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By David Wray — Deputy Director and Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Warwick.

David Wray examines children’s handwriting…

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Handwriting is traditionally considered a matter of presentation. ‘Getting it neat’ is generally something that children are expected to do after they have composed interesting text. Many schools use drafting as a way of achieving this, with an initial writing draft where the children focus on what they want to say, and a second where they focus on presentation. However, a substantial body of international research is now suggesting that handwriting may be more important than we have thought and may affect how children compose.

At the University of Warwick, we have recently carried out a couple of research studies(1) of the writing of Year 2 and Year 6 children in local schools. The results have convinced us that handwriting is an important factor in the creation (or composition) of written material by children. To give you a flavour of the results, we found that we could pretty much predict the score that both Year 2 and Year 6 children would achieve in their Writing SAT from the number of letters of the alphabet they could legibly write in one minute. The Writing SAT at both Key Stage 1 and 2 principally measures composition, but it appears that the results are substantially affected by children’s abilities to handwrite fluently. Moreover, a significant proportion of children seem to suffer from low levels of handwriting automaticity (the ability to generate letters without giving this too much conscious attention). This is likely to be interfering with their ability to compose. If a child has to give mental attention to generating letters, then this will almost certainly impair that child’s ability to select ideas, words, grammar and spellings.

If a child has to give mental attention to generating letters, then this will almost certainly impair that child’s ability to select ideas, words, grammar and spellings

Over the last decade, teaching and policy have prioritised composing and reduced the attention given to handwriting. However, at the same time, a substantial international research programme has produced some exciting new insights into the role of handwriting in composition. These research studies offer the possibility that handwriting intervention can actually improve the content of written material for many children, particularly boys. Handwriting is critical to the generation of creative and well-structured written text and has an impact not only on fluency but also on the quality of composing. At a time of concern for boys’ writing in the UK, this is a totally new approach to the struggle with writing that so many children face. Our findings suggest that educators have seriously underestimated the role of handwriting in the production of written material by young children. In concentrating on the possible benefits to spelling of well-formed, joined handwriting, it seems that the necessity for speed and automaticity in handwriting has been neglected.

Our research suggests that it is time to reconsider. Automatic letter production appears to free up working memory to deal with the complex tasks of planning, organising, revising and regulating the production of text. In this way, automatic handwriting facilitates writing for children.

Research undertaken into the predictors of writing competence suggests that automatic letter writing is the single best predictor of length and quality of written material in the primary years, in secondary school and even in the post-compulsory education years. This is an amazing finding, given the relatively low status and lack of attention given to handwriting in school.

(1) Full details and papers published so far at www.warwick.ac.uk/go/handwriting.

Handwriting has not been an important aspect of literacy for teachers in the last decade, but it has been the subject of important research. It is time this research was made more accessible to educators and began to contribute to the progress of children. In examining widely-held assumptions about writing and handwriting, we may be able to make writing easier for many children.

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