so much time looking down at screens – phones and tablets);
  • all schools would have the funds to provide the ongoing IT support to do the trouble shooting to ensure the computers are trouble free;
  • all schools would have up to date software and the funds to continually replace technology that is often out of date not long after it comes out of the packaging;
  • all teacher education courses would be given the time, equipment and staffing to provide teacher education students with the skills they will need to teach touch typing and keyboard use; and
  • all teachers would have the necessary skills and ongoing PD support to teach ‘touch typing’ and efficient keyboard skills.

When I asked about some of these things in the survey, these were the responses in regard to availability of computers or tablets in Australian classrooms:

  • Only 37.6% of teachers who responded to the survey, said they had enough computers for each child in their class; a further 10.4% had enough computers for most children and a further 14% had computers for half their class. That means that 38% of teachers who responded could not provide even half their children with computers. 14.8% claimed to only have 2-3 computers in their rooms. Some who said they could access a class set of computers, said that these computers were in a computer lab, shared by other classes. Often they were timetabled to visit the computer lab only once per week.
  • While 56.7% of teachers said they felt they had the skills to teach keyboarding skills – that means 43.3% do not.
  • Only 40.8% of teachers said they liked teaching keyboarding skills which means 59.2% do not.
  • Only 2.7% of teachers said they had received any PD relating to the teaching of keyboarding skills in the past 5 years. Mind you, only 9.9% had received any PD related to the teaching of handwriting in the past 5 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons teachers are so unsure about this important topic.

So let’s be practical: I am quite torn to be honest. I think we should teach our children both handwriting and keyboarding skills, because I know how I use both skills every day (and I wish I had been taught to touch type).

Our children need to be able to write efficiently, as there is strong evidence to indicate that writing is the literacy skill of consequence in the 21st century (Brandt, 2015).

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

However, unless there is a massive amount of funding (ongoing – not just a one off) for computer technology and teacher PD it is crazy to think that teachers are going to be able to have their students doing all their writing on computers in the near future.

In a study conducted by Connelly and others (2007) they found that without specific keyboard instruction, children were faster at handwriting . . . in addition they found that the quality of written texts from children in years 5 and 6 were poorer than their handwritten ones but postulated that it was due to fluency and would thus be improved with more keyboard instruction.

[Connelly, V., Gee, D., & Walsh, E. (2007). A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 479-492.]

In the meantime, we must continue to teach students how to write efficiently and automatically by hand, so that they can express themselves meaningfully in written language and fully engage in the learning opportunities provided at school (as per the requirements of the Australian Curriculum). While we want children to also learn how to use computers efficiently, particularly as a resource for information, we just don’t have the resources for keyboarding to be their only system of writing at this point in time. That means teachers and teacher education students need to receive a clear message about the importance of continuing to teach handwriting to young children.

Early literacy development has been shown, through a series of neurological experiments, to be facilitated by handwriting or tracing letters as these contribute to the kinaesthetic gestural memory of word and letter recognition.

[Bara, F., Gentaz, E., Colé, P., & Sprenger-Charolles, L. (2004). The visuo-haptic and haptic exploration of letters increases the kindergarten-children’s understanding of the alphabetic principle. Cognitive Development, 19(3), 433-449.]

To finish off this blog with another teaser, ‘How do we even know that we will be using keyboards in another 10 years, perhaps we will see ‘voice recognition’ or ‘digital ink’ (which requires handwriting) as the system of choice or something we haven’t even thought of yet? So what is ‘digital ink‘? Do you use it?

If you find the blog interesting, please share the link with colleagues, friends, a teacher you think may be interested, parents of young children or even your local school. Noella

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

Learning to (hand)write in Finland

Learning to write in Finland starts in the very first week of Year 1. In Finland children start school the year they turn seven and the school year starts in August, meaning some are 7 1/2 before they start.  The school day is quite short (8am-1pm) and children are in classes of 20 children. The short school day and small classes continues throughout primary school. Children start Year 1 with a teacher who will also teach them in Year 2. Teachers all have 5 year Masters Degrees.

The term ’writing’ refers to any/all forms of text creation including early mark-making, scribble, drawing, painting, writing with letters, words and or sentences, and multi-modal and digital text creation (e.g, drawing plus talking, drawing plus writing). Handwriting is an important ‘secretarial’ skill that facilitates written communication.

Handwriting has been defined by Dinehart (2015) as ‘the ability to produce writing quickly and legibly‘.

Handwriting in Finland: I was interested to see that handwriting instruction started in the very first week of the first year of school. The instruction was very specific and daily. As the children mostly knew all the capital letters  the teachers started to introduce lower case letters in the very first week, while they checked the way they wrote their upper case letters.

Daily handwriting practice opportunities provided in a variety of ways – e.g. with paint and paint brush, apps on a computer tablet, small blackboards and white boards and in a writing book. The teacher watched closely and corrected any poor formations or poor pencil grip. I noted that most children had a good pencil grip.

Teachers told me that children learn how to hold a pencil when they draw. They do a lot of drawing at preschool and this continues into school. I noticed that the children’s drawings were creative and detailed.

