Are gadgets, such as tablets, having a detrimental effect on a child’s handwriting ability?

handwriting abilityhandwriting ability

We recently came across an article posted on The Telegraph website discussing the effects that the technology-based era is having on our children’s handwriting ability. This topic is one that we at Morrells Handwriting are always keen to discuss.

Swiping on tablets is harming children’s ability to write – parents must limit time on gadgets” – Shirley Shayler, Headmistress at Millfield Prep School.

It is now very uncommon for a child in primary or secondary school to not have access to a tablet, smartphone or other gadgets. In fact, in many cases the child will actually have their own tablet or gadget, with 1 in 3 children in the UK having their own tablet computer, according to an Ofcom report in 2014. Whilst these gadgets can often be used to help create an entertaining way to learn, they are in fact taking away from a child’s ability to write legibly.

Association of Teachers and Lecturers

There has been serious concern from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, that older children are “unable to complete traditional complete traditional pen and paper exams because their memory had been eroded by overexposure to screen-based technology”.

This concern has also been reflected in a recent conversation I have had with the owner of a chain of pub restaurants in the UK. Within this conversation, the owner spoke of having difficulty hiring staff. However, this wasn’t due to a lack of keen 16-21 year old applicants, but instead was due to the lack of applicants possessing fully developed fine and gross motor skills. The owner discussed with me how many applicants didn’t possess the muscle strength or coordination to carry a large number of plates to tables, let alone to hold and use a pen to take orders from customers. This is an excellent example of how losing handwriting ability, due to the overuse of technology, has far reaching consequences into early adulthood and working life.

However, it is not just older children that there should be concern over. Shirley Shayler highlights within her article that screen-based technology is also having an effect on younger children; “Today’s children are less dexterous when they start school, with poorer fine motor skills than was the case a decade ago”.

Lay the foundations of handwriting

My approach to teaching handwriting puts focus on the development of fine and gross motor skills to begin with, as these skills lay the foundations that enable a child to achieve legible handwriting. The muscles needed to write are naturally developed through activities such as moulding playdough, cutting with scissors and painting with a paintbrush. But, with more children turning to screen-based technology during their play time, rather than the activities listed above, these muscles are not being fully developed and neither are a child’s fine and gross motor skills.

Why do these skills matter in today’s high-tech environment? Fine and gross motor skills enable a child to hold a pencil effectively, which is a skill that a child is often expected to have when they enter the first year of their school career. A child then moves through their school career being continually assessed on their ability to write legibly and then to write legibly at speed during their SATs and GCSE exams. However, handwriting is also important for a child’s development, not just their school career.

Shirley Shayler states in her article that “The initial stages of teaching handwriting to small children teaches them patience, pride in developing a skill over time, plus fine motor skills and fine co-ordination, which activate different parts of the brain.” We have previously discussed the link between handwriting and brain activity in our blog post ‘Do you believe there is a relationship between learning to write and brain activity?’.

Relationship between handwriting and spelling

There is also substantial evidence indicating that handwriting and spelling are tightly linked. I recently attended a presentation held by Rhona Stainthorp, a Professor at University of Reading. During this presentation, she discussed how handwriting and spelling interact with one another and how when practising handwriting, spelling can be identically supported.

There is no doubt that there are far reaching benefits that come with learning and mastering the skill of handwriting. Handwriting is a life skill that all children should master, but this cannot be achieved if the muscles and fine and gross motor skills required are not fully developed.

As Shirley Shayler states in her article, we are not suggesting that tablets and gadgets should be completely banned by parents. Instead, we are suggesting that the time a child spends on screen-based technology should be limited. We are also urging parents and teachers to start encouraging their children to be active with their hands, away from technology. This could be achieved through setting aside time during lessons for children to use a finger gym, or through creating an obstacle course in the garden at home.

It is important that parents do not to allow gadgets to supersede traditional preschool activities, which enable children to master the skill of handwriting quicker.

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