Why our children's handwriting is in crisis

Asia's Tech News Daily

Some experts think the handwriting problem is more acute at secondary school – E+

If your children’s Christmas wish lists are proving hard to decipher, pity their teachers who have been grappling with illegible schoolwork ever since pupils returned to the classroom this summer.

Handwriting standards have plummeted across all age groups, from the youngest children learning to form letters in Reception to Year 11 teenagers churning out essays in the run-up to GCSEs.

School inspectors first highlighted the issue 12 months ago, warning that handwriting standards “had been affected by pupils’ time away” from the classroom. The subsequent lockdown in January, which shut schools across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for most of the spring term, exacerbated the problem with the shift to online learning.

“Lockdown proved to a certain group of children that we don’t need to be writing any more,” says Sheilagh Blyth, an occupational therapist who specialises in handwriting. “Younger kids missed out on some of the opportunities to learn letter patterns and formations. Older kids missed out on the opportunity to gain speed and legibility without regular practise.”

Of course, it’s a symptom of a wider problem: as Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, indicated yesterday, we are starting to see the breadth of lockdown’s impact on our children’s education. But for parents, handwriting takes on added emphasis – it’s long been an aspect of our children’s school books that we analyse at home.

Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman says some young children lost physical dexterity and confidence through a lack of practice while confined to their homes in the first lockdown – Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

“This is a big problem for my almost 10-year old,” says one mother. “When they sent two years’ worth of his books back together, the deterioration was stark and it hasn’t recovered.”

Another mother frets that her younger son, who is almost six, has fallen behind compared with his older brother. “His handwriting is definitely not where I think it should be,” she says. “He hadn’t learnt the simple stuff properly of writing some letters the correct way so he is having to relearn now, which we all know is very hard.”

Sonia Edwards, deputy head, academic, at St George’s, Edinburgh, an independent day and boarding school for girls from three to 18 years, thinks the problem is more acute at secondary school. “We noticed that the move to online learning, even back in school, means the practice of handwriting is being lost. At the moment, there is concern that there is too much emphasis, on occasion, on the use of typing,” she says. Some GCSE coursework has to be typed, she adds, yet pupils need to write the exam papers. “Handwriting is still a skill that will be needed until we change how we do assessments.”

Blyth warns: “Handwriting is one of those things that need to be practised regularly. It’s like being an athlete; you can’t just go and run a marathon. If you want to write in exams you need to build up endurance for the letter formation and the swing [in joined up writing].”

Although there is no national approach to penmanship in England – each school can choose how it is taught – handwriting still forms part of statutory assessments at primary school. “It’s crucial to carve out direct teaching time for this skill while it is still very much part of our teaching and learning system,” says Gill Budgell, an educational consultant who wrote Penpals for Handwriting, a scheme for three to 11-year-olds published by Cambridge University Press. “[Learning handwriting] doesn’t ‘just happen’ as there are fewer and fewer day-to-day opportunities or requirements to write with a pen or pencil.”

According to an October 2020 report by Ofsted about its recent visits to schools, primary leaders commented that writing was “an issue for some pupils, including writing at length, spelling, grammar, presentation, punctuation and handwriting”.

The Write Dance programme is an approach to teaching handwriting that is based on physical movement. Diana Strauss, who runs the scheme in the UK with Nicole Barrons, says they focus on the link between physical activity and handwriting. “Whole body movement, such as being outdoors and using play equipment, loosens up the shoulders and the arms, keeps wrists strong, and generally has a positive impact on physical tasks, which handwriting is.”

Young children suffered in particular during lockdown when playgrounds were locked and families were constricted to their local areas to exercise, she adds. Strauss is seeing more interest from schools in accessing the Write Dance programme, which was developed in the 1960s by Ragnhild Oussoren, a Dutch graphologist. “We’ve been busy doing interactive live training sessions,” she adds, particularly with schools in Wales, where the Welsh government is prioritising physical development.

The good news is handwriting is one area where parents can help their children at home, experts agree. Strauss recommends acting out favourite stories and rhymes to get younger children moving, while Blyth says something as simple as buying some new writing equipment can work wonders.

“There are a lot of ergonomic pens and pencils out there. I don’t mean using pencil grips. When children find something comfortable to write with they can concentrate on how they write,” adds Blyth. “They need to be getting the sizing right. Making sure the t is tall because if it isn’t that’s going to affect legibility.”

Perhaps there is hope for Father Christmas and those gift wish lists after all.

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