Is handwriting really a lost art in our primary schools?
Updated: Jul 1
I am a massive fan of Daisy Christodoulou. I can trace most of my recent shifts in thinking about education to her work, or research related to her work. I think it’s because firstly she is so incredibly gifted – arguably the brightest student to ever appear on University Challenge, she made sure Warwick secured their first ever win and finished with more points than her other teammates combined. She’s written three books which all continue to sit high in the education charts and receive praise from all arms of the profession, she speaks with openness, honesty and her views have solid foundations based on research and her own experiences in classrooms. Above all, Daisy is able to take some of the most complex aspects of education, teaching and learning and strip them back to become simple, salient points that have a transformational effect on her readers and fellow educators.
In 2018 she wrote an article about whether handwriting bias was an issue for examiners(1). The point seems to be quite a simple one: do examiners award higher grades if work is presented with neater handwriting? In the article Christodoulou argues that although the research was inconclusive there was some weight behind the idea that word processing all the papers could be a positive move for examiners, not least just to help them with their marking. She also made the point that handwriting does have some benefits to children that typing or word processing doesn’t. She quoted a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer(2) which compared written notes to typed ones and found that those who were using handwritten notes were able to extract more meaning. This is a finding that is supported by other research that also demonstrates how developing handwriting improves pupils’ level of literacy, enhances creative skills and develops children’s sense of identity(3).
But opinion remains divided, particularly in the primary age range, as to whether teaching handwriting is a necessary component of the curriculum at all. At the time of writing it is no longer part of the requirements in US schools(4), (with some exceptions) and anecdotally many hold the view shared by David Malloy, writing for the BBC in 2017 when he said,
“Why do some - like the UK - still insist on it in a digital age? Shouldn't children learn to type effectively instead?”
We’d be foolish to overlook the influence of computers and keyboards and as some schools begin to phase out teaching handwriting altogether we need to consider our own perspective regarding exactly how and what we should be teaching(5). If we continue to explore this, teachers and parents are further divided when it comes to whether we teach cursive handwriting as a specific skill. Views such as, “Why do we teach it? The classroom teachers should have the right to teach whichever handwriting technique they prefer.” are common(6).
If we did manage to arrive at a relative point of consensus about teaching handwriting then we run into further complexities as we look at when teaching handwriting is appropriate. In England, there is a requirement for pupils to demonstrate joined handwriting in order for them to be deemed to meet the expected standard by the end of their primary years(7), according to the 2018 KS2 teacher assessment guidance, suggesting (even if it isn’t made explicit) that there is an expectation for teachers to teach cursive handwriting to pupils at some point of their educational journey from 4-11 years old. In some schools this is translated into practice that begins at the earliest stages of education and prompts fierce debate as to whether ‘teaching cursive’ to pupils aged 4, in Reception, is developmentally appropriate or even necessary at all as it is not statutory and there are no requirements for teachers to teach pupils those cursive ‘lead in’ or ‘entry’ strokes. Some go as far as stating that by doing so teachers cause undue stress and impose “the biggest killer of enjoyment for writing” with our youngest school-aged children(8).
In England, at the end of Key Stage 1 pupils are aged six or seven. The English teacher assessment framework outlines three criteria by which the teachers’ judgements are made in school(9). The pupils have to show that they can:
· form lower-case letters in the correct direction, starting and finishing in the right place
· form lower-case letters of the correct size relative to one another in some of their writing
· use spacing between words
The non-statutory guidance does encourage teachers to ensure that pupils are taught to write with a joined style as soon as they can securely form letters with the correct orientation, but teachers, remember, can use their discretion to ensure that any particular weakness does not impact on the judgement being made of a pupil’s attainment overall, such as for children with a handwriting difficulty who are secure in all other aspects of writing.
