Teaching handwriting to children: why it’s important to teach it correctly

Why Teach Handwriting Image Edit 5Why Teach Handwriting Image Edit 5

Following on from my previous blogs, I want to explain why it is important to teach handwriting correctly and not to follow the trend for the pre-cursive and cursive from the start.

In my previous blogs, I highlighted the changes made by the Department for Education (DfE), announcing the end of the lead-in stroke and teaching cursive handwriting from the start.

In this blog, I wanted to demonstrate just why it’s important to teach handwriting correctly, with the science behind handwriting in mind.

In my opinion, there is no good reason why every school doesn’t follow the science of handwriting.

So, if you are a school or teacher who is continuing to teach pre-cursive and cursive from the start, please keep reading and by the end of this blog, I hope I will have changed your mind.


Lobbying for change

If you have been following along with my blogs, or the Morrells Handwriting social media platforms over recent years, you will know that I have been lobbying government regarding the correct teaching of handwriting since the introduction of the current National Curriculum in 2014.

My local MP, Robin Walker, myself and Mark Stewart from Left n Write met with the DfE at the request of the former Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb MP, to submit evidence of poor practice and to highlight the impact of the incorrect teaching of handwriting and poor pencil grip.

I would like to take this opportunity to send my warmest congratulations to Robin Walker MP on his appointment as the new Minister for Schools. Mark and I are looking forward to working with Robin again.


A blinkered approach to teaching handwriting

Whilst our campaign to change policy has been successful, and we have seen the DfE announce the end of the lead-in stroke and teaching cursive handwriting from the start, unfortunately many schools have chosen to ignore this announcement.

Instead, many are deciding to continue to teach cursive and pre-cursive from the start in nursery and EYFS, stating that they will continue teaching this method until they are forced to stop by the government.

Why does this always shock me, especially when I hear that teaching staff are panicking because they think the children in their classes need to have cursive handwriting?

Current government guidance states that handwriting must be neat and legible, so it really does not need to be cursive. There is no government directive or stipulation in the curriculum to demand teachers to teach pre-cursive, continuous cursive with the lead-in stroke or cursive from the start.

Unfortunately, many schools have the blinkers on when it comes to teaching handwriting. School policymakers have this method in place because it is what they have been using for years and don’t want to change, despite this change being beneficial to both them, their teachers and students.

I would plead with all schools to stop teaching the pre-cursive with the lead-in stroke, continuous cursive with the lead-in stroke and cursive from the start for all children with immediate effect.

We will keep on lobbying government until handwriting is taught correctly in every school and until the teaching of handwriting forms part of the Initial Teacher Training (ITT).


Why you should follow the science not the trend

Writing by hand

Writing by hand is much more than just putting pen to paper; it activates parts of the brain involved in thinking and working memory, allowing the writer to manage and store information. When taught correctly, handwriting actively encourages good postural control and mid-line crossing,

Like mental maths, writing by hand is good for stimulating the brain, but did you know that we have to reach developmental milestones to be able to write in a legible style?

This is because the complex skill of handwriting involves many cognitive processes. It requires good letter perception with visual and motor perceptual skills.

Learning to Write

Retained primitive reflexes

There is ample evidence from academics linking poor handwriting to a retained primitive reflex.

I highlighted this in 2017 when asked why there was an increase in children being diagnosed with dyspraxic tendencies.

In answer to this, I shared that children were failing to hit developmental milestones with delays in postural control, poor muscle tone and delayed motor development.

I have seen children struggling to grip a pencil correctly; slouching in their chair; wrapping their legs around the chair and with poor integration of motor skills.


Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR) affects handwriting

In brief, a primitive reflex is retained when the brain and body go into survival mode.

This can be from a difficult pregnancy or birth, usually a caesarean birth, which then resurfaces after a later trauma. The trauma can include: moving home, divorce or death in the family, violence at home and a key one at the moment, lockdown.

In particular, the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR) affects the motor skills needed for handwriting.

STNR Symptoms:

  • Poor bilateral integration
  • Poor sound processing
  • Poor vision
  • Poor motor skills
  • Poor muscle strength

Without intervention and the correct teaching of a systematic handwriting program, the retained primitive reflex will cause a wealth of difficulties for the child and they may never have the same motor skills levels as their peers.

Teaching pre-cursive with a lead-in stroke, or cursive from the start to these children is unethical.

Teaching a child with a retained primitive reflex to write using the complex strokes of pre-cursive, or continuous cursive from the start, will prevent the development of good bilateral integration as well as the correct development of binocular vision, forcing the writer to work off to one side of their mid-line, using only one eye.

