keyboarding and handwriting

In these pandemic school days handwriting still matters!

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.

Why Australia is falling behind in teaching keyboarding and handwriting

When we write we want to produce a text that can be easily read by our intended audience. For me that means I move back and forth from the computer keyboard to pen and paper to phone, to my tablet. I use most of these just about every day as I create the various pieces of writing I need for specific reasons. What is important in each form is that it is easily understood.

I was taught handwriting at school but my keyboarding and texting skills are self-taught. While I have mastered a fair level of skill I envy my colleagues who can touch type when I see them whizzing around their keyboards. Even so I would not want to be trying to write this blog by hand. A keyboard in various forms is so much part of how we write today.

It is certainly not difficult to understand why senior school students are much more comfortable and efficient using a keyboard than writing by hand. I believe it is crazy that we are still making Year 12 students write essays by hand under exam conditions. At least we could offer a choice between handwriting and keyboarding.

It is however, equally crazy to ask a year 3 student who has not been taught how to use a keyboard efficiently to write an extended piece of writing on a keyboard.

The importance of handwriting to the learning of young children is well researched. We know handwriting is a complex perceptual-motor skill which requires visual motor coordination, motor planning, cognitive and perceptual skills and tactile and kinaesthetic abilities. We also know that handwriting requires sustained attention and sensory processing. It helps in many different and significant ways – supporting letter learning, reading, spelling and thinking. However I am wondering if keyboarding may be the new cursive writing.

Perhaps we could teach children to print first and then add the keyboard. In this way the teaching of cursive writing (the flowing type of writing a child is traditionally taught to use after mastering printing) would be replaced by the teaching of keyboard skills. This is what they are doing in Finland. While the teaching of handwriting has been strengthened in many parts of the world, cursive writing is, in some cases, being removed from the curriculum (Finland) and in others it has become optional (UK and USA).

Teaching keyboarding to young children is not easy in Australia (for all the wrong reasons)

We know that from quite a young age children can spend up to half of their school day involved in some kind of writing across disciplines. So, to expect them to start to use keyboards or tablets from the first few years of school means:

  • that all children would need access to up to date computers (and for small children these would need to be suitable for small hands and fingers);
  • the technology will need to be combined with appropriate furniture so that children can sit comfortably for long periods of time looking at a computer screen (my Osteopath tells me he sees lots of young adolescents who are having neck and shoulder problems from spending so much time looking down at screens – phones and tablets);
  • all schools would have the funds to provide the ongoing IT support to do the necessary trouble shooting to ensure the computers are trouble free (teachers are not IT experts);
  • all schools would have up to date software and the funds to continually replace technology that is often out of date not long after it comes out of the packaging;
  • all teacher education courses would be given the time, equipment and staffing to provide teacher education students with the skills they will need to teach touch typing and keyboard use; and
  • all teachers would have the necessary skills and ongoing professional development support to teach ‘touch typing’ and efficient keyboard skills.

I asked about some of these things in a survey of Australian teachers and parents in 2016 (434 teachers, 79 retired teachers, 336 parents of children attending school and 17 parents who were home schooling). Here are some of the responses in regard to availability of computers or tablets in Australian classrooms:

  • Only 37.6% of teachers who responded to the survey, said they had enough computers for each child in their class; a further 10.4% had enough computers for most children and a further 14% had computers for half their class. That means that 38% of teachers who responded could not provide even half their children with computers. 14.8% claimed to only have 2-3 computers in their rooms. Some who said they could access a class set of computers, said that these computers were in a computer lab, shared by other classes. Often they were timetabled to visit the computer lab only once per week.
  • While 56.7% of teachers said they felt they had the skills to teach keyboarding skills – that means 43.3% do not.
  • Only 40.8% of teachers said they liked teaching keyboarding skills, which means 59.2% do not.
  • Only 2.7% of teachers said they had received any professional development relating to the teaching of keyboarding skills in the past 5 years. Mind you, only 9.9% had received any professional development related to the teaching of handwriting in the past 5 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons teachers are so unsure about this important topic.

So let’s be practical. Unless governments massively increase funding and support across Australia (they should) our schools are not likely to start to efficiently and equitably teach keyboarding skills to young children in the near future.

In the meantime in Australia, we must continue to teach students how to write efficiently and automatically by hand, so they can express themselves meaningfully in written language and fully engage in the learning opportunities provided at school (as per the requirements of the Australian Curriculum). This means teachers and teacher education students need to receive a clear message about the importance of continuing to teach handwriting to young children.

Mind you, I would advocate for continued instruction in handwriting in the early years even if we did have computers for every child. The skills and learning attached to handwriting are not automatically subsumed into keyboarding. In fact the skills used are very different and there is no research that I can find that can demonstrate that keyboarding can totally substitute for these. For example, while both promote fine motor skill development, they are distinctly different. Handwriting is more closely aligned with creative tasks like drawing and painting. In France, for example, handwriting is classified as an important creative skill for all children.

As for the future: how do we even know we will be using keyboards? Perhaps within just a few years we will see ‘voice recognition’ or ‘digital ink’ (which requires handwriting) as the systems of choice. There even may be new tools for communication and new ways to teach and learn to write that we haven’t thought of yet. I suspect, unless we pick up on what is happening in our schools, Australia might be left behind.


Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She provides CSU students with current, authentic learning opportunities and assessment tasks which link contemporary literacy and relevant technologies with teaching and learning theories, practices and pedagogies. For the past 8 years, Noella has focused on the teaching and learning of writing. The program of research has included (1) the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, (2) the transition experiences of early writers and (3) writing development in the early years. In August of 2016, Noella worked with a colleague in Finland researching what Finnish children know and can do, in terms of writing, and how their teachers support their ongoing learning. Her research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence through awards at the state and national levels.