This ambiguity, together with the sometimes opposing demands of Early Years provision in schools and a lack of professional development in this area leads to a wide range of variations across settings with some opting for an approach that attempts to teach full cursive letter formation from the start of their pupils’ educational journeys and others not teaching cursive at all. The general concern with this is that amidst the variation, well-meaning teachers can ignore signs that pupils are not developmentally ready for writing in cursive style and may miss those children who truly do need additional or different support in order to make the progress that they could(10). Also, some may feel that precious curriculum time is being lost in those schools that continue to focus on teaching what is perceived to be a redundant skill at a time when more focus could be given to promoting digital literacy instead.
So how did we get to here and what can we do about it?
The history of European-style handwriting is an exciting plot full of intrigue, frustration and triumph that spans across the globe. The alphabet as we know and teach it today was developed by Romans from Etruscan script with some minor phonetic changes borrowed from the Greek alphabet (such as Y and Z). During medieval times ‘J’, ‘U’ and ‘W’ were added to accommodate commonly used sounds but essentially those inscribed capital letters that we see on monuments and in books and museums formed the basis for almost all of our capital letters.
Cursive writing is by definition written with rounded letters that are joined together(11). The common Roman Cursive handwriting style comes from an age before the printing press when all was written by hand and on things such as wax tablets, vellum (parchment made out of calf skin) and papyri scraps(12). Literary works were copied out in capitals (called rustic capitals) which were easier to read – but without spacing between the words. In fact, it was seen as something of a status symbol to have a slave who could read these types of texts without word spacing. Roman Cursive was mainly used for things such as shopping lists, merchant accounts and letter writing with those straight lines and the slanted style suited to incisions on tablets, but the text was difficult to read. Around the 3rd Century this evolved to become a clearer writing style with taller, narrower form that became the accepted writing of administration, documentary and private letters. Some of the letters looked so similar that introducing curves or altering the height through ascending or descending letters meant that this could become a universally accepted roman script of the time. Writing itself had symbolic meaning and was matched to the purpose for which it was used. By the 5th Century this ‘New Cursive’ had begun to adopt some of the characteristics of letters that we might more commonly associate with the curves of modern cursive. A vast expansion of Christian texts, written in Latin, saw Uncial and Half-Uncial script written in a way that represented “the best that could be made in respect of writing, decoration, and binding”13 – it is these lower case style letters that can be traced to be the origin of our modern handwriting and alphabet as we teach it now.
In the eighth century, Charlemagne, (Charles the Great), King of the Franks and the Lombards inherited an alliance with Pope Stephen II which established a new post-Roman empire and the title of Patricius Romanorum – protector of Rome. He believed that this came with a responsibility to develop literacy and spread knowledge and began the process of establishing scriptoria(14) and a veritable army of scribes. With writing gaining pace and popularity the Half-Uncial style became quicker and featured less contrast between the letters and strokes - this later became known as a style of its own: Caroline miniscule.
By the 10th Century Roman Capitals and Caroline miniscule were established as defining scripts and by the twelfth century most secular work was characterised by cursive style while religious works retained more upright and compressed features, leading to the stately and Gothic scripts associated with Bibles and prayer books. Generally speaking, it stayed that way for hundreds of years(15)
As trade, religion and education expanded so did writing and the influence of writing styles. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries Italian Humanists sought to create a general citizenry able to speak, write and engage with the civic life of their communities; they took pride in a love of learning and "a true love for books…[where] humanists built book collections and university libraries developed." Humanists believed that the individual encompassed "body, mind, and soul" and learning was very much a part of edifying all aspect of the human.”(16) With the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-15th century Italian Humanists revolted against it, inventing their own, lighter and more elegant script which became known as Italic. Like early Roman Cursive before it, Italic emerged as a status symbol and was passed on through generations of master scribes.
Over time, handwriting became synonymous with various professions and social ranks. Around the mid-1800s an American bookkeeper attempted to democratise writing by establishing a ‘Spencarian method’, available in textbooks, which was quickly adopted by businesses and schools (and is reported to be the origin of the original Coca Cola logo)(17). It was a decorative style of handwriting and was dominant until around 1890 when Austin Norman Palmer developed a simpler script in opposition to the invention of the typewriter. Other than a brief period of printed lettering known as manuscript writing the familiar cursive style of modern classrooms resurfaced in the 1920s and has remained a popular method to this day. With typing, word processing and texting growing to becoming all-consuming forms of written communication some lay claim to the digital age being also the age that marks the death of cursive handwriting for schools(18).
