Handwriting matters

/, writing/Handwriting matters

Some years ago, during the interview for a role as Head of English in a secondary school, all the candidates were asked to speak about what we would prioritise if we were to get the job. I have no memory of what I said, but I vividly recall one of the other candidates saying he would focus on improving students’ handwriting. My bland inanities resulted in me getting the job; he didn’t make the cut and was sent home after lunch. How we laughed.

At the time it struck me that focussing on improving students’ handwriting as a secondary English teacher was an absurd waste of time. After all, who cares how neat their handwriting is? Why on earth should it matter? As with many things I used to believe, I have now changed my mind.

The two main arguments in favour of improving students’ handwriting are automacity and legibility.

Automacity

Essentially, anything that occupies our attention reduces our capacity to think. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses that fact that the effort required to maintain a walking speed above 14 minutes a mile makes it almost impossible to perform mental arithmetic. If someone asks us to think about a complex problem when we are walking we will, most probably, stop in order to give the matter our full attention. This is the same logic that leads us to turn down the volume of our car radio when reverse parking; if music is sufficiently loud it occupies too much of our attention to be able to safely complete the manoeuvre.

According to Nelson Cowan, we can only complete a cognitive task if we have sufficient ability to hold onto information as it is processed, and most  people are only able to concentrate on between 3 to 5 ‘chunks’ of information at any one time. When a student is writing, some thought will be given to content, some to style, and some to accuracy. All of this burns through working memory. If students are also having to give conscious attention to process of writing, they will have less attention to attend to more important matters.

According to Tucha et al, being able to write smoothly using legibly formed, joined up handwriting enables us to write with the least amount of distraction, whereas printing – writing each individual letter separately – leads to a greater portion of our limited working memory reserves being used to concentrate on the process of writing. They say:

The automatic production of strokes, letters and words frees up mental resources for the process of composing or the understanding of the content of texts or lessons. Therefore, the consideration of fluency or automaticity of handwriting in national curricula appears to be necessary if not mandatory. (p. 154)

Legibility

The other reason for focussing on improving students’ handwriting is legibility. It should be obvious that if no one can read what you’ve written, all attempts at automacity are wasted. All teachers will have experienced the frustration of having to struggle through shockingly bad handwriting, and this places a strain on our patience. I would always try to ensure the books of those students whose handwriting I knew would make reading their work a chore at the top of the pile, when I was at my freshest; after an hour or so spent marking I’d have little energy left for deciphering spidery scrawl.

It turns out that handwriting casts a halo effect. We tend to assume that people with well-formed, easily legible handwriting are also cleverer. Although handwriting never features in GCSE or A level exam rubrics, the effects of handwriting bias are well established. When we read the work of students we know, we bring our knowledge of them to the task of assessing their work. If our experience suggests that a student is able, we’ll tend to overlook poor handwriting. But, if nothing else is know – as in the case of examiners marking the work of anonymous candidates – we may be biased by students’ handwriting. The effects might only be small, but if an examiner assumes a student is brighter they’ll look first at the upper bands of a mark scheme, and if they intuitively decide a student is less bright, they’ll begin with the lower mark bands.

The difference between being awarded a 4 or a 5 in the new GCSEs could be a little as on mark. It could be that some students will not get the grades they deserve simply because their handwriting isn’t up to snuff.

So, if both automaticity and legibility are important, what should we do?

In this excellent article, secondary English teacher, Sarah Barker talks through her efforts to teach handwriting automacity to her students, based on Sassoon and Briem’s book, Improve Your Handwriting. Barker showcases some quite dramatic examples of the improvements in her students’ work, and her blog is well worth a read.

How likely students are to handwrite with automacity is somewhat dependent on the way they’ve learned to hold and use a pen. Some grips actively make it more difficult for students to write, and, ideally, we should use the tripod grip to hold a pen; anything else is likely to be sub-optimal.

Obviously, you can automatise writing with various other grips but these are likely to lead to hand strain, less writing resilience and, ultimately, more distraction.

One possible solution to improving the automaticity and legibility of students’ handwriting is the Anti-Ballistic pen. Some time ago, Dutch handwriting experts Astrid and Ben from Schriftontwikkeling – The Foundation for the Development of Scripture – got in touch to tell me about their new invention.

Essentially, it’s a normal ballpoint with an additional plastic moulding to which a little bell is attached.

Here’s what they say:

When we write, the pen tip moves over the paper. However, the speed at which it moves is irregular. We call this ballistic displacement. Writing speed falls when forming curves and is quicker when forming straight parts of letters. It’s very difficult to make people aware of this. That is why this auto-feedback pen has been developed. The pen immediately emits a small sound as soon as it moves irregularly. The goal is to write silently!

