Handwriting is a developmental process that requires the simultaneous engagement of a range of capabilities, including physical strength, visual perception, and both gross and fine motor skills. In pre-pandemic times, children would gradually grasp each of the separate features of fluent handwriting with a teacher at their side, but during the pandemic, a series of lockdowns meant most teaching was delivered digitally and often lacked a structured timetable. As a result, the development of the core skills that create good handwriting habits were put under threat.
In order to explore this further, in June 2021 Schofield & Sims undertook a survey of primary school teachers to investigate how the pandemic has affected handwriting. Through a series of questions, we set out to uncover which of the underlying handwriting skills have been most impacted by school disruption, with the aim of sharing the results with the teaching community to ensure handwriting is included in the catch-up plan.
Firstly, we asked teachers whether disruption to teaching during the pandemic has had a negative effect on pupils’ good writing habits. Unsurprisingly, 83% of teachers agreed that it had. This was most pronounced in primary schools with the highest levels of deprivation, which echoes wider research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) that found pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had been hardest hit in maths and reading.
We then asked teachers how much time is being spent on handwriting compared with other areas of teaching since their school fully reopened. Just over half of respondents said they had maintained the same level of focus on handwriting as before the pandemic, with a further 8% saying they had deprioritised it. The remaining 41% of teachers had increased the amount of time on handwriting.
Whilst every school’s recovery plan will be different, it was interesting to see the similarities that emerged when we asked which areas of handwriting worried teachers the most. Writing stamina was the most common area highlighted, with 72% of Key Stage 2 teachers raising it as a concern. Maintaining stamina will have been difficult with the increased time spent learning online, as children use different muscles and have less opportunities to write for extended periods of time.
Writing speed was also flagged as an area of concern by Key Stage 2 teachers. If a child writes too quickly, letters can lose their shape, and size and spacing can become inconsistent. Therefore, learning to write with speed while ensuring that it remains legible can be a hard skill to master. After all, handwriting is a physical process, and it is often issues relating to the physical aspects of writing that are the cause of handwriting problems. Using a system of reminders called the ‘P checks’ (posture, pencil grip, paper position and pressure) can ensure children maintain good writing habits and develop the correct speed. Warm-up writing tasks are a good way to prepare children for handwriting sessions and build stamina.
Letter size and position was the area of concern most frequently highlighted by Reception and Key Stage 1 teachers. Opportunities for motor mapping letters and joins during the pandemic have been reduced. In addition, without guidance to help them keep letters and numbers consistent, children may have fallen into bad habits. As a result, children have not been able to develop their motor memory in the same way as in pre-pandemic times. The underdevelopment of fine motor skills will have had an impact on correct letter formation as well as the size and placement of letters.
When produced with ease, good handwriting frees up mental bandwidth for other activities, which is vital given the wider catch-up currently happening in schools. But if a child is unable to put their ideas on paper, we are limiting their ability to share, and this will have a knock-on effect across all of their work.