Some schools have embraced this and switched completely to a digital world – schools such as Archbishop Stepinac High School in West Plains, N.Y. and Agora school in Roermond, Netherlands where the tablet is purely digital and there isn’t a cursive stroke in sight. Kathy Crewe-Read, Headteacher of a UK based all-digital school, Wolverhampton Grammar School, said,
“We’re preparing (children) for the world’s future, not our pasts… It’s very easy to model a school on what a good education looked like when we were there but we need to consider what their future is going to look like.”
(19) Some countries have chosen to adopt this view on a national scale, with Finland, for example, proudly highlighting its education system as digital-first, pledging millions of Euros in a drive to encourage teachers to focus more on the use of digital tools in the classroom. In Scotland a £300m contract was signed by Glasgow City Council and CGI, a Canadian IT firm, which saw iPads handed out to all pupils starting as young as 9yrs old, with a further promise to extend this to nurseries.20
However, there is growing evidence that this kind of digital wholesale, particularly during primary, formative school years, may have unintended consequences. For example cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf presents a compelling case in her book Reader Come Home, describing the creation of new forms of attention deficit in a generation of distracted children, quoting Howard Gardner’s famous description of “grasshopper minds’’ to describe the attention-flitting, task-switching behaviour that accompanies such reliance on digital devices(21). With children exposed to such a constant level of sensory stimulation Wolf seems right to be worried about, “the cognitive-developmental trajectories of children who are so constantly stimulated.”(22) This is echoed in Doug’s 2019 research, drawing attention to the link between handwriting and the correlation between capacity (the ability to store information) and automaticity (to retrieve information onto the page). He notes that these enhance pupils’ ability in language and therefore improve the quality of their ideas. Evidence suggests that improving pupils’ handwriting has some bearing on their ability to upload and down load information from the brain(23). Mueller and Oppenheimer highlight how laptop/tablet use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking and through their 2014 research go as far as claiming that laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution as they may be doing more harm in classrooms than good(24).
In this kind of context, time, effort and purposeful practice devoted to what could be perceived as an irrelevant, ‘killer of enjoyment’ in the form of cursive handwriting, is perhaps not as straightforward as our digital champions might claim. There may be a need, now more than ever, for the spirit of literary rebellion that characterised Italian Humanists at the dawn of the printing press and Palmer’s rejection of the typewriter. Only this time, with the benefit of cognitive research we can justifiably draw a conclusion that to abandon teaching handwriting could be damaging and lead to irreversible change that focuses on the efficiencies of an adult, digital world at the expense of children’s developing minds.
If we ask ourselves about what can be done, it is clear that further guidance and clarity is needed at policy level. There has been little specific support and guidance for teachers over the last twenty years, with only Developing Early Writing, Section 3 (DfES, 2001), Developing handwriting (2009) and the EYFS publication Mark Making Matters (2008) standing out as offering guidance to teachers on how to actually approach teaching this as a skill (25). There is a case for a handwriting focus in Junior schools now that we know much more about the benefits in terms of child development and the costs in terms of long-term cognitive development linked to learning in the classroom.
A few reflections
Recently, when I first re-read the above notes I began to see handwriting as something much more than a functional tool to help the purposes of assessment. I linked handwriting to the idea of to mind, body and soul, seeing handwritten expression as something that transcends notes, greeting cards and signatures. I remembered a scene from my own teaching:
Joshua, a Year Six pupil, had come to my classroom for an extension activity – a ‘booster’ class designed to help him and a small group of children secure ‘greater depth’ in their writing at the end of Key Stag 2. Joshua was a shy boy, tall, athletic, but lacking in confidence and very hesitant to put words onto a page.
