It's a bit of a lazy one this week (mostly because I am so far behind schedule from marking some... tests. I can't say any more about it! If you would rather listen to this week's blog post, it is available as a podcast! Search for Mr M's Musings: The Podcast from your provider of choice!
A few days ago, I posted something on Twitter that I honestly didn’t expect too much of a reaction to. I simply asked for people’s opinion on handwriting; whether it still had a legitimate compulsory place in the curriculum in the 21st Century.
I got some very interesting responses.
Let’s start with my personal journey with handwriting. I am a left-handed boy, a condition which was considered tantamount to a curse in the late 80s and early 90s. I was told that I would need specialist stationary to be able to write with the cartridge pen my primary school insisted upon. When this (expensive) pen, which was apparently designed to allow the ink to dry more quickly (spoiler alert: it didn’t), failed to do its job and I still ended up with a murky blue sleeve and a page of nothing but smeared gobbledygook, I was told that I would ‘have to use a handwriting pen’. One of those horrible Beryl ones.
I felt like a freak.
Everyone else in the class had cartridge pens but I was different. Fortunately, it didn’t stop me writing (although I begged and begged to be allowed to use a pencil). To this day, I give Year 6 children pencils instead of pens (they can bring their own, but marking 30 books written in pencil is far nicer on the eye).
So handwriting has always been a thorny issue for me. Mine has always been terrible. I mean, I can read it but I know it’s not great. And it wasn’t great all the way through school. It wasn’t illegible or anything but it wasn’t as neat as it could have been. Why? Because I wasn’t taught properly.
I can say this with confidence because during my PGCE, we were taught how to teach handwriting and I found myself learning from scratch how to properly form lead-in strokes. Now, I can write very neatly with both my right and my left hand, especially if I’m at the whiteboard (it impressed the children, at least). But… I don’t know though. If my handwriting was legible, did it need to be improved? And was there, in fact, a legitimate reason for my bad handwriting as a child? Are girls just neater than boys? And does bad handwriting equate to poor education?
Let’s look at the final point first. I have recently been marking some, erm, highly sensitive materials. I can’t tell you what they are and I certainly can’t mention that a lot of children in England may have very recently submitted said materials. Like last week submitted. It’s all very hush hush so I can’t divulge; but I have noticed that neater handwriting seems to correlate with higher marks. Not because I can read the answers more clearly, the actual content of the answers themselves are often better thought through in the neater test scripts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is any causation behind the correlation but it is an interesting correlation and one that flies in the face of a very popular Twitter response of ‘doctors have terrible handwriting and they are very successful.’ I wonder when, if ever, this switch over occurs? Or is nothing causative?
@thinkpix_suze was kind enough to share that, as an assessor, she knows that handwriting impacts outcomes for students and that she can always tell when schools have given time and care to handwriting. But then @bea_ruthie, a senior examiner, told me that she spends a lot of time reminding her team that neat handwriting does not necessarily equate to high-level responses. Both ladies agreed (along with many, many others) that, when we talk about handwriting, it's fluency and legibility that count, and that emotive words like 'neat' can be frustrating for students who beat themselves up about it. The overall conclusion was that purposeful handwriting practice, practise that teaches the mechanics of it, is worthwhile.
But is it? Many people (myself included) pointed out that we live in a digital age where even dictation software is being ubiquitous. Ben Levinson OBE (@mrlev) called handwriting practise a ‘total, disproportionate waste of time and energy’. Adding that it was ‘a lazy proxy for all sorts of things because understanding real learning is hard’. By this, he was good enough to clarify, he meant that handwriting has a halo effect on children’s overall attitude towards learning. Messy handwriting? The child obviously doesn’t put in enough effort with their work. I have to say, this is more true than I would like to admit. As teachers, how many times have we talked about a ‘neat’ copy? or told a child that, while their work is good, it could be neater (a comment that @elonorasafalcon ruined her relationship with her teacher)? @mrlev also said that handwriting was ‘massively over-emphasised in schools given the impact [it] will have on children’s lives’ and this I can accept. We’re back to word processing and dictation again.
But where does that leave children on the wrong side of the digital divide? Word processing is great if you happen to have access to a computer or phone, but, according to a report from the University of Cambridge, one fifth of every family in the UK still lack one or both of these things. For those children, @ElspethFroude1 pointed out, handwriting is still the most accessible form of communication for learning. However, instruction and practice is needed to develop legible fluent handwriting. A sentiment that was echoed by @mathswithin10 who argued that, since handwriting is one of a very few areas compulsory amount of time dedicated to it
But how much instruction and practise is needed? Some schools insist on up to three hours a week in KS2 and 5 in KS1. Is that a good use of time in an already overcrowded curriculum? @MorrellsHand suggests that 10 minutes every day, with a quality handwriting scheme that actually instructs the child how to write, should be sufficient. I think it’s only fair to point out that @MorellsHand is a company that sells handwriting instruction books.
