Setting the record straight: Continuous Cursive Handwriting and the National Curriculum

Boy writing at homeBoy writing at home
Setting the record straight: Continuous Cursive Handwriting and the National Curriculum

Many English schools see the teaching of continuous cursive handwriting to be a topic of concern, especially with teachers and students not only having to meet the expectations of the National Curriculum and the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), but also having to meet ‘the greater than expected standards’ set by the new Interim Assessments.

After reading the thoughts of Pam Hulme – a teacher with over 40 years experience in primary classrooms – I’m now raising the question as to why schools have chosen to teach Reception children cursive writing.

The National Curriculum for English (2014) puts the teaching of handwriting at a very high level of importance. It also highlights the need for teachers to be ensuring that once a child’s motor, sensory and perceptual skills are at a good level, that they are then being moved onto the next level; accessing the higher processes of their thinking to master compositional skills, such as organising their thoughts when writing.

Foundations of Handwriting

Early handwriting teaching should aim to secure the foundations, the basic initial skills, and then practise and refine these skills, before trying to extend the child’s skills before they are ready. As Pam states in her article, “Those advocating the early teaching of fully cursive with ‘lead in’ or ‘entry’ strokes, wish to establish this practice from school entry (Reception) so that children do not have to alter movement patterns at a later stage. Whilst this model sounds plausible and is successful with some children, my concern is that it is unsupported pedagogically, is unnecessary and creates failure in some of the youngest and most vulnerable children”.

I have had first-hand experience with a number of children who have been taught the continuous cursive method and they are often lacking in basic skills. This method of teaching handwriting does not allow time for children to practise and master their motor, sensory and perceptual skills. Instead, what is required is continuity and consistency, as they are essential factors in helping a child retain movement patterns and this is reflected within the National Curriculum. The curriculum for English “places emphasis on the acquisition of letter shape, space and size before joins are taught” and it also “delivers clear messages that some letters are best left unjoined”. There is no mention about children ‘needing’ to acquire cursive skills.

This is reflected within the Year 2 Statutory Guidance, where it’s stated that “pupils should be able to form individual letters correctly, so establishing good handwriting habits from the beginning”. This is one of the foundations that our handwriting programme and workbook series were built upon, getting students to form individual letters first and only then, when this has been mastered, do we begin integrating the teaching of joining these letters.

Unpicking continuous cursive handwriting problems

Those that support the teaching of cursive from the start (Reception), suggest that it is beneficial because it removes the need to teach a second stage of movement patterns at a later date, but “practitioners need to be fully aware that the premature rush to get children ‘joining their writing’ when prerequisite skills are immature, may leave a legacy of handwriting problems that will be difficult to reverse at a later date”. I have to spend my time unpicking these problems, trying to get a child to unlearn certain skills they have been taught through the cursive writing method.  Continuous Cursive handwriting needs to be taught at developmentally appropriate age for the child and not just to gain a ‘greater than expected standard’ in Key Stage 1 Sat’s.

Pam states in her article that “The National Curriculum reflects the position that there is no evidence supporting the notion that schemes which use ‘lead in’ strokes and fully cursive writing, are in any way superior to those in which letters start at the top and join with an exit stroke”. If the National Curriculum is stating this, then why are some schools still insisting on teaching cursive writing?

The truth is that there is still a widespread lack of professional development within the subject of handwriting teaching. With the expectations of the EYFS contradicting some expectations set by the National Curriculum, many “newly qualified teachers are starting with little or no knowledge of the subject”. Couple this with the pressure that teachers and schools are under to achieve “ambitious early outcomes” and there being scarce advice from the government on how to teach handwriting, it is no wonder that so much confusion has risen over which method of handwriting teaching is the most correct and effective method.

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