Learning is....
Planting a seed in our brain... learning to
water, nurture and grow it.... so we ca
n live on the fruit of our learning
and plant more seeds.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Handwriting - is it still relevant?

I might be a bit old school, but I like handwriting.  At school, when I was in form one and two, I went to great trouble each week as I published stories to do my best presentation and to spice it up a bit.  One week I'd publish in my best linked cursive style in black biro, the next all in capital letters (with my best punctuation) in green biro, to the next in the smallest possible printing in blue pen that would cause Mr Metcalf to get out his microscope to read it.

An example of some of the different handwriting styles I vary between depending on my mood and audience.
Now-a-days my best party trick in class is to write from an upside down position to impress the kids.  It's hard work getting those 'e', 's' and '3' the right way round!

I've seen a lot of debates in recent years about whether or not teaching handwriting is relevant or not in today's modern society full of digital devices.  I am going to state that I think it is still relevant and I will also show how I teach it.

I think handwriting is relevant because there will always be a need to write.  When I think of the last few weeks about when I have had to handwrite outside of work time these instances came up:
  • taking phone messages
  • filling out my car registration form at the Post Office 
  • writing in a birthday card
  • signing a petition of support for rest home caregivers
  • signing a petition against the TPPA
  • leaving a note for someone who wasn't home
  • shopping list
  • signing permission for veterinary care for cats
In school time:
  • feedback on students' books
  • notes to keep teachers informed about how their class went during the day
  • writing instructions and marking on the board
  • correcting spelling
  • filling out a form for Novopay (despite them having all my details already)
  • signing in and out at the school office
Quite simply, there is always going to be a time and a place for each and everyone of us to write something by hand.  Digital devices will never be able to do everything (touch wood).

I believe it is important children learn how to write a letter.  I believe it is important that children can write cards and notes for birthdays and Christmas.  I believe that children should know how to take a written message when someone phones for someone who is not home.  I believe it is important to teach children how to fill out forms using capital letters only as there are times when this will be required.  I believe it is important for children to know that there are numerous reasons that they need to write on a daily basis without even thinking about it.  I believe that all children can learn to write legibly and I believe it is an in class activity, not a homework activity.

I believe that learning to print, flick and link as you progress through the learning to write journey is important for fine motor skill development, learning to spell, learning to read and for organising ideas into readable stories and articles.  I believe that handwriting does far more for neural development, stimulation and continued function than we could possibly know.

In this article, What's Lost as Handwriting Fades, from June 2nd 2014 in The New York Times, these paragraphs stand out for me because they discuss the links between how the brain works during different kinds of handwriting, and how handwriting links to reading, spelling and the writing process itself:
But psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.
Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.
“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.
“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”
A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.
The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.
By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.
Dr. James attributes the differences to the messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: Not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable.
That variability may itself be a learning tool. “When a kid produces a messy letter,” Dr. James said, “that might help him learn it.”
In the current New Zealand Curriculum, handwriting is not really mentioned, and I think that gives some teachers cause to believe that it is irrelevant today.

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

The final paragraph above also confirms my belief that the brainstorming/planning of writing and the drafting/first edit/rewriting of a text by children should initially be handwritten by the child themselves.

There is also evidence that if you are learning a new language, that handwriting the language helps imprint it further into your brain.  In the article How Handwriting  Boosts the Brain from October 2010, it discusses how handwriting is beneficial for both children and adults:
It's not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters' proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

In the dark days of the 1990s when I was studying my BEd at the newly christened School of Education at the University of Waikato, a new English Curriculum was introduced and we were supplied a copy.  And the closest reference to handwriting was like this example from the level 3/4 Visual Language strand in the objective for Processing Information:
View and use visual texts to retrieve, interpret, organise and present information coherently; use appropriate technology, including fluent handwriting, for effective presentation.

So we were supplied with a supporting document that was part of the old syllabus, called Teaching Handwriting which was first published in 1985, and has had subsequent republishing.  Within this book is set out the expected forms of handwriting to be taught at New Zealand schools.

When the new New Zealand Curriculum was released in 2008 for implementation, this was even less reference to handwriting.  This is what I found as an example at levels 2 and 3 of the Speaking, Writing and Presenting strand as an indicator under Language Features:
Writes legibly, fluently, and with ease when creating texts.

