Handwriting; a lost art or a necessity for child development?
By Hannah Fairburn – Senior Occupational Therapist
This month has been a big one for the OTs of Western Kids Health. Newspapers, radio and live television interviews about trends in handwriting. This opened a platform for questions from the public and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect further on questions from the community.
“Why do we need to be able to hand write? We now live in a world where we have typing, auto correct and AI to do all that for us.”
But it really needs to be looked at on a much deeper level.
Perhaps we’re not handwriting as much as we once were. But nearly every therapy room in this building has a whiteboard which is used daily, our therapists, be dieticians, speechies, OTs, physios or psychologists, send their “homework” home on a handwritten piece of paper.
It’s not just here. Every corporate worker will know the dread that accompanies the butchers paper and coloured sharpies at a team meeting. Carpenters, sparkies, designers, stage managers, engineers, will often elect to draft their initial ideas with pen and paper. If they’re techy, it’ll be a simulation of the same with stylus and work pad. Accountants still jot down numbers. Politicians handwrite notes to each other in parliament. Our plumber recently hand drew a complicated diagram of our septic system. Because nothing can beat pen and paper when we need to order our thoughts spatially, or work through a problem.
A notepad is light, disposable, never runs out of charge, and won’t result in a firm talking- to from your boss if you drop it in a puddle. The days of English exams may be long behind us, but I would say we collectively handwrite way more than we think.
But what about our kids? Where does the line need to be?
Handwriting activities dominate the school day for our kids.
But it’s not just handwriting, it’s fine motor skills which form the foundations of activities of daily living. When they wake up, they turn taps, take lids off toothpastes, spread toast, open cereal packets, twist milk lids, and that’s all in the first 20 minutes of waking.
If we take away the need for handwriting, we take away the yet another opportunity to develop and practice fine motor skills. So, what’s the flow- on effect?
Let’s break down what handwriting actually looks like:
How much do we need to practice? Are schools doing enough?
Teachers are building on the foundations already in place and we find they are great referrers when it comes to identifying handwriting difficulties with their students. OT’s love working with teachers and they are big supporters of implementing OT strategies in the classroom.
We constantly hear “are teachers doing enough?”
Research says students need 75-100 hours of handwriting instruction per year to consolidate their skills. With the current curriculum demands and expectations, I would be curious to know if schools have enough hours in the day to provide this level of explicit learning, through no fault of their educator’s talents.
Most schools have handwriting programs and resources in place to support modelling and delivery of handwriting in the younger years. You may have heard of programs such as Peggy Lego which is widely used across WA schools. The program is a systematic way of teaching prewriting patterns, which form the basis of all letters of the alphabet.
Here’s when we would expect to see some key milestones in handwriting development:
- By the end of Kindy– consolidated all prewriting shapes for their age(see below), starting to form letters, print first name independently
- Pre- primary– Able to form all letters of alphabet correctly from memory
- Year 1– Write legibly (letters placed on the line, consistent spacing, correct size 70% of time)
- Year 2- 80% accuracy with legibility, increasing speed and written output compared to Year
The evidence says the period between Kindy and year 2 is crucial for the development of pencil control and pressure (how hard they push when they write).
This means fine motor skills training should be applied before learning to write, and then continued throughout early primary schooling.
Does this mean we need to be thinking about handwriting well before the child attends even Kindy? Before day care?
Therapists would agree, fine motor opportunities and variation need to be introduced as early as the newborn stage.
While we know every child develops at different times and is dependent on a multitude of factors, there are indicators that we look for to decide whether an occupational therapy assessment and intervention is warranted.
When to check in for kids aged 4-5 years old
- Uncontrolled lines
- Difficulty forming “sharp” corners of the triangle and square
- Unable to recognise name, letters of the alphabet or recite the alphabet
- Inefficient pencil grasp
- Not yet having a dominant hand
- Discomfort when writing
Flags to check in for kids who are 6-7 years old
- Uncontrolled lines
- Difficulty forming letters and number correctly
- Discomfort when writing
- Difficulty reading / recognising letters and simple CVC words
- Increase avoidance with handwriting, homework and craft tasks that result in tears
- Lack of creation and imagination
What does the research show?
- Grip strength improves pencil control
- Grip strength improves handwriting legibility in typically developing children
- Grip and pinch strength improve with functional abilities
What this shows, is that fine motor and hand strength will lead to improvements in handwriting such as control and legibility as well as independence in activities of daily living.
How about running writing? Is it still taught?
Schools in Australia are shifting away from Victorian cursive (running writing) and instead, we write in, what we call Foundation print. This is much easier to pick up as it more closely replicates the prewriting patterns expected for our 4-year-olds.
It is, however, a good idea to check what font your child is being taught at school. Some schools are still teaching Victorian Cursive (or a font similar), so it is helpful to know what is being taught at school as it may differ to what you learnt at school. Also, it is handy to know if you are buying those handwriting lesson books, that you are getting the correct font for your child!
Handwriting in the upper years
Here in WA, we see a heavy focus on handwriting in the early years, lessening into later primary school and dropping off further in high school, as more technology gets introduced.
Is this a bad thing? Well, as our teens enter their later high school years and final year exams, they are all required to be handwritten for 3 hours nonstop. Handwriting is a skill, it needs practice. After years of submitting typed assignments, this is confronting for many students.
This brings up many issues including pain, tiredness, illegibility, hand cramping and other challenges which our students are faced with when it comes to written tests and exams.
Interestingly, while students often express a preference for typing in more essay- heavy subject examinations such as English and HASS, many still prefer handwriting in STEM, LOTE and arts subjects. Take French: our keyboards are designed for English typing, so unless you are very savvy on your shortcuts “Où est le garçon à la fête?” is generally going to be easier and faster to handwrite. It is difficult to replicate this flexibility digitally in educational contexts, without an awful lot of expense and IT people being expended by the Department of Education.
And there is no news of changes to this plan. We saw NAPLAN make the jump to devices (iPad and computers) for assessments in the last 2 years, however since the children were typing, teachers were unable to assess handwriting progress. Therefore, opportunities for increased support where necessary from therapists were missed.
Research shows the speed of handwriting plays a vital role in a child’s ability to articulate their knowledge and thus impacts significantly on academic performance. Considering this, we want to assess our teens academic abilities but if their handwriting speed is impacted, we won’t get a full representation of their understanding.
Is handwriting necessary?
Taking all of the aforementioned points into account, it becomes evident that handwriting remains an indispensable skill for our children.
It serves as a pivotal gateway to academic excellence and plays a pivotal role in shaping their future success.
Handwriting offers an additional avenue for effective communication, fosters active participation in the classroom, bolsters self-esteem, and provides a means for creative expression and personalization.
Handwriting needs to be functional, and we need the basic foundational skills, but if the production isn’t perfect or doesn’t quite work for you, then the best next thing would be chatting with your occupational therapists to find other avenues to express yourself.