Teaching children to write by hand is one of the most important aspects of their early years education. Learning to write is a crucial milestone in developing memory processes, cognition and motor skills in young children, but surprisingly little attention or time is devoted to this area in classrooms or at home. 

Research on the link between handwriting in early education and increased academic performance as children grow up is increasing. One key benefit of achieving automaticity in handwriting – i.e. being able write and create letters without needing to allocate cognitive attention to the act of writing the letters themselves – is that it allows children to focus on the content of what they’re writing. Achieving this automaticity is a gateway to further cognitive development, helping to sharpen memory and hone processes for absorbing information.

Indeed, recent studies have evidenced that the physical movements involved in writing by hand, versus typing on a computer, are key parts of the thinking process that allows children to retain information. Researchers speculate that this is because the areas of children’s brains that are associated with reading are activated at a greater level when children wrote letters, as opposed to when they typed them. Children who developed stronger handwriting skills in early years have also been shown to have higher achievement in reading and mathematics in later years.

To help address the lack of attention currently given to handwriting, the Write Your Future campaign, from Berol and Paper Mate, created resources to help teachers engage with handwriting and commissioned my team to undertake the Developing Mark Making and Letter Formation study. We conducted qualitative research with seven early years teachers and 69 parents to understand how teachers, parents and children practise handwriting at school and at home. 

We found that time pressures and a focus on reading and maths means parents and teachers aren’t spending as much time as they would like to working on handwriting with young learners. However, we discovered that, armed with both more information about the benefits of learning to write and the tools to teach this, teachers were more likely to invest in developing this skill in the classroom. Parents were also more likely to engage with teachers and their children around handwriting when supplied with new ways to practise writing at home. 

The benefits of spending more time developing handwriting are clear. Teachers reported that children who could write by hand expressed themselves better than those who didn’t have strong handwriting skills, with 49% of teachers stating that children who are unable to write clearly are the most likely to feel frustrated and to lose their motivation to learn. Students reacted positively to creative and fun ways to practice handwriting, such as drawing in sand and on walls. 

Why learning to write by hand dr jane medwellI hope that this study will continue to supply teachers and parents with the tools to work on handwriting with their students; allowing every child to enjoy the learning benefits of handwriting.

To learn more about the Developing Mark Making and Letter Formation study, or use the resources developed by Write Your Future to support teaching handwriting in the classroom,please visit http://www.writeyourfuture.com/.

By Dr Jane Medwell, University of Nottingham

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