This anti-ballistic way of writing has a rapid and positive effect on the quality of handwriting. When practicing with the AB pen, movements are performed more economically. The movement deflection is reduced and so is the sentence length.

In order to for good handwriting to be effortless, students need to hold a pen using the tripod grip. Sadly, many students have learned to write using grips which actively make it harder to write easily.

In order to improve the common ‘thumb over’ grip, the AB pen has a ‘splitter’ attached. Because the correct grip has to be applied automatically, students find handwriting much easier.

Obviously they can’t promise perfect handwriting, but they do guarantee a visible improvement in handwriting quality in all cases.

They warn that writing speed decreases dramatically the first time the AB pen is used, but, with practice, students will regain speed, and, as they become used to the process of gradual pen point displacement, pace can be slowly increased.

I’ve trialled the pen in with a number of students in some of the schools I work with and, so far, impressions have ben very favourable. Some students love using the pen, and, while others initially hate it, all do seem to improve. Used in conjunction with the techniques outlined in Barker’s blog, this could make a real difference to the automaticity and legibility of students’ handwriting.

As far as I can see, the only downside to the AB pen is cost. Currently, Schriftontwikkeling are charging £18 to ship one of their pens to the UK. This might sound prohibitive, but they do make clear that the AB pen should not be used in a group, or without supervision. The pen is intended to raise awareness of  the process of handwriting and to retrain students’ habits during one to one intervention. After intervention, they suggest that  students should imagine their regular pen has a bell and strive to prevent the imaginary bell from sounding.

If you’re interested in getting hold of an AB pen, let me know by email. I’m currently negotiating to see if I can reduce the costs, and, if enough people are interested, we may be able to get a better deal.

2018-02-13T14:09:04+00:00

15 Comments

  1. AB Kay February 13, 2018 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    I can remember many a conversation around teaching handwriting and how pointless it seemed these days, and wholeheartedly agreeing. Like you, I have since changed my mind (for many reasons, including those above) and I wince at the memories of trying to convince parents that they really shouldn’t be focusing too much on handwriting whenever they expressed concerns about their children. Humble pie, eaten.
    Bringing to the fore the importance of automaticity with relation to the brain certainly strengthens the argument.
    Once again, thank you for providing references to the research so we can follow up on the sources ourselves.

  2. Tom Burkard February 13, 2018 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Additional points to remember if you’re teaching beginners: NEVER ask them to copy letters freehand. Use worksheets with traceable letters that have dots to represent the starting point and arrows showing the direction of the pencil. It can also be useful to have the pupil say the sound while tracing the letter. Tracing should continue until letters can be formed correctly and fluently. NEVER make pupils use cursive script until they have automatised the strokes for individual letters. It shouldn’t take too much imagination to understand the cognitive load issues involved when pupils are still trying to recall which letters represent which sounds, and which words aren’t spelled the way they sound–and then how to join letters up. When teaching children to form individual letters, they face a relatively simple task. For the exercises we devised, we used Handwriting for Windows, a pre-cursive script that makes the transition easy.

    Outside the weird and wonderful world of education, training programmes almost always demand fluency in basic operations before introducing more complex tasks. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head is driver training, where learner drivers have to master the controls whilst at the same time watching the instruments and coping with our crowded roads. In the US, high schools normally set up road cones in the school parking lot and have learners navigate a simple course–and this is in cars with automatic transmissions. They don’t have to face traffic until they’re reasonably competent with the controls.

  3. Milly February 13, 2018 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    The National Handwriting Association is a useful place to find advice about how to teach handwriting. They have a number of well referenced publications and run an excellent 5 day training programme. http://www.nha-handwriting.org.uk/

  4. Ian February 14, 2018 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Important to consider the kind of pen! Biros & ball points require you to gouge a channel in the paper in which the ink then flows. We’ve all seen the extreme versions of an exercise book where this happens, but the principle is universal. The amount of effort required to do this is huge (particularly when sustained) & ruins the fine motor control needed for good writing. Fountain pens and fibre tips glide over the surface of the page with far less effort, therefore ensuring that they are much easier to write with on a purely physical level. If you want good handwriting, insist on proper pens (& pay less than 18 quid).

    • David Didau February 14, 2018 at 7:37 am - Reply

      I’ve never liked using a cartridge pen, and have never experienced this gauging effect of which you speak. It’s simply not true to say that the effort it takes to use a ball point is “huge” and neither does it “ruin the fine motor control needed for good writing”.