We looked at a text together – an abridged version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ that allowed us to focus on characters, plot, language, and, above all, the process of writing. When I eventually got Josh to respond to an extract by writing in the first person I could see a flicker of excitement in his eyes. He read his passage aloud and I could instantly grasp some of the rich metaphors and descriptive language that he was attempting to use. I knew that the ideas were there. However, looking at his work, the text was undecipherable. There was no clear or consistent letter formations, the words were spaced at irregular intervals, no sense of capital letters being distinguishable from lower case. When I checked the rest of the group some had similar poor handwriting and presentation skills but Josh definitely stood out and, as a result, would hide his work from his peers, somehow conscious that we were playing through a scene of handwriting bias and a micro-illusion of social status based on the quality of handwriting in just the same way as had been played in the circles of history before us.
At the end of the session I asked if he could stay behind and he looked so nervous about what I was going to say he was almost in tears. I asked him what he was worried about but he shrugged his shoulders as if he had no idea at all or was just too embarrassed to say. I asked him if there was anything that I could help with and he stood, thought about it for a while, and then placed his book down on the table. He pointed to the sentence that I had written out under his and he said,
“Can you teach me to write like you do?”
Now, my handwriting is mostly awful. If you look in my notebooks you see scribbles, underlining, highlighting and an upright scrawled style that I can just about decipher if I know the content of what I’m writing about! But if I’m modelling writing on the whiteboard or responding to children’s work by writing comments in their books, I have a standard cursive style, taught to me by my Mum, who had learnt it from her Mum as part of the menu of social role play that we’d do. It was straight from Nan’s time as a maid at Osborne House. We’d joke that Mum could write like the Queen – a quite beautiful Italic style with careful attention to letter shape and form and I hadn’t thought about it in teaching terms before then.
I sat down and spent the next hour telling Joshua a brief history of penmanship, about how we use different styles for different reasons, and also how people can look at written work and have unconscious bias, or make judgements about character and status from the simplest extracts of writing.
Then I shared these short guiding instructions:
Small letters small
Tall letters tall
And everything on the line
I copied out
The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog
onto a sheet of paper and watched as he awkwardly tried to replicate the letters by tracing, and then writing underneath. He was concentrating so much and took such a long time – but I could see, instantly, a very different writing style to what he had been producing all of his school life. But his small letters were too tall, his tall letters too small, and the letters jumped above and below the line on the paper. Instinctively, I took some squared paper from my shelf, small squares – and drew two guidelines across the page, two squares apart.
I asked Josh not to lean his letters – I said that he should try to use the lines on the page to guide him – two squares tall for his ‘tall letters’, one square for his ‘small letters’, and stay within the guidelines, starting on the line for each initial letter. Well, I have to say, he was full of excitement and enthusiasm as he could see the sentence appear before his eyes with a completely different style to what he had ever done before.
I passed him a photocopied sheet which had a list of hand drawn cursive capitals and lower case letters and I said that if Josh wanted to take it he was welcome to do so. I also said that if he’d like to show me how his handwriting progresses I’d be keen to find out – and for now he should go and show his teacher the great work that he’d been doing in the booster session.
Josh said thank you and took the sheet of paper, his book and his pen and ran off to go and find his teacher. Remember, this was a sullen, apparently disengaged but bright Year 6 boy who was now eager to share what he had done.
What I didn’t know at the time is that back in the classroom his ‘new’ handwriting was causing a bit of a sensation. Not only was his teacher full of praise for his effort, which she was keen to highlight publicly, but his peers, conscious of this sensitive, reluctant writer, were keen to give him praise too.
