Teaching Handwriting – it’s complicated!
Handwriting is a very complex task. Moving a pencil to make letters is primarily a motor skill. However, recognising letters is a visual and memory skill. Knowing letter names and sounds relies on hearing, memory and language. Writing words and sentences requires the ability to combine all of these skills.
At its core, writing letters correctly on the page is a motor skill. It requires pencil control, knowledge of the formation pattern and the ability to visually perceive distances. Motor skills require practice to become proficient.
Handwriting is learnt
Handwriting is not a skill that humans are innately born to do. Walking, we naturally learn. General fine motor skills are learnt through play. Anyone who has watched two and three years olds play know that they are forever repeating skills. They open, close, fill, dump and constantly explore with their hands. This repetition improves their skills.
When toddlers pick up a crayon they explore. This exploration might include drawing on the walls and sofa! It then becomes more refined. They draw shapes, they draw people and they draw things. Then, they are taught to write their name.
Handwriting should be taught
The new policy guidance from the National Handwriting Association [NHA] (2019 p. 31) recommends that ‘handwriting skills need to be taught both as a timetabled discrete subject and through ongoing reinforcement of skills in everyday written language activities.’ They suggest that lessons should be focussed, short and at regular intervals, but will be influenced by the age of the children and the class profile. A daily session of ten minutes is recommended for young children learning letter formations. For older children, three sessions of 15 – 20 minutes per week may work better.
Early on, there should be a strong focus on letter formations. Sassoon (1995) highlighted that ‘unless the correct point of entry and direction of stroke for each letter is taught, understood and used from the start, it is progressively difficult to alter the wrong movement pattern that is practised and becomes habitual.’
Incorrect formation patterns can make handwriting illegible. They can slow a child down as they won’t automatically finish a letter on the right side to start the next. It also makes progressing to joined-up writing more difficult. So, it makes sense to teach correct formations right from the start.