Both the National Curriculum for England (DfEE/QCA, 2000) and the new Framework for Literacy (DES/PNS, 2006) concentrate on the formation and orientation of letters in handwriting and speed is mentioned only for typing. Despite this, research suggests that fast, automatic handwriting may have a significant effect on children’s composing.
Although handwriting is often considered a matter of presentation, a substantial body of international research suggests that the role of handwriting in children’s composing has been neglected. The ability to generate handwriting automatically is now seen as of more importance than the style of individual letters in composing but until this proposition has been relatively untested in the UK.
The University of Warwick researchers have now conducted such a study which indeed finds that a proportion of children suffer from low levels of handwriting automaticity, which may be interfering with their composition.
The sample was composed of 186 Year 2 pupils from four primary schools in Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire. The sample included 108 boys (58%) and 78 girls (42%)
Boys are more likely to be identified as having handwriting problems than girls
The writing of all the children in the sample was assessed in composition tasks which involved the children in writing two pieces - a longer and a shorter piece, of two contrasting text types. The writing was assessed using the 2005 national SAT test paper.
The marks they received for their composition test were then correlated against three tests of the pupils’ handwriting – Handwriting style (a Handwriting SAT test), handwriting speed, and an alphabet test (designed to see how fast they could reproduce letters of the alphabet). This last alphabet test provided a measure of how well the pupils performed at "automatically" producing text without significant concentration of thought on each individual letter.
The researchers found that the highest correlation was with the alphabet task (0.581) beating both the speed test (0.44) and the handwriting SAT or style test (0.54). This suggests that the more adept pupils were at "automatic" letter production was closely connected with their ability at composing text. The less attention they had to give to the generation of the letters the more they could devote to the more complex aspects of writing such as plotting and creating a story.
University of Warwick Institute of Education researcher Dr Jane Medwell said:
"Handwriting is not just about training the hand; it is about training the memory and hand to work together to generate the correct mental images and patterns of letters and translate these into motor patterns of letters - automatically and without effort! If this is the case, then handwriting is an important part of writing, and a language act, rather than just a motor act used to record writing."
University of Warwick Institute of Education researcher Professor David Wray said:
"If young writers have to devote large amounts of working memory to the control of lower-level processes such as handwriting, they may have little working memory capacity left for higher-level processes such as idea generation, vocabulary selection, monitoring the progress of mental plans and revising text against these plans. It may be that handwriting can "crowd out" the composing processes we value so much."
The research was carried out by Dr Jane Medwell, Dr Steve Strand, and Professor David Wray at the University of Warwick’s Institute for Education and has just been published in the Journal of Reading Writing and Literacy.
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