Dr. Angela Webb in dialogue with the Schreibmotorik Institut February 2017
“Handwriting is a skill that must be taught properly” – Reforms of curricula consider writing motor skills
Since 2014 both, the curriculum in Bavaria, Germany (LehrplanPLUS) and the national curriculum in the United Kingdom, emphasize the importance of good handwriting lessons in order to develop legible and efficient handwriting. Dr. Angela Webb, Chairman of the National Handwriting Association reports on key issues and experiences in the UK. The Situation in the UK is rather different than Germany. So far writing lessons have been taking place first and foremost in preschool with the children beeing only 4 years old. After teaching the alphabet, there were no more proper handwriting lessons.
Why is it so important to give more weight to writing motor skills in school curricula?
Research evidence suggests that writing by hand enhances cognitive learning in other curriculum areas, such as fact retention and written composition quality. The continuation of handwriting teaching beyond Year 4 has been inserted into the National Curriculum; also the teaching of speed. These alterations have been made, because Standard Assessment Tests showed a decline in handwriting standards after the age of 7 years when no provision was in place for continuing teaching pupils to 11. Handwriting is a skill that must be taught properly. Continuing to teach children until they develop high levels of automaticity removes the risk of them failing in the long term. Children must be able to perform handwriting with the minimum of conscious effort so that vital cognitive resources are not diverted away from composing the content. This should be every teacher's goal. Guidelines on the time necessary to devote to practice and critical practice styles and frequencies would be helpful for teachers.
How is the status-quo of writing lessons in Great Britain?
At present, it is estimated that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 3 boys are not writing well enough to access the secondary school curriculum. This needs to improve and is the reason for the current focus on standards. Schools which follow the National Curriculum are required to teach handwriting. However, the new Academies and the independent schools are not bound to do so. Interestingly, however, these two groups of schools tend to be keen to teach it. There would appear to have been a gradual increase in standards of writing since the new guidelines were introduced, though true outcomes are still to be measured and there is room for further improvement. Leadership from the senior management teams in schools is vital for a successful transfer of those guidelines so that all members of the school communities value the skill and give it priority.
Which role do teachers play in the process?
Skilling individual teachers in how to teach it is crucial. They are at the coal face and make the biggest difference. Teachers need first to understand the wider implications in ensuring their pupils write confidently but also need to be taught the critical 'nuts and bolts' of imparting the skill. Unfortunately, too many teachers in the UK have received no training at all, either at university during their initial teacher training or at their schools. This is an issue to be addressed. There is no provision of further trainings in this field made by the government but The National Handwriting Association, a charity, offers courses for teachers, teaching assistants and therapists and in-service training for individual schools.
What are your suggestions for other countries based on your experiences in the UK concerning handwriting?
In the UK we have a saying " There is no need to re-invent the wheel". Other countries can benefit from the groundwork already done in the UK, evaluating how successful we are, and use this data to improve their own provision. To promote handwriting in schools and educational institutions, there have to be initiatives directed from government if there is to be any impact and effect lasting change in schools. Lobbying government, in my view, is the place to start. There has to be consistency – joined up thinking – within every educational establishment: teacher training colleges and schools, so that handwriting is valued and understood across the system. The biggest problem is influencing those responsible for policy-making, showing them the relevant evidence in order to get them onside. How to disseminate that evidence is what has to be considered.
Dr. Angela Webb is a psychologist specialising in the cognitive and academic difficulties experienced by children with developmental disorders, particularly Developmental Coordination Disorder. This has led to her interest in children with handwriting difficulties. She works on a multi-disciplinary team at The Queen Anne Street Practice in Central London and as an advisor in schools. She also lectures part-time at the Institute of Education, London University where her research focus is the link between handwriting problems and poor written composition.