Sue Smits on cultivating cursive competence.
The questions I am most frequently asked are ‘What are the main causes of messy handwriting?’ and ‘How can I improve it?’ Well, there are no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solutions. but there are many ways we can help to improve it.
Common causes of handwriting issues
Years of evidence based research, classroom observations and personal experiences as a parent and grandparent, have identified some key contributing factors that may be evident from birth and in early learning environments.
Poor development and weaknesses in fine motor skills can make learning to write challenging from an early age, especially when young emerging writers are learning letter formation and pencil grasp. In older children, poor bilateral integration and lack of binocular vision can impact handwriting ability.
The absence of handwriting practice and the opportunities to practise both in the classroom and at home hinder legibility. Children who do not have the opportunity to develop and repeat the developmental stages they are being taught struggle to embed the skill and technique to write legibly at speed.
Rushing a child to join and adopting the cursive entry or lead-in stroke from the start without the child having the required skills to form letters correctly is often seen as a key contributing factor
to a child’s inability to write legibly and fluently. Many schools continue to teach this method despite new government legislation to ensure that it is phased out.
Pre-cursive and the legacy of the lead-in stroke
Cursive just means joined up handwriting. Having read and assessed numerous research papers regarding the teaching of cursive with a lead-in stroke from Reception, I suspect that there might be a commercial interest at play. Inadequate central guidance on how to teach handwriting and the absence of teacher training has led to an obsession with cursive handwriting which has contributed to poor legibility and penmanship. There is also no reliable evidence to support the idea that children with educational challenges, including dyspraxia and dyslexia, find pre-cursive and cursive with the lead-in stroke easier than printing individual letters. The overly cursive script becomes problematic when energy is focused on thinking about the complicated strokes linking the letters together rather than concentrating on interesting content.
The bigger picture
If we taught EYFS to sit at a table and practise handwriting more, would it be beneficial higher up the school? Writing by hand is extremely hard work and a complex activity using a wide range of skills which are not fully developed until the child reaches 8 years old. Young children should not be rushed to write but instead encouraged to play, colour, cut out, dress up, climb and dig to encourage good postural control, bilateral integration and help their hands develop ready for writing. New guidance from the Department for Education in the new Reading Framework for Teaching Literacy focuses on good postural control and pencil grasp, delaying the teaching of joining and not teaching the lead-in stroke from the baseline.
The kinetic chain of development
Delays in the development of motor skills and the kinetic chain will lead to poor posture and difficulties with midline crossing skills. Without good postural control and good bilateral integration of gross motor skills, it is difficult for the writer to hold their body upright and engage the fine motor skills needed for legible handwriting.
Primitive reflexes and handwriting
Primitive reflexes are involuntary reflex actions that originate in the central nervous system. Children’s primitive reflexes integrate in the first 12 months of life. However, if this process is interrupted through maternal or environmental stress such as a traumatic birth or the lockdown during the pandemic, developmental immaturities can occur, leading to educational challenges for children.
For many, this has been a contentious subject. Yet there are sufficient credible research papers linking retained primitive reflexes to handwriting difficulties. Many professionals prefer to dismiss any new evidence regarding primitive reflexes.
However, we need to be mindful that older research stating that there is no link between primitive reflexes and handwriting performance is outdated and we need to be open to more recent pieces of research and analysis. We cannot ignore more recent case studies and research which states that integration of primitive reflexes results in a significant improvement in handwriting. Likewise, academics have stated that handwriting interventions that are underpinned by motor learning and cognitive learning strategies are more effective in improving legibility because they increase academic, cognitive, and motor performance. So the first question I always ask myself when looking at illegible handwriting is, “Has the child properly suppressed all of their primitive reflexes?”
Most children, especially children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, are not afforded the time or opportunity to learn correct letter formation and spacing before progressing to joining. Learning similar letter shapes and formations encourages children to build muscle memory. If this is missed, then there is a higher chance that they will struggle with joined up handwriting. The ideal age to start joined up handwriting is eight years old. The rush to join means that children are not taught the letter families which are fundamental to letter recognition and joining letters correctly later on. Cursive handwriting from the start misses out the vital building blocks needed for human development. These are required for all children to develop academically and will enable them to write fluently at speed during exams.
It is essential that all stakeholders involved in a child’s educational journey of learning to write have a good understanding of what is required for learning to write legibly. It is no longer good enough to say we’ve always done it this way. Each child is on their own journey with their handwriting, so it’s up to us to embrace the science and identify any early issues and make appropriate interventions.
Sue is the founder of Morrells Handwriting and resources.
LinkedIn: @Sue Smits