Recovering handwriting: Five tips for the classroom

Written by: Sophie Lamb | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One of the consequences of the shift to remote learning at the height of the pandemic has been a subsequent loss in handwriting skills. Year 3 teacher Sophie Lamb offers some helpful tips for recovery

“My pencil is my friend. Our letters curl and bend, and when ideas refuse to come, I chew the other end.”
Julia Donaldson

A recent research report concludes that writing was the subject hardest hit by the pandemic. It suggests that all year groups have seen more significant drops in writing than in any other subject.

The biggest fall in writing attainment was for year 3, with only 58% of children being at the expected level for their age compared with 79% in 2019 (Juniper Education, 2022).

Most teachers are already aware that there has been a drop in attainment, and it is reassuring to know that this is a national picture and not just related to our school.

The challenge for us is how to support our children without piling on the pressure at a time when some pupils are still struggling from the impact of lockdowns.

I have chosen to focus on improving handwriting for the lowest 5% of children by addressing handwriting for my NPQSL (National Professional Qualification in Senior Leadership). Generally, the children who struggle the most with handwriting often struggle with broader education, too

According to the National Handwriting Association:“Legible writing that can be produced comfortably, at speed and with little conscious effort allows a child to attend to the higher level aspects of writing composition and content.”

Yet handwriting is a complex skill for young children to master. It contains many elements, from letter formation to pencil grip. As a result, there will be many who have difficulty mastering it, myself included, which can make success hard to achieve in an education system reliant on the written word.

Here are some of the tools and techniques we have used at Kender Primary Schools to support our youngest learners in developing their handwriting.

1, Pencil grip

Interestingly, pencil grip isn’t necessarily the key to good handwriting; many people use unconventional pen grips and can write well. But it is generally accepted that using a tripod grip is best because it minimises the risk of strain and offers the greatest control. A quick online search will give you plenty of ideas on different ways to encourage this pen grip in young learners.

Two easy techniques are threading beads onto straws so that the child will need to use a tripod grip to pick them up and to get the child to hold a rolled-up piece of tissue in their little and ring finger, which also requires a tripod grip.

2, Forming letters

When children have a comfortable pencil grip, the next step in developing writing is forming letters. Formation means when writing a letter, it should start and end in the correct place. Some children don’t form letters correctly early on, meaning it can then be challenging to change the formation.

Learning the correct formation will help children to write with speed and accuracy, allowing the writing to flow, particularly when children begin to learn cursive.

The challenge as teachers is to ensure children are, in fact, forming letters correctly. Often the result is similar, but without seeing them physically write the letter it can be hard to be sure they have started and finished it in the correct place. Especially with a class of 30!

I have found that using a handwriting patter is helpful, i.e., “a” would be “up over the hill, down round to the line, up-down and flick”.

I suggest investigating how edtech can help (see below) – this can make it more fun and if children are enjoying handwriting, they will progress better.

3, Size matters

Lots of children come to Reception writing in block letters.This is usually easier than lower case letters with their ascenders and descenders; capital letters are also the same size making them easier for young children.

However, it can be challenging for children to get the size of lower case letters consistent while making sure they write on the line; you might end up with a “g” that’s above the line or an “l” that goes too far up.

In addition, those lower case and capital letters which are formed in the same way –“c” and“C”or “p” and “P” – can further add to the confusion and hinder consistency in the size of writing.

Writing size is essential for presentation and can help ensure writing is clear for the child to read back. I recommend using “sky, grass, mud” lines early on (lots of examples of this approach can be found online). This adds a visual element to writing, allowing children to see where the ascenders and descenders should go and stop easily. This approach, combined with a handwriting patter, can be very effective. For example, for the letter “d” – “up over the hill, down round to the line, up to the sky, down to the grass and flick”. Often you only need to use it for a short while.

4, Finger spaces

Having mastered pencil grip, letter formation and writing size (not to mention the phonics required to sound out and write words/sentences), children must learn to leave a space between each word to ensure what they have written can be read.

This can be difficult, particularly if they have not fully grasped what words are and how they form sentences. However, even if they do understand, it doesn’t necessarily mean children will leave a space between words.

An online search will provide many ideas to support the use of finger spaces such as “finger space markers” or simply using their own finger to make a space.

A fun activity for young children is to write every word in a different colour so that the difference between the words can be seen clearly.

5, Let’s talk tech

It might seem strange to suggest that edtech can support children with handwriting, but the advent of the tablet computer and stylus mean there are tools out there to develop children’s handwriting skills.

Advantages of using edtech include instant feedback and motivating pupils through interesting and engaging activities. I’ve gained a lot from looking at what edtech tools can help.We are fortunate enough to have 1:1 iPads at our school and have been using Kaligo Apps to support our children in developing their handwriting through fun and engaging games, but I am sure there are lots of options out there.

  • Sophie Lamb is IT lead and year 3 class teacher at Kender Primary School in south east London.

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