The next day – and I mean the next day Josh brought an extended piece of writing to me written in beautiful cursive handwritten script. He confidently pointed out the letters that he’d used (cursive capital D and S were his favourite) and asked me to read his work, wondering if I thought it was ‘any good’. I swear that overnight, through his determination and purposeful practice, this boy had mastered cursive handwriting letter for letter. His written work was beautiful – jaw-droppingly beautiful, and he knew it. I didn’t know what to say. I thanked him for his efforts and, without thinking, said that I’d never seen such an amazing transformation in such a quick period of time. To thank him I would award him a special pen (there were a few fountain pens in my drawer that had been there practically forever). I presented the pen to him and he was full of confidence and that warm sense of achievement that you can see behind the pupils’ eyes when we authentically praise and reward the hard work that they have shown. His teacher was just as astonished by the work he was producing and presenting throughout the day.
Interestingly, Josh went on to captain his football team (after previously refusing to play) and even went on to play for the county – the only boy in his year group to do so. Was it the public praise? Was it his peers being so kind to join in on the encouragement? Was it the handwriting itself that unlocked the mind? Who knows?
But later that day, during break time, there was a knock at the door. It was another of the Year 6 pupils, this time one of the girls, nervously holding her book close to her chest as she looked up and said,
“Please will you teach me how to write like the Queen?”
I laughed and said that of course I would (I don't know if the Queen actually writes like that, by the way!) And sure enough, the joy that she took from presenting her work and looking at it with pride and a sense of achievement was contagious. Pupil after pupil came to the door each break – “will you teach me that fancy writing too?” They’d say.
This led to a number of unexpected outcomes:
1. A whole staff CPD session – I remember talking to teachers about the history and background of handwriting and then walked them through the same, incredibly simple, instructions and handwriting modelling. Note- these were Junior School teachers, pupils were aged 7-11 an important point.
2. The pupils wanted the handwriting sheets as if they were latest playground craze. For whatever reason, these things had school currency and became a ‘must have’ from classroom to classroom.
3. It cost me a fortune in pens. If pupil after pupil was going away and in their own time learning and then producing beautiful cursive handwriting which they also then used in their written books I had to recognise that in some way. Awarding a pen felt like a natural process and I was amazed at how motivational this became.
4. The quality of writing – written outcomes – shifted dramatically. Within three years the school I was working at had transformed writing results from some of the lowest performing grades in the country into externally moderated outcomes in line with the top 10% of schools nationally! Now, this wasn’t down to handwriting alone, I know that, but it was a dramatic shift and handwriting definitely played its part.
5. Confidence became contagious too. Not ego-driven arrogance – this was the sense of pride and accomplishment that runs alongside a culture of excellence, where wellbeing becomes a by-product of achievement.
6. It wasn’t drilled and taught in the classrooms. This was pupils taking nothing more than an idea and a photocopied sheet. From that point forwards my role consisted of mainly pointing out if tall letters weren’t tall enough, if small letters were too big and if words didn’t sit on the line, when the children would eagerly bring their writing examples to me. There were quite a few disappointed faces along the way – but without fail each one would eventually turn to one of joy and for some a euphoric sense of accomplishment when finally being awarded a pen.
There is an important caveat too. You can’t approach this earlier with the same impact. There is a level of evaluation and metacognition that is perfect for developing young minds between the ages of 7-11 years old. I believed that to try and teach about this or insist on this as a writing style before that stage of education could be counter-productive, and the words of some of the researchers found in these notes ring true.
There is another important point. A criticism of celebrating handwriting this way is ‘what about those children who can’t or could never achieve this? Isn’t it damaging or demoralising for them?’ I made sure every pupil was awarded a pen before the end of their time in primary school. And one boy, wheelchair bound due to cerebral palsy and unable to hold a pen, cried tears of joy (so did we, by the way) when he was presented with one in the same way as the other children following his own determination to master a series of keyboard challenges that we devised for him related to his assistive technology.
It was nice to remember I was a teacher.
Those were moments of joy.
Which makes me think that if we really wanted to put a spoke in the wheel of handwriting bias, picking up a pen in Key Stage 2 would be a good place to start.
Samples of Y6 creative writing
1 Christodoulou, D. (2018) Could handwriting bias write off exam chances? TES https://www.tes.com/news/could-handwriting-bias-write-exam-chances
4 Malloy, D (2017) Do we need to teach children joined-up handwriting? BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-41927258
5 Ates, H.K (2018) Problems of Gifted and Talented Students Regarding Cursive Handwriting: Parent Opinions, European Journal of Educational Research
Volume 7, Issue 2, 295 - 301.
