Back in 2008 I had for a Head of English position. At one point during the morning, candidates were asked what aspect of English education was most important to them. I honestly have no memory of what I came up with, but I do remember another candidate saying that for him it was handwriting. He failed to make the cut.

Handwriting really doesn’t matter that much in most secondary schools. As long as pupils’ writing isn’t an illegible scrawl, teachers tend not to care too much about what it looks like. But this isn’t the case in primary schools. My daughters both have beautiful handwriting, and take real pride in making sure what they write looks good. And I’m impressed with this even though my own handwriting leaves something to be desired. I mean, it’s not like I don’t care, and it’s not as if looks like someone’s smudged a spider across the page, but beautiful it ain’t.

In last week’s post on Slow Writing, Hugo Kerr (author of a really excellent free e-book: The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching: Reading, Writing, Spelling, Dyslexia (& a bit besides)) got in touch to make a very interesting point about handwriting:

I teach literacy as a volunteer in primary school. All the kids I see are at basic level and all religiously join up their letters, at great cost in my view. The cognitive effort involved in joining up is obviously large and also obviously reduces capacity to think about the spellings themselves. I believe too much is being demanded too early. It is also striking that their tutor, me, does not, in fact, join his letters up. I think this is quite a big issue, in fact, acting to reduce kids’ confidence by deliberately enlarging the difficulties before them. I would be very interested in responses to this idea.

So I had a think. Could asking pupils to join up their writing possibility be a desirable difficulty that might have a beneficial impact on learning over the longer term? Or could this be a superfluous demand on working memory that might result in cognitive overload?

Hugo suggested that while we should be cautious when we  bandy about terms like working or short term memory as we actually know precisely what they mean (he offered the looser term ‘cognitive capacity’) that, yes, maybe the need for cursive was placing an unnecessary burden on young writers. He also added this: 

But I am also very sure that ‘affect’ is a huge factor. At the lower ends of achievement, at least, I think it is the largest by a country mile. You undoubtedly know that from the 1970s onwards ‘mathematics anxiety’ was a researched issue. When I am working in school I see enormous evidence of ‘literacy anxiety’ and it is obviously very important, though entirely overlooked…

Which makes adding a large and difficult cognitive task, like cursive writing, to an already rather difficult task in a highly competitive environment a costly affair, especially for the weaker students, and one we should revisit.

I’ve written about Hugo’s thoughts on the effect of affect before and agree that anxiety about being able to perform a task makes it much harder to complete that task with any degree of competency. Hugo also took the time to send a lengthier response via email which has agreed that I can share here:

It seems to me very clear that ‘my kids’’ writing behaviours show them struggling very considerably with joining up their letters per se. A great deal of their sometimes limited capacity for concentration seems to be directed at that fiddly, effortful and (to me) rather unnatural motor aspect of spelling. (I deploy the LCWC/SOS technique. Their learning therefore absolutely demands writing the words containing the pattern being learned. Most methods of learning spellings do, of course.)

Bear in mind these are the weaker readers, so they are wide open to demotivation, not to say humiliation, faced with these complicated squiggles, so ridiculous when considered in detail.

It seems to me self-evident that if cognitive capacity is so ferociously engaged in one domain, there will be correspondingly less of it available for the other domains we are actually interested in. This seems to me to be indisputable. If the acts associated with performing joined-up writing were allied to those demanded by the LCWC/SOS means of learning spellings, maybe there could be a useful coalition, but they do not seem to me to be related and, indeed, seem to me to be actually antagonistic.

If any of this is true, then it may be that we are fetishising joined up writing, or at least perhaps insisting upon it way too early? I find ‘joining up’ cumbersome and threatening (it looks a mess when I’m done; it feels clumsy and I feel stupid) and I think I remember this from school. I mostly don’t do joined up writing now. (Nor, of course, do most fonts. If it’s so cool, why not?)

Are we seeking to induce a fluent hand? If so, is there any evidence that that’s what is happening? I would very much doubt this, based on my subjective experience and observations in school. If it is doing this, it is quite cognitively and affectively expensive; is it cost-effective? (And the kids I get to teach are those for whom it is most expensive and intimidating, of course.)

Do adults actually do it? I am thinking about doing a small survey to see how much of adults’ writing is joined up and which letter patterns are, or aren’t, joined together. I only join up the easy, common patterns, ion, ing etc. How much ‘worse’ might we be if we had not been told to join up in youth?

Some letters, or combinations, differ in their shapes, of course, if they are joined up. Some letters, therefore, have to be learned in more than one form. At the stage where letters are being learned, this is probably quite a significant addition to the learning demanded; is it going to deliver sufficient to cover the extra cost (especially on the vulnerable weaker students)?

Some letter combinations are actually quite difficult to execute in joined up form. Capitals to subsequent letters, too.

Joined-up writing is not so simple, maybe?

What evidence is there that teaching joined-up writing early is necessary or useful? Would we know what it was aimed at? Do kids need to be taught any more than the basic stand-alone forms of letters? Can they not be allowed to develop fluency for themselves beyond the basic letter formation stages?

I am, as you can see, no expert. The evidence I have seen (not much proper stuff) seems to wash back and to quite a bit. But I think I am right to point to a high cognitive and affective cost for cursive writing, so if this has not previously been in the balance, maybe it is tipped a little unfairly to one side?

I have started a very small survey to collect samples of writing from school age and adult people. I am going to examine how much of it is performed in joined up writing and whether this relates reliably to particular patterns or combinations. I predict that many adults perform only some of their writing thus. If the kids do a greater proportion I think that might say significant things. I’ll let you know what I come up with, which won’t, of course, be of a rigorous standard!

None of this is to say that it’s unimportant to be able to write by hand. Clearly, pupils need to able to do it; in exams if nowhere else. But is too much time expended on teaching young children to use cursive handwriting? I’ve certainly not made up my mind on this and would be genuinely grateful for anyone, but particularly primary teachers, letting me know their thoughts on this.

Further reading

As chance would have it, Ross McGill also blogged about handwriting recently. You can read his post here.

@mazst got in touch to suggest these articles:

What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain

Cursive Benefits Go Beyond Writing