      • Luke February 14, 2018 at 9:58 am - Reply

        Hi David, I am more sympathetic to Ian’s views than you, I think. I certainly do think there needs to be more discussion about pen choice. I am often struck how poor pen quality contributes to an unfavourable impression on me as I mark, and I am also of the view that students would benefit from getting a nib width more in keeping with their size and style. I have decided to take on handwriting at my school and am glad to hear that you are of the view that it is important. It seems to me that there is a strong relationship between student application and student presentation.

        • David Didau February 14, 2018 at 12:19 pm - Reply

          This seems like a matter of taste and opinion. If you think pen choice is important then I guess the question is how you provide pens equitably to those who might struggle to afford a cartridge pen. I’ve found that it’s perfectly possible to improve handwriting without the need to use a special nib, but maybe it would be helpful for some.

      • paracelsian February 14, 2018 at 1:00 pm - Reply

        ‘It’s simply not true to say’
        Well, no, that’s your opinion – in reality there is a huge difference in the way that pens work – and that this does have a substantial effect upon how long one can write without tiring – which is closely related to how good your writing is.
        Biros and ball points have a viscous, oil based ink that actually takes more effort to transfer to paper. Ball points have to ‘gouge’ a channel in which their ink then flows – I can’t believe you’ve never experienced this – run your hand over the back of a page on which someone has written with a biro and you will feel the indentations. Teaching at secondary I regularly encountered students whose handwriting pressed through five or six pages.
        This is easy to see when marking A level (or university) essay based exams – the deterioration in the quality of handwriting is markedly quicker where students are using pens that require the gouge. You don’t see this with either fiber tip or fountain pens.
        This relates to the fine motor skills point made above – students who moan about arms aching after exams are the gougers – victims of poor pen choices.
        I note below that you question ‘how you support people who can’t afford a cartridge pen’ (ironic considering the £18 link above), but I’m not suggesting people spend a fortune – fibre tip and fountain pens can be purchased cheaply.

        • David Didau February 15, 2018 at 3:38 pm - Reply

          There’s no irony here. The AB pen is not for general use. A school would buy one to work with individual students. This was made clear in the post.

          Also, note I’ve not claimed that other pens might not be preferable to ball points. What I said was, “It’s simply not true to say that the effort it takes to use a ball point is “huge” and neither does it “ruin the fine motor control needed for good writing”.” Conceivably it might be harder to write as neatly with a ballpoint but that completely misses the point of this post. What I’m arguing is important is that students’ handwriting is both automatised and legible. Anything beyond that is trivial.

  5. deedadog February 15, 2018 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    My question would be, as a primary teacher, when is it too late to change a child’s grip?

    • David Didau February 16, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      I don’t think it’s ever too late – it’s a matter of deciding whether it’s worth the effort. Some children have automatised, legible handwriting with a sub-optimal grip. I’d say it’s probably not worth trying to change their grip and instead focus on children whose handwriting is a real problem.

  6. TomS February 19, 2018 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Hello.
    Thank you for the article – an interesting read.
    I would be interested in trying an AB Pen, got to be worth a go.
    Please let me know if you get enough interest to get a cheaper offer.

  7. chestnut February 20, 2018 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Hurrah! Yes handwriting is very important. Just the way it looks to the child is important, if it looks rubbish then they think they are rubbish at school work. Ask adults with terrible handwriting and they will often say it makes them feel ashamed that they cannot write legibly and easily. Two more things: very often when children move from primary to secondary they are expected to write more quickly so their handwriting can become worse; when boys go through their growth spurt their hands get bigger quickly so they sometimes have to relearn how to hold a pen or relearn how it feels to write.

  8. Amanda Veater March 4, 2018 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    I agree with chestnut, children are concerned about their handwriting. In the past, working in a PRU with pupils mainly excluded from mainstream due to their behaviour, when asked what they wanted to improve about their English work, they said: their handwriting. As a consequence, every English lesson began with 10 minutes of handwriting. Not only did their handwriting improve, they settled more quickly at the start of the lesson and began to feel better about committing themselves to writing tasks.

    One thing I do find strange about most teaching of handwriting in the UK, however, is that we teach children one form of handwriting (printing) and then, once they’ve just about mastered that, we tell them they’ve got to learn a completely different style (cursive, italic or whatever). In France, they are taught cursive from the word go and yes, it may make a five year old’s handwriting difficult to read at first (due to all the wobbly loops and joins), but at least by the time they need to write more quickly for exams etc, they have pretty much achieved automacity.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: