In these pandemic school days handwriting still matters!

By Anabela Malpique and Deborah Pino-Pasternak

During the last 1000 years handwriting has been the prevalent mode of writing. In today’s increasingly digital world, writing is changing as fast as we exchange emails, texts and tweets. In such a fast-paced society, our writing habits have changed to the point that individuals who prefer handwriting to typing are said to be an endangered species.

The current pandemic has forced teachers, students and families to rely more on technology-based forms of communication, not as a complement to traditional teaching conducted in the classroom, but as the unique means of teaching through computers, tablets, or smartphones, whenever schools, or whole systems, go into lockdown.

This raises very important questions about students’ abilities to communicate effectively through keyboarding or touch-typing and about the pedagogical strategies needed by educators to continue teaching writing (either on pen and paper or on keyboards) through distant synchronous activities (learning at the same time, in real time, such as during videoconferencing) or asynchronous activities (learning not occurring at the same time such as via email or set online class assignments).

Though some may argue that the current changes may be encouraging younger generations to acquire the written communicative skills of the future, our current research study shows that failing to recognise the value of handwriting in students’ writing development may come at a cost for some learners.

Is handwriting important in today’s digital age?

Effective writing depends on the development of both transcription skills, such as handwriting, and higher-level skills, such as planning and revising ideas when writing a text (as research shows). We know that transcription skills need to become automatized so that we can actually focus on what we want to say.

It’s very much like learning how to drive a car. First, we need to learn road rules, traffic regulations, and the controls and features of a car. Once these initial skills become automatized, we can actually focus on where we want to go, plan our journey and just enjoy the ride! As opposed to learning how to drive a car, though, developing effective writing skills is a much longer and complex learning process, with research suggesting it may take as much as 20 years to master.

With the introduction of digital devices for learning and the increased reliance on the computer to support reading and writing development as early as in preschools, researchers from across the globe have been reporting a reduced amount of time practising handwriting with paper and pen in schools today.

In some countries, children are taught typing before handwriting, and handwriting with paper and pencil is only introduced in later primary years. This option seems logical considering that young children’s first writing experiences today often start in interactions with mobile phones and tablets. And we know that writing by hand is a very complex skill, which relies on the acquisition and coordination of visual and motor skills that take effort and time to master. So, typing might be easier and more engaging for the young writer.

But should we take the easiest and fastest route? 

Research, including recent neuroimaging studies looking at the literate brain, makes a very strong case about the importance of handwriting with paper and pen.

Brain research shows that handwriting plays a critical role in both reading and writing. In the last decade, research has been comparing handwriting with pencil and paper, handwriting in a tablet, and typing in a keyboard and the effects of these different modes in children’s reading and writing performance. A major finding from this research is that handwriting with paper and pen results in greater gains in letter recognition over the other writing modes.

Our study and its findings

We examined 154 children in Western Australian schools on their level of handwriting automaticity at the end of their pre-primary year and one year later, at the end of Year 1.

We confirmed the importance of developing handwriting automaticity in early education. Our results indicated that children’s ability to write quickly and effortlessly using paper and pencil in pre-primary predicted children’s word reading and the quality of the texts they wrote one year later. So, handwriting automaticity not only predicted children’s writing abilities but also children’s reading abilities, well-aligned with findings from brain research.

Also our study shows that children’s ability to identify letters predicts long-term literacy success and that practising handwriting results in greater gains in letter recognition in the early years. This is significant it as it might help policy makers deal with declining NAPLAN results in writing achievement in Years 5, 7, and 9. This decline in students’ writing performance is an ongoing national concern.

We also assessed teaching practices for writing in pre-primary and in Year 1, and the time teachers devoted teaching writing. Our findings indicate that the time to teach writing is highly variable between schools and within schools, ranging from 20 minutes to five hours in pre-primary and from 30 minutes to two hours in Year 1.

Providing time for writing is a key element of effective writing development. The more opportunities children have to develop their writing skills the more confident they will be when facing a writing task. 

So, should handwriting by paper and pen be replaced by computer only experiences?

We now know that teaching handwriting in the first four years of schooling is critical for both reading and writing development. Research also shows the benefits of teaching keyboarding in upper-primary and secondary grades. So, in this new era of education, research indicates that the focus should be on preparing students to become “hybrid” writers.

For that, we need to learn more about children’s experiences and engagement with handwriting and typing in Australia. We also need to understand teachers’ preparedness and instructional practices for teaching both skills.

We believe in the meantime our study would be useful to those making decisions about teacher training programs and to government policy makers making decisions about curriculum. We believe all children could be empowered with effective skills to express their ideas into written language.

Dr Anabela Malpique is a lecturer in Literacy at the College of Science, Health, Engineering and Education at Murdoch University . Anabela holds a Master degree in Special Educational Needs (2008) and a PhD (2015) in Educational Psychology. She started teaching languages and literacies as a secondary school teacher in her home country (Portugal) in 1999 before moving to the UK, where she continued teaching in primary and secondary school settings. Her experience working with students from different backgrounds in inclusive settings moved her into wanting to learn more about how to respond to students’ differences and needs in literacy learning and development. Anabela’s research involves typically developing writers in both elementary and secondary schools. Anabela leads the literacy strand of Dr Pino-Pasternak’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA DE150100731) “Contextual Support for the Early Development of Self-Regulated Learning” funded by the Australian Research Council and Murdoch University.

Associate Professor Deborah Pino-Pasternak  is an Associate Professor at University of Canberra. She is a co-author in this research. Deborah trained as a Special Educational Needs teacher in Chile where she worked with children with hearing impairment and their families. She has held research only and research and teaching positions at The University of Cambridge, The Institute of Education in London, and Murdoch University in Western Australia. Deborah’s research focuses on the emergence and development of self-regulated in home environments and classroom contexts, investigating connections with children’s early academic success.

Anabela and Deborah investigate how cognitive skills and instructional environments contribute to the early development of writers. Their current project, Writing for all: Studying the development of handwriting and keyboarding skills in the Early Years, with Dr Margaret Merga (Edith Cowan University) and Dr Susan Ledger (Murdoch University) is funded by the Ian Potter Foundation.

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