Special pencils provided: I noted that all children were provided with pencils designed to make it easy to develop good pencil grip.They are thick and triangular, with round cut-outs that make them easy to grip correctly. I have seen them in some good toy shops and office/art supplies places in Australia but not provided by schools.

Children (aged 7) were keen to develop their ability to write well.

It is interesting to note the use of Copy Books. While these can be helpful, they can also be a trap. If children copy incorrectly they can develop bad habits. For these books to be helpful, the teacher must provide very clear demonstrations of ‘where to start and which way to go’ and then check that the child is forming the letter correctly. While the arrows provided may appear to overcome the need for vigilance, that is not the case. The teachers in these classrooms were checking children to ensure they were starting in the right place and correctly forming the letters. Only a small number of children were working in the books at the same time. I observed explicit handwriting instruction in Year 1, 2 and 3 classrooms.

No more Cursive Writing in Finland’s schools: Finland started a new Curriculum in August 2016. While children in the past were taught to print in years 1 and 2 and introduced to Cursive writing in Year 3, that is no longer the case. I observed as a Year 2 teacher explained to her students how writing in Finland’s schools was changing. She showed them what she described as ‘old fashioned writing‘. Then she showed them Finnish Cursive that children in the past were taught from Year 3.The children were disappointed to discover that they would not be learning cursive or ‘Running Writing‘.

Keyboarding or typing is gradually introduced in the primary schools. This is new for most as in the past it was not a requirement of the curriculum. While some classrooms had access to computers, often these were shared across classes. The computer comfort of the teachers varied greatly but this is a new focus for Finland.

Next week I will share a little about how the timetable is organised in Finnish Year 1 and 2 classes and start sharing some of the findings from the Handwriting and Keyboarding survey that many of you contributed to last year.

What about Finland?

Well it was a long time coming, but I can finally start to share some of the findings of my Handwriting and Keyboarding survey with you. However, before I start with the survey findings I want to report on my visit to Finland in August and September 2016.

What about Finland?

I was lucky enough to spend five weeks visiting schools and preschools in one of the most beautiful parts of the world that I have ever had the good fortune to visit. At preschool and school all children are provided with a hot meal for lunch that is prepared at the school.  All children eat the lunch that is provided. If they have special dietary requirements, the school kitchen can cater for these. Children do not take any food to preschool or school. Lunch is served cafeteria style and children sit at tables and eat with a knife and fork. Children are encouraged to try a little of everything. While visiting, I ate the school lunches and was very impressed with the food and the way the children conducted themselves.


In Finland children go to Preschool the year that they turn six. The school year begins in August as does the preschool year. Six year old children attend preschool every day for four hours for one year and there is no cost to parents. The preschool classrooms I visited had two qualified Early Childhood teachers and two qualified Early Childhood assistants for a class of 20 six year old children. The preschool program is play based and so children spend their day engaged in both structured and unstructured play activities. This varies from: construction with Lego; playing with dolls in the home corner; playing a variety of board-games; completing jig saw puzzles; listening to stories along with creative pursuits like craft, drawing and painting.

At preschool children are taught how to write their names in capital letters. They are also taught the alphabet in capital letters. Preschool is not the place to focus on learning to read, write, or formally engage in mathematics; that starts in school.

The atmosphere is relaxed but busy and very positive. It seemed to me that children would come out of preschool with some very important skills and messages to take with them to school. I have listed these below, in no particular order.

  1. Listening skills – children learn to be active listeners through the conversations they have with adults and other children as well as listening to stories.
  2. Attentiveness and concentration – I observed children playing the same board game for 45 minutes and others who worked in pairs or small groups to complete quite complex jig saw puzzles.
  3. Perseverance – you finish what you start, and then you clean up. If you are playing a board game, you don’t give up because you aren’t winning, you finish the game and the winner packs the game away.
  4. Sense of self as a learner – children seem to demonstrate positive self-esteem without appearing over confident. The feedback they receive is based on ‘having a go’ not getting the best score. They are however normal children, so there is always some healthy competition. There is no ‘testing’ but the teachers interview each child from time to time to find out what things they would like to explore.
  5. Creativity – children are encouraged to draw, paint and to make things using craft materials. They are provided with beautiful quality resources (e.g. pastels and paints) and are given the time and support to be creative.
  6. The alphabet (in capital letters) and how to write their names (also in Capital letters). While the program is very relaxed, children are exposed to writing and reading and teachers told me that 25% children ‘accidentally learn to read and write’ at preschool.
  7. Fine motor skills develop through the drawing, craft and art activities. Interestingly, children are taught how to hold a pencil during drawing rather than writing. They do far more drawing than writing at this stage in their learning and drawing provides lots of opportunities to develop pencil grip, without the pressures of learning to write at the same time
  8. How to work with books – children listen to stories and handle books in a very relaxed way.
  9. Respect for their teachers and other children.

While none of the above are surprising, I remind you, that these children are in preschool the year they turn six years of age and given that the school year starts in August, many can be 6 ½ before starting preschool.  My next posting will look at starting school in Finland and discuss how writing is introduced to children in the first year of school.