In the age of computers, many parents and teachers ask why handwriting remains important.
There are two key reasons why: the first is that automaticity in handwriting helps us write better content; and the second is that handwriting helps us to learn what we write.
Children need to achieve automaticity in their letter production. Automaticity is being able to write and create letters without needing to think about the act of writing the letters themselves – instead, we’re able to give cognitive attention to the content of what we’re writing.
If children are not automatic in their letter production, it interferes with their ability to compose written text and this will affect their learning right across the curriculum, throughout their school lives.
Being able to produce letters automatically frees children to write what they need to write across the whole curriculum. It is much more important than neatness.
Handwriting also helps some aspects of learning in ways typing doesn’t. Writing letters by hand helps young learners to develop their phonological awareness and phonics skills.
For older children, the act of writing notes by hand helps fix ideas in their minds, with studies showing better recall of information when it’s been handwritten, rather than typed.
As we write by hand, we select the key information and process that information. Typing makes it easier just to record a “script” – without processing the information.
Despite this, a survey conducted last year by Berol and Paper Mate as part of the Write Your Future Campaign showed that a third of teachers (31 per cent) spent less than 30 minutes teaching handwriting each week. It is vital to make the most of this time and to check that children produce the right letter movements.
So, what can be done to boost children’s handwriting?
1. Start with a name
Start handwriting with the letters that matter most: those in the child’s own name. Early years teachers have put out laminated name cards and found nursery and Reception children loved tracing, copying, decorating and naming the letters in their names again and again.
2. Practise letter movements
The correct letter movement is what counts, not just producing a neat letter. Children get better at producing letters by practising letter movements: big letters on walls; little letters in shaving foam; letters in sand, jelly and on paper. Rainbow letters with several colours and random patterns of letters are all good practice. Practise saying letter names with the letter movement to build that association. Watch your children write and check their movements, not their neatness.
The same is true of joins between letters. If children learn the correct movements for basic joins, they will use them efficiently.
3. Plan handwriting into every day
Every topic can accommodate a little chance to practise writing. Incorporate handwriting practice into each and every day for beginner and more experienced handwriters. For example, ask young children to "sign in" on the register rather than taking the register verbally each morning, even when you can’t read the finished signature. Dramatic play areas can include short writing opportunities like taking orders in the restaurantor filling in forms in shops. For older writers, build in regular practice time and vary the content.
4. Cover handwriting little and often
For more experienced writers, five minutes of handwriting practice a day is better than one 25-minute session per week. Demonstrate letter formations and joins, but don’t just spend handwriting time "copying" lines of letters. Use letter dice or spinners to generate random sequences of letters and practise these. This activity really improves letter production. A handwriting “blast” to see how many times children can write each combination of letters in 20 seconds is a fun way to build automaticity.
5. Play with the senses and provide visual aids
Support familiarity with the motor skills of letter formation through setting practice exercises in different ways. Try getting children to write letters with their eyes closed. You can get them to practise on different surfaces, such as writing with chalk on the playground or in the mud with a stick. You can also support the visual awareness and spatial recognition required for handwriting by providing different types, colours, textures and shapes of paper.
6. Reward all writing
Children need to build confidence in their writing ability; make sure you nurture this early on with positive feedback and rewards. Encourage young scribblers, who are learning how pens, pencils, chalks and crayons "feel". Display writing on a wall that reflects good effort or achievement. Respond to the content of what children write to send the message that writing is important. Build positive feelings about the act of writing, wanting to write and, through this, learning how to control a pencil (or chalk, pen,or paintbrush).
Dr Jane Medwell is a leading academic in the field of handwriting and literacy and director of postgraduate research at the University of Nottingham. Dr Medwell works with the Write Your Future Campaign – created to champion the importance of handwriting