If the left and right sides of the body do not work together, it will in time impact their ability to work with both eyes and prevents the processing of sound from both left and right ears.

Left uncorrected by an expert, it will leave the child with serious gaps in their learning.

Experts have shown that poor development can lead to disruptive behaviour. This will restrict their lifetime skill development and prevent them from reaching their full academic potential.


Teaching Handwriting Correctly

Correct letter formation, pen grip and sitting position, alongside the development of fine and gross motor skills, are the basics of teaching handwriting. These skills form the foundations of beautiful, legible, and speedy handwriting.

If the foundations are not strong enough everything else will crumble.


How do we learn to write?

Writing is all to do with muscle movement; both the hand muscles and the muscle memory.

Research also informs us that poor postural control can lead to a weak inner ear and poor sound processing. This is why it is important to ensure every child is sitting correctly to write.

 Scientific research stipulates that in order to write, children require:

  • Good development of binocular vision
  • Excellent postural control
  • Good sound and visual processing skills
  • Excellent motor skills
  • Development of bilateral integration.

However, many of these are not in place until a child is 7 years old and this is why it is unethical to teach pre-cursive, continuous cursive, the lead-in stroke and cursive to any child under the age of 7years old.

Many school policymakers are forcing under 7’s to write in a pre-cursive and cursive script when binocular vision and bilateral integration have not fully developed. The writer needs these to enable them to draw the complex strokes in a cursive script!


Why teach letter formation first?

Many publishers and teaching professionals do not realise the importance of teaching letter formation first.

The National Curriculum states that children should learn to write in print using the handwriting families. This is imperative for three very important reasons:

  1. We want to encourage binocular vision and bi-lateral integration, working through the mid-line from the start. Letter formation and printing until the age of 7 years old actively encourages this.
  2. The printed letter c and its family of letters o, a, g, q and d start across the mid-line, pulling anti-clockwise to form the letter. The lead-in stroke letters all start on the baseline, but do not encourage the writer to push up and over through the mid-line.
  3. The letter d belongs to the c family of letters, and the letter b belongs to the letter r Learning these letters in their handwriting families without a lead-in stroke prevents letter reversals.

Letter formation

Handwriting at secondary school

From my experience of working with secondary school children, the lead-in stroke does not provide a strong foundation for speedy, fluent handwriting.

My evidence shows that handwriting needs the strong foundation of letter formation and pen lifts for writing at speed during exams.

By teaching pre-cursive with the lead-in stroke, continuous cursive with the lead-in stroke and cursive from the start, these strong foundations are not achieved; instead you are simply ‘building a house on sand’.

A secondary school pupil will never be marked down for printing but will lose vital marks for illegibility and not finishing the exam in the allocated time.

Unfortunately, many teachers simply do not possess the knowledge or skills to provide correct and effective support, due to the fact that handwriting is not taught in the Initial Teaching Training (ITT).


Longhand versus the keyboard: Dispelling the myths

Evidence consistently confirms that pupils who write their notes by hand perform significantly better in conceptual understanding, retaining much more information than those who have typed.

This is because handwriting is a neurosensory exercise and as it is slower than typing, the writer processes, absorbs and conceptualises the information meticulously.

Whereas typing encourages verbatim notes and less active processing, resulting in ineffective memory recall.


Robin Walker MP, Minister for Schools

With the appointment of the new Minister for Schools, Robin Walker MP, I am looking forward to a ‘new broom’ sweeping through the DfE. The new Minister could indeed make this a pivotal moment for the way handwriting is taught to every child whether they are right-handed or left-handed.

I hope to see major reforms take place over the coming months and years, to ensure moving forwards that all teachers will possess the knowledge and skills to teach handwriting correctly, and that all children moving forward will be able to master legible handwriting.

Of course, I understand the immense pressures that schools and teachers have been, and continue to be under, but it should be every child’s right to be taught handwriting correctly.

We cannot allow publisher’s to introduce these trendy fonts into our classrooms without robust research and evidence. They just don’t understand the science and the importance of teaching letter formation first and then progressing to a simple joined-up handwriting font without the lead-in stroke.

We need to put the welfare of our children first, so I will maintain my momentum for change to stop the schools who continue to ‘force’ our children to write in pre-cursive, continuous cursive with the lead-in stroke and cursive from the start.

However, we simply cannot continue to just instruct teachers to teach handwriting ‘correctly’.

We must show all teaching staff and trainee teachers how to teach handwriting in the correct way – no gimmicks, trends, or fads, just science-based teaching from handwriting experts like myself.

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