We need to talk about handwriting

Pencils, pens and paper remain relevant

Despite the widespread uptake of word processing from the 1980s, the rapid rise of the
Internet in the early 2000s, and more recently the increased use of laptops and other digital
devices people continue to write by hand each day. Handwriting remains entrenched
because pens and pencils are low cost, portable, easily stored, and enable unobtrusive note
taking as a memory prompt or when interacting with or listening to others.

I became interested in handwriting as a primary teacher and later as a curriculum officer
with the Victorian Department of Education. As the Department’s Handwriting Project
Leader for five years, I researched and wrote the curriculum guide The Teaching of
Handwriting, first published in 1985. This guide introduced the handwriting style Victorian
Modern Cursive into Victorian schools. The style was officially adopted in the Northern
Territory in 1991 and in Western Australian schools in 1993. Extensive research over this
five-year period also led to my B.A. (Hons) in Psychology thesis The development of
automaticity in children’s handwriting. Later, Christine Evely and I developed workbooks
and resources to support the teaching of handwriting.

Handwriting skills today
I am a teacher trained psychologist. I work with teachers, many other professionals and
children, and keep abreast of handwriting research. I am especially interested in identifying
the components of handwriting styles that promote legibility and fluency of movement, and
teaching strategies that help students to develop the automaticity needed for a resilient and
effective personal handwriting style. I invite you to read on, and then complete a survey.

I am currently keen to investigate the strengths and limitations of the recommended
handwriting styles in Australia, in conjunction with Matilda Education. The experience and
expertise of primary teachers, as an individual or team, will provide valuable information,
and every participating school will receive one full set of Kids Rules books valued at $291.50 from Matilda Education. Note there is a limit of one set per school. If you are not a primary teacher, please forward where appropriate.

Kids Rule! Pack

In 2022 I attended the Science of Written Expression an International Conference hosted
online by the Handwriting Collaborative, Columbus, Ohio. This three-day conference
brought together academics, educators, psychologists and clinicians from around the world,
including Australia. More than thirty sessions focused on topics associated with
handwriting. The skills of pre-schoolers, primary and secondary students and adults were
discussed, including how to remediate the illegible handwriting of emergency hospital
doctors!

Interesting take-aways from the Ohio conference

  • Keyboarding, while an important skill, is not the most effective tool for text creation
    for young children who craft their way into writing through drawing and
    handwriting.
  • Handwriting is a major pathway to literacy and learning for pre-schoolers and early-
    to-mid primary students and beyond. There is a strong correlation between the
    learning of letter formation and the building of knowledge about letter-sound
    representation.
  • Keyboarding in the early years presents difficulties. It can be problematic for young
    children to use a keyboard confidently because their hand size, two-handed
    coordination and finger dexterity generally aren’t sufficiently developed. 1
  • Many students mix print and cursive in daily writing. The idea that handwriting does
    not need to be fully joined to enable effective writing requires further investigation.
  • Learning joined handwriting presents opportunities for students to think about and
    practise common letter combinations and sequences when spelling English words.
  • Learning to spell effectively requires knowledge in phonology (the study of speech
    sounds), morphology (the study of words and their parts), and etymology (the
    history of English words).
  • An efficient and effective handwriting style can have a far-reaching positive effect on
    academic success, self-esteem, and confidence.
  • When children achieve automaticity in their handwriting it frees up higher-level
    thinking and composing processes.
  • Handwriting is a complex task, but once mastered students who write by hand
    legibly, fluently and at speed can usually generate more high-quality written ideas
    across genres.
  • Automatic handwriting enables students to build recall and retention of written
    material, as writing by hand activates cognitive, linguistic, motor and memory areas
    in the brain.
  • Creating and recalling learned material is often assisted by visualising words, phrases
    and sentences (including drawings, lines and arrows, sketches, thoughts, concept
    words and headings) that have been physically written or created on the page.
  • Visual and motor memory can also be assisted by other memory systems, such as
    episodic memory where the time and place of having physically written something
    promotes the recall of information.

Handwriting expectations and literacy achievement of Australian students
The Australia Curriculum (version 9.0) expects students, by upper primary school, to use a
personal handwriting style with increasing speed and accuracy to become confident,
proficient and flexible writers who can use handwriting efficiently in formal and informal
situations. 2

Having a fluent, legible handwriting style is important when writing for extended periods in
formal writing situations such as report writing, and in informal writing situations such as
notetaking. Creating effective notes by hand requires the writer to formulate in their mind
what they wish to recall. It requires them to search for the main ideas in what they are
reading or listening to and identifying interesting or poorly understood information for
further clarification. There is a continuing demand for students to learn note-taking skills.