The previous curriculum documents and their supporting documents, such as Teaching Handwriting, became supporting documents for the current New Zealand Curriculum.

The book Teaching Handwriting is a useful reference for why and how handwriting is taught.  For starters, it supplies a teacher with the basic scripts and the cursive script.

In the book, Teaching Handwriting, it gives further instruction as to the order of teaching the letters and how and why to group certain letters together.

This cursive style I first encountered in my form one year, the year this book was published, 1985 (showing my age here), and it was a big adjustment to make from the original old fashioned cursive style I learned at the school I went to until Standard 4.
The books I use to teach handwriting are the Start Right books based on the New Zealand Curriculum and I think are fantastic!  You can purchase them from most book shops in the school support section, but I've also added links to each book so you can purchase directly from the publisher, ESA, if you are so inspired to do so.

I like to start the year with most classes with this book, Junior Handwriting, after my initial assessment.  The reason is that during the first assessment I often notice a number of kids forming letters incorrectly or whose letters are rather demented.  So to get rid of bad habits I do some explicit teaching using this fabulous resource.  And I've found I usually get great results.

I really like this book because it starts with the basics of how to form the letter, and gives start points and arrows to point in which direction a writer needs to proceed.  Each page usually has two letters with similar formations to learn.  The book focuses on lower case first, then upper case and numerals.  It has a reward feature in it, which I've usually only used for my lower learners on a more individual programme.

I usually demonstrate this on the board myself at the beginning of each week (I use one page a week).  I include the start points and arrows.  I also get the kids to practice drawing the letter on different surfaces to cover the tactile learning that young kids need.  We use our table surfaces, our skin, the chair (often class chairs have a rough texture), our clothing, the carpet.... what ever in handy in the class.

It shows the learner the mistakes that are commonly made when forming the letter, like going in the wrong direction or not closing the gap or just looking plain wonky.  I also demonstrate the wrong formation to reinforce this issue with the kids.  They always get a good laugh from it too.

The sheet also has a couple of words and a sentence to practice the letters in context with other letters, as well as a fun drawing activity to go with it.  Below are some examples of what you would find on a page.

There is always a small set of instructions.
There is a place to trace with your finger indicating the start position and the direction to go in.  Then there is a place to trace the letter with the pen/pencil (I prefer kids to write in pen, no matter their age and stage), followed by the practicing of the letters concerned.
This is the fun activity for this letter to help the children practice the shape used to make the letters on this page.  This one focuses on starting at the right place and going in the right direction.
As you can see, there are practice words at the bottom and a sentence to use the letters in context.  And it shows you the common mistakes in forming each letter.
Senior Handwriting is the next book.  This is the book they move onto once I am happy with how they are forming their letters and are in control of their writing.  This book has several examples for assessment in it, so I assess all my class on the first assessment to decide if they are still needing to focus on the Junior Handwriting book or if they should be using the pages from the Senior Handwriting book.

This book also has four sections:
*  printing
*  flicking
*  linking
*  signs, addressing envelopes, etc.

As I said the first thing I do is assess the kids.  So first up there is a paragraph the kids have to copy under each line, and then there is some self assessment.  The self assessment (sorry I haven't got a photo of this to show you) asks the children to assess the over all look of their work, their attitude towards handwriting, and then specific things about their letter formation like if size and spacing is consistent and how hard they are pressing as they write. 

It then asks them to set a goal.  I get the children to go back through the list of the specifics on letter formation and choose one to focus on for the next term.  Underneath that, there is a space for a teacher comment.  I use this to make a positive statement on their sample and then give them some practical advise on how to achieve their goal with an example.

This assessment is then glued into their Profile Book/Learning Journal or whatever the book is at the school that is best to exhibit the progress the children are making and so the children can refer back to their goal.

Each page in this book groups letters that have a similar formation together.  At the beginning of each page there is a box with some instructions, and then a demonstration of how to form each letter with a starting place and arrows demonstrating the direction the writer should go in.

The printing pages focus on getting the starting point and formation going.  So each letter starts with a bit of "nonsense" drawing of the letter first before practicing the letter itself and then practicing the letter in context with other letters in a word.  Sometimes the page will finish with a sentence.

Slope is also introduced at this stage.  At the beginning of the Senior Handwriting book there is a page introducing teachers and parents to the concepts in this book.  It shows examples of how you should sit on your chair, and how to place your book to develop slope.  I always print this page off for children at the beginning of each year to glue in their book to use for reference.  I always ensure that the left handed kids in the class know the way they need to place their book to get slope in the right direction.

