Is handwriting important?

In the last 10 years or so of my teaching career I’ve occasionally described myself to (younger)  others as ‘as bit of a dinosaur when it comes to handwriting’.  I came to feel this way as I realised that increasingly handwriting was losing status as a worthy occupation for older students in many of my colleagues’ classrooms.  I also noticed that other (younger) teachers were less inclined to use any form of linked writing themselves.

I remember my grandfather’s letters being perfect examples of what my mother called “copperplate” and my grandmother’s as a stream of connected letters tripping over each other to tell what she’d been up to this week.  I seldom see either style these days and have questioned whether I was out just out of date in thinking that it was still worthwhile to learn to write with a linked style and indeed if the time for practicing any type of handwriting style was gone for good.  

I mentioned this at a meeting of our ICT group last year, and one of the group did some research into this question.  I came across this pile of readings again recently and was reminded about the issue.  As we move towards increasing our use of digital technologies in learning I thought it timely to consider the place of learning to communicate with a basic biro.

There is research that supports teaching children to write by hand and some of this was presented at “Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit” in Washington DC during 2012.  Researchers found that when children are taught to write by hand, and spend time practicing their alphabet letter writing skills, they are able to write more letters and words than those who have not had this teaching and practice.  These children go on to write more imaginative stories with better structure.

When children spend time practicing the correct formation of individual letters, they become intimately familiar with the letter.  This familiarity allows them to instantly recognise it when they see it already written down, and to effortlessly form the letter in their own writing.  Once we can carry out a task without thinking about it, whether be it be reading, writing, driving or something else, we can be said to be doing it fluently, or automatically.  

It is very important that children develop fluency (or automaticity) in reading and writing, as this frees up their short term memory to focus on the more important thinking that needs to be done, such as working out what the words mean, or planning what happens next in the story.  Children who do not need to think about which way round a letter goes, or how to draw it, can focus on the characters, the plot and the interesting descriptive language that makes a reader want to read more.  We can help our children write better stories (and articles or reports) by teaching handwriting and allowing them time to practice until they can write fluently.

Of course much more can be said and I haven’t even mentioned learning to type. For now, that, will have to wait.  



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