National assessment data indicates an overall decline in writing achievement of Year 3, 5, 7
and 9 students when completing paper-based NAPLAN writing tests.  Research by Damon
Thomas 3 found a rapid decline in student writing scores between 2011 and 2018.

Would a single, flexible handwriting style help?
Currently five major handwriting styles are taught in Australian schools. These largely print-
based, italic cursive styles were introduced into schools in the 1980s and 1990s when
writing with a cursive hand was highly valued in schools and the community. The State and
Territory based styles are NSW Foundation Style (taught in NSW and the ACT), Victorian
Modern Cursive (taught in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory),
Queensland Modern Cursive, South Australian Modern Cursive and Tasmanian Modern
Cursive.

As well, various overseas influences, along with preferences by schools and individual
teachers for alternative letter shapes have led to additional and hybrid writing styles being
taught in some schools.

Australians are one of the most mobile populations in the world. About 400,000 people
move from one State or Territory to another each year 4 with reports of increases in recent years to about 500,000. Many are primary-age children and hence there can be disruption in learning their initial handwriting style given differing styles taught in Australian schools.

Other factors also impact children’s capacity to effectively learn to use a cursive handwriting
style, such as time spent learning handwriting and spelling proficiency. Additionally, up to
500,000 Australian students have a disability or learning difficulty. Most classroom teachers
report having students with handwriting difficulties, including slow writing speeds that limit
output. Furthermore, schools are often unclear about the expectations they should have for
the standard of children’s handwriting.

Handwriting and keyboarding?
In the early years, teachers can model and demonstrate to children how to form lowercase
letters by hand. This helps students to see how to start and make each letter shape. At the
same time, the teacher and students can say each letter’s name and explore common
sounds associated with each letter in English words. As students learn to trace, copy, write
letters, spell words, write for extended periods, or make notes by hand, they create a motor
and visual memory for letters and words. This improves their retention, recall, writing
fluency, and in turn spelling proficiency and written composition.

Keyboarding is not effective in strengthening visual motor memory and the recall of letter
shape for writing or reading. Many teachers report that young children use the keyboard by
slowly hunting and pecking with one or two fingers. Some young writers find typing
frustrating and disengage from the writing process. 5

It is apparent that touch typing is generally not successfully taught in primary schools. Most
teachers have observed students hunting and pecking on software programs that purport to
promote touch typing. What’s more, there are huge differences in access at home and
school to digital technologies and devices that support keyboarding and touch-typing skills.

Where to from here?

I plan to investigate the strengths and limitations of the five recommended handwriting
styles in Australia, in conjunction with Matilda Education, and invite survey responses
from primary teachers to assist. Teachers from Foundation to Year 6 are encouraged to
respond as an individual or as a learning team. Each participating school will receive one full set of Kids Rules books valued at $291.50 from Matilda Education. Note there is a limit of one set per school.

I am also keen to explore these further questions:

1. In your experience, what are the key features of a legible, fluent, automatic and
personal handwriting style that supports the ability of students to write for extended
periods in preparation for secondary schooling and beyond?

2. Which teaching strategies and learning conditions promote legibility, fluency, and
automaticity in handwriting?

3. What strategies can teachers use to redress poor handwriting skills, to promote
writing stamina and enhance learner confidence, and positive self-concept?

Please complete and return the survey by Tuesday 16 August 2022.

I plan to report on responses in a Psych4Schools blog later this year, once sufficient
responses are received. I will also write a Psych4Schools ebooklet on Working with children
with handwriting difficulties, and will consider the need to develop a new handwriting style
and workbook series with Matilda Education.

Murray Evely
Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer

 

1 Noella Mackenzie, Handwriting, keyboarding or both? Nmackenz, October 19, 2017
https://noellamackenzie.com/2017/10/19/alea-riverina-murray-181017/

2 Australian Curriculum, National Literacy Learning Progression, Handwriting and keyboarding description
https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/resources/national-literacy-and-numeracy-learning-
progressions/national-literacy-learning-progression/writing/?subElementId=50988&scaleId=50736

3 Thomas, D., Surprising findings from new analysis of declining NAPLAN writing test results, EduResearch
Matters, November 16, 2020.
https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=7870
4 Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2021) Migration, Australia. Statistics on Australia’s international migration,
internal migration (interstate and intrastate), and the population by country of birth 2019-20.
https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/population/migration-australia/latest-release

5 Noella Mackenzie, Handwriting, keyboarding or both? Nmackenz, October 19, 2017

https://noellamackenzie.com/2017/10/19/alea-riverina-murray-181017/

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