6 Sassoon, R (2020) Rescuing Handwriting from Redundancy, https://nha-handwriting.org.uk/handwriting/articles/rescuing-handwriting-from-redundancy/
7 STA (2018) Teacher assessment frameworks at the end of key stage 2, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-assessment-frameworks-at-the-end-of-key-stage-2
8 Pinnington, H (2020) Why we stopped teaching cursive writing in Reception, TES, https://www.tes.com/news/why-we-stopped-teaching-cursive-writing-reception
9 STA (2018) Teacher assessment frameworks at the end of key stage 1, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-assessment-frameworks-at-the-end-of-key-stage-1
10 Hume, P (2020) Teaching Fully Cursive Writing in Reception, https://nha-handwriting.org.uk/handwriting/articles/teaching-fully-cursive-writing-in-reception/
11 Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/cursive, 2020
12 For further information see - Ancient Scripts: Rustic Capitals, Old and New Roman Cursive (2016) https://sites.dartmouth.edu/ancientbooks/2016/05/25/ancient-fonts-rustic-capitals-old-and-new-roman-cursive/, also Bischoff, Bernhard. Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
14 References in modern scholarly writings to 'scriptoria' typically refer to the collective written output of a monastery, somewhat like the chancery in the early regal times is taken to refer to a specific fashion of modelling formulars, but especially traditional is the view that scriptoria was a necessary adjunct to a library, as per the entry in du Cange, 1678 'scriptorium - Du Cange, et al., Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis, Niort: L. Favre, 1883–1887 (10 vol.). Scriptorium, see also Celenza, Christopher S. (Spring 2004). "Creating Canons in Fifteenth-Century Ferrara: Angelo Decembrio's "De politia litteraria," 1.10". Renaissance Quarterly. The University of Chicago Press. 57 (1): 43–98. JSTOR 1262374. Since the early medieval days of the foundling monastic orders, the library and the scriptorium had been linked. for the most part, the library was a storage space. Reading was done elsewhere – accessed via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriptorium (accessed 19th June 2020)
15 Harris, D (2003) The Calligrapher’s Bible, Bloomsbury publishing, London
17 Cohen, J (2012) A Brief History of Penmanship on National Handwriting Day, https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-penmanship-on-national-handwriting-day
18 See Woolfe, D (2020) How Handwriting Has Changed Over the Last 100 Years, Reader’s Digest, https://www.rd.com/culture/how-handwriting-has-changed/ (accessed 19th June 2020)
19 Large, H (2020) Pencils down! How tech took over the classroom, Express and Star, https://www.expressandstar.com/news/education/2020/01/16/pencils-down-how-tech-took-over-the-classroom/ (accessed 19th June 2020)
20 Free ipads for Scottish Pupils, The Economist, https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/08/29/free-ipads-for-scottish-pupils [accessed 21st June 2020]
22 Wolf, M (2018) Reader Come Home: the reading brain in the digital world, Harper Collins Publishers, p109-111
23 Doug, R. (2019) Handwriting: Developing Pupils’ Identity and Cognitive Skills, International Journal of Education & Literacy Studies, Volume: 7 Issue: 2
24 An excellent study - Mueller, P. A. and Oppenheimer, D. M.(2014) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science2014, Vol. 25(6) 1159–1168 (accessed 14.06.2020)
25 DFEE (2001) Developing Early Writing http://www.sassoonfont.co.uk/fonts/sas/pri_lit_dev_wrtng_005501.pdf [accessed 20th June 2020], DCFS (2009) The National Strategies Early Years Gateway to writing – Developing handwriting https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Gateway-to-Writing-Developing-handwriting.pdf [accessed 20th June 2020], DCFS (2008) Mark Making Matters, https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2011/10/Mark_Marking_Matters.pdf