Just as another aside, consider where you sit left handers and right handers opposed to each other.  I try to place them in groups so their arms won't bang into each other as they write.  Next time your kids are engrossed in writing, take the time to quietly observe them to see if elbows collide in the middle as they write.  The solution may be as simple as swapping their desks left to right to ensure collision free writing.

An example of a printing page.
When we finish doing the printing pages, I redo the assessment of the children so I can regroup.  Some children who were still doing the Junior Handwriting book may be ready to move onto the Senior Handwriting book.  Some kids may need to continue with the first book, or practice more at the printing stage.

If I am happy with their progress we move on to flicking.  Larger groups of letters are collected together and the flick is demonstrated for appropriate letters.

Again, at the end of the flicking section, I re-assess and reconsider my groupings as appropriate.  Those who are ready will move on to linking their letters.  Again a bit of "nonsense" drawing is applied at the beginning of each section to develop the flow and shape required to link.

As I said earlier, I give out one sheet a week usually, but it depends on the class.  Handwriting is part of my Reading Tumble activities once I am satisfied that they will do the work to a standard I am happy with to be independent, otherwise we will have a specified handwriting time.  If it is part of the Tumble, when I hand out the sheets for the week, I go through the expectations with the class on the board.

If I feel students need further practice of the printing skill, I have another book that I use to give them the extra practice rather than moving them on to flicking too soon.

During the Reading Tumble, if they have finished their worksheet, I have a set of handwriting cards (printing, flicking and linking) they can choose from to copy from into their books.  I handwrote them myself and laminated them.

I also write my Newsbook each day in modern cursive writing so that students will learn to read linked writing.

My students and their parents, as well as myself, are often surprised and impressed with the progress made during the year.  I always impress on student that writing is important in all occupations and in personal life, and that is why they will need it.  After all, who wants a romantic letter that has been typed up?

And if you are looking for a website that gives some inspiration for teaching handwriting, check out Handwriting Without Tears.  It is an American website, but it gives some great tips on which letters to group together for teaching and the like, and when to teach what.  And there are websites like Handwriting Practice for example, which help you generate your own specific worksheets.  Just make sure that the font used is as close to the New Zealand Curriculum as possible.

You can also download a font called Foundation Bold that is very much like the New Zealand basic script to install on your computer to make your own worksheets.

I am keen to hear how other teachers approach handwriting in their classrooms, so please leave a comment below.


  1. I still think there is a place for handwriting. Maybe not taught as often as we would have in the past but definitely a need. One thing I have noticed is that even though some teachers still teach it, they don't teach it very well! It is somewhat a 'fill in' activity. I have a year 3 child who although has been taught handwriting for 3 years still doesn't write certain letter correctly. Why? because it was rarely every marked and corrections were rarely ever made!

    I gave up teaching set handwriting to all my children. The majority of mine, the script they had was fine therefore I concentrated on those who needed it. All mine also learnt how to touch type. I still prefer to write things down, and I know research has shown that writing information down is more beneficial in learning than typing it. Maybe I am still a little old fashion but I know with my husbands job although surrounded by computers and programmes he still writes things down.

    Yes, we may in the future teach where every child has a computer and is typing instead of writing, but like libraries and books, I hope penmanship doesn't disappear.

    1. Thanks for your response Ruth. It frustrates me that some teachers don't consider it an important skill anymore and consequently pay it no heed. Handwriting is an important skill so note taking, for example, can happen. I agree that not all kids need it as intensively as others at certain points. But I do like to know that I have sent them on to the next teacher with an improvement in their style or letter formation. I like that you are teaching your kids to touch type too. Kids love watching me touch type. I would like to include this in my programme in my next class, technology permitting.

  2. Interesting reading. I'm from the "Old School" where handwriting was completed at least three times a week. Unfortunately handwriting appears to be slowly fading out due to advancements in technology. I often cringe when out in the work force and observe how the younger people are holding their pens. I also wonder what some school leavers think when they find the ideal job for them...only to find at the bottom "Please apply in writing"!!! You can learn so much about a person by simply observing their presentation of handwriting.

  3. You might like to use this font. http://www.dafont.com/kiwi-school-handwriting.font It is great. Thanks for sharing your ideas and resources.