The Future of Handwriting: What We Think

Last year, we reported on a survey that was asking parents and teachers whether handwriting mattered. The results are in.

Last year, we reported on a survey that was asking parents and teachers whether handwriting mattered. The results are in.

By Dr Noella Mackenzie, Charles Sturt University

The survey generated lots of interest. If you were one of the 353 parents (40 per cent of the sample), 434 teachers (50 per cent of the sample) or 79 retired teachers (9.1 per cent of the sample), thank you for taking the time to complete the survey.

The majority of teacher respondents came from New South Wales and Victoria – most from metropolitan (46 per cent), followed by regional cities (28.8 per cent), rural towns (19.5 per cent) and remote locations (3.6 per cent). The spread was similar for parents and retired teachers.

Most respondents represented government schools: teachers (57.2 per cent), retired teachers (76.9 per cent) and parents (61.6 per cent) although respondents also came from non-government schools.

So what did the survey respondents say?

  • The teachers (92 per cent), retired teachers (95 per cent) and parents (94 per cent) indicated that handwriting remains important in the 21st century
  • The retired teachers (92 per cent) and current teachers (88 per cent) indicated their belief that handwriting can affect learning in other disciplines
  • Most teachers (86 per cent), retired teachers (87 per cent) and parents (80 per cent) believe that handwriting difficulties can impact a student’s self esteem
  • Most teachers (74 per cent), retired teachers (87.5 per cent) and parents (85 per cent) believe that handwriting should be taught all throughout primary school

Susan Cahill [from Midwestern University] has also argued that handwriting is a critical life skill for primary school students.

‘In today’s environment of high-stakes testing, handwriting is a skill that is often overlooked in order to focus on other areas of the curriculum. However, research indicates that handwriting is tied to academic achievement, especially composition and literacy skills.’¹

  • Most teachers (87.5 per cent) and retired teachers (90.5 per cent) agreed that efficient handwriting frees up working memory so children can concentrate on their composition.

Medwell & Wray (2007), suggest that one of the most important rationales for handwriting instruction is the development of speed and automaticity thus freeing up working memory.²

What does that mean? What is working memory?

Some suggest that we can only keep three to five items in our mind at once. When we are learning something new, we have to pay more attention to the steps involved.

I am going to use learning to drive as an example. While we are learning to drive, we need to pay conscious attention to every element of the process: holding the steering wheel, using indicators, checking mirrors, working the brakes and accelerator (changing gears and working the clutch if the car is manual), watching the traffic, thinking about where we are going, speed etc.

This is a complex process that takes a lot of short term working memory when we are a learner but once we have become an experienced driver, we do a lot of the steps automatically, freeing up our working memory to think about other things: what to cook for dinner, where you are going on the weekend, what the kids need to do after school etc etc. You may also be able to manage a cup of coffee, change the radio station and carry on a sensible conversation.

I wonder: have you ever driven somewhere familiar and arrived thinking, I don’t remember anything about the trip? Crazy but true. I have a friend who once admitted that she headed off downtown one Saturday morning, to go shopping – but before she knew it she had pulled into the carpark at her work – nowhere near the shops. She couldn’t do that unless the steps involved in driving the car were automatic.

Writing is also complex: writing involves understanding of how to apply authorial skills (text structure selection – the right form for the communication – e.g. a report or a letter, sentence structure [grammar], and vocabulary choices) and secretarial or editorial skills (spelling, punctuation use and handwriting/keyboarding).

To write well you need to have the knowledge and understandings of all of these six dimensions.

So, when a child is learning to write, handwriting or keyboarding are only one of six different elements they need to juggle. That doesn’t include content, or what they are writing about. That is a lot to learn.

If our handwriting or keyboarding is automatic and fast, we can concentrate on other elements of writing. Neither skill is practiced for their own sake or enjoyment. We hand write or use a keyboard because we have a message to convey.

Children of the 21st century need (I think) to learn both skills so they can choose the appropriate method for the task. I do not write my research papers, reports or blog postings by hand, I use a keyboard and computer. But I do take notes by hand in meetings and I write on cards by hand. I still write my shopping list by hand. I think children should have the choice.

The full survey findings will be reported in a peer reviewed research journal in the future. In the meantime, Dr Mackenzie is offering findings from the survey on her blog, where this post originally appeared.

You can read our original article on the survey here.

¹ Cahill, S. M. (2009). Where does handwriting fit in? Strategies to support academic achievement. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(4), 223-228.

² Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15.

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