Perhaps this is a fair suggestion? @thinkpix_suze seemed to agree anyway, suggesting that poor handwriting is entirely a result of not being taught explicitly or often enough. To back this claim up, she mentioned a visit to the dyslexia archives in which she discovered several samples of students’ handwriting from the past all of which were written in beautiful, cursive script.
So it can be taught.
But is the beautiful part necessary?
Not according to many of the Twitter responses. Among whom were @bea_ruthie again, who said that, while legible writing is important, equating neatness with academic ability is a dangerous game. And we find ourselves circling back around to our previous discussion. This is what makes handwriting in the curriculum such a troublesome subject. Everyone agrees that legibility is important and thus proper penmanship needs to be taught but it seems no-one can agree just where the line between neat-for-the-sake-of-it and legible lies.
Let’s try attacking it from a different angle. @teach_frances argues that handwriting is merely a secretarial skill and doesn’t enhance learning. But a very rudimentary Google search will return hundreds of articles on how writing things out by hand improves memory, aids revision and builds intellect. But the studies I looked at all seemed to be working on the assumption that the research subjects had already mastered handwriting to some extent. What happens when there is a real barrier for learning in the first place? Children with SEND, poor fine motor skills due to monotropism, or who are neurologically divergent (children in the autism spectrum, for instance) have been found to concentrate too much on how they are writing instead of what they are writing. According to @teach_frances it takes a really inclusive school to accommodate this and that, depending on the child, a mixture of scribing, writing and typing should be implemented.
However, just giving a laptop to a child without lessons on how to use it effectively typing is not the answer. Proper typing, like proper handwriting, is a skill that needs to be taught and practised. And we’re then back to when this instruction happens. I will say this though, as a computing lead teacher for a decade, children need to be taught how to type. All children, not just those on the SEND register who might find it easier than handwriting.
But what about that legitimate reason for my bad handwriting as a child? Is there any science to back it up?
@MorrellsHand said that poor handwriting is caused by many different factors but usually from starting too early & pushing too hard & fast without the basics of human development in place. Apparently, according to the science, it starts at birth - Caesarean-section births can result in a lower retention rate of primitive reflexes, and that support and training in pre-writing skills is critical from the very early years of education.
Now, I agree with the ‘critical from EYFS’ part but let’s back up a little to ‘C-section babies have their handwriting affected’. What? I assume this meant a delay in fine-motor skills in general, not specifically handwriting but still, a C-section is more likely to result in lower fine motor skills sounds like a brave statement to put on Twitter (with no citation). So I had a look myself and I found a study in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education from 2012 that found that “caesarean-born children had a 14% higher risk of being identified as being developmentally high risk at school starting age”.
What!? My child was a C-section baby! And he’s a boy! AND he’s probably going to be left-handed! Does he even have a hope?
Not according to Nicole Ponsford who wrote an article for RISE - an online quarterly collaborative magazine for ideas, inspiration and shared learning. She found some research that showed a physiological difference between the wrist bones of boys and girls when starting school. It’s all to do with the ossification centre of the elbow, which can affect how the wrist pivots, and has a knock-on effect when it comes to correctly forming lead-in joins for cursive handwriting.
Get this, studies have shown that it happens in girls before boys! What the hell!?
If there is a biological reason that boys’ handwriting doesn’t develop as quickly as girls’, then it makes sense that dedicated, discrete handwriting practise continues throughout Primary education (there is even an argument that it should continue into Secondary, as this ossification can sometimes happen as late as 12 or 13). It also makes sense that girls’ handwriting is neater than boys’, since they have had more time to perfect it. Perhaps my assumptions about neater writing belonging to more intelligent girls isn’t so hideously sexist after all? They’ve been physically able to write for longer and have thus had more time to practise and get it perfect. Perhaps, in the name of equity, they should be held to a higher standard of presentation?
But that’s obviously nonsense! There are already far too many social norms that judge girls on how they look (I mean, I hope they’re decreasing but I don’t see any evidence of it), surely we should be able to take penmanship off that list? And anyway, if this elbow pivot thing delays the ability to write in perfect cursive, why not just throw that away?
Because, unfortunately, we can’t. The National Curriculum states that children need to develop the physical skills needed for fluent, legible and speedy handwriting as early as Key Stage 1, meaning that those elbow ossification reliant lead-in strokes are a statutory requirement from as young as 5-years-old. By the time the children hit 8- 9-years old, joined handwriting, we are instructed, should be ‘the norm’.
So, in schools in England at least, the issue of handwriting needing to be neatly joined and pleasing to the eye isn’t going to be going away any time soon. Hopefully my boy will have his mother’s handwriting skills.
I haven’t even had time to get into pen licences! I guess I’ll throw that out as a final thing. What’s your opinion on restricting the use of pens for writing until the children have passed some arbitrary test? Does your school only give them out after a certain age? Do you, like me, prefer pencils anyway? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time, remember: you can do this. You're awesome!