Most adults during their working day interact with a computer or other digital device to word process, to work with programs designed for specific task-related outcomes or to communicate with others. Computers and other digital devices are also commonplace in educational locations from preschool to tertiary settings.
However, despite the rapid technological advancements in digital forms of communication, the need for a careful balance between these advancements and written language is still required (Mackenzie & Spokes, 2018).
Literacy in the twenty-first century requires its members to create or complete both handwritten and digital texts such as government and other agency forms, undertake standardised tests, take meaningful notes, keep a personal diary, provide a signature, opt to complete leisure activities such as word puzzles and communicate via text messaging.
Developing an automated personal handwritten script is a contributing element to writing success (Medwell and Wray, 2014; Schlagal, 2014). The physical act of handwriting is a complex one; it requires the integration of perceptual-motor skills and higher-level cognitive skills (Case-Smith, Holland & Bishop, 2011) and the kinaesthetic process of writing is linked to writing achievement (Daffern, Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2017; Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000).
Additionally, developing automated keyboarding skills is a contributing element to writing success especially when students are expected to compose digitally. To free up the cognitive demands required of recording, handwriting or keyboarding skills need to become automated (Cahill, 2009; Poole and Preciado, 2016). Educators therefore need to consider not only what their students write but how they record it too.
Handwriting or keyboarding in primary schools?
Internationally, the United Kingdom and France have retained or revisited the importance of explicitly teaching handwriting in primary settings, while in Finland and the USA the explicit teaching of handwriting along with the development of keyboarding skills are implemented (Mackenzie & Spokes, 2018).
The Victorian English Curriculum specifically addresses the development of both skills. Handwriting skills are outlined in the outcomes set for all levels from Foundation to Level 7. Students begin learning “letter formation patterns” in their first year of schooling and work towards developing a “personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended periods” in Level 7 (VCAA, 2017).
In conjunction with learning to handwrite is the expectation that all students will learn how to create texts using software programs. For example, Foundation students are required to “construct texts using software including word processing programs” while the Level 10 outcome states students must “use a range of software, including word processing programs, confidently, flexibly and imaginatively to create, edit and publish texts” (VCAA, 2017).
The research evidence
Key findings of research into the teaching of handwriting and keyboarding skills include:
- Handwriting does matter and is more closely related to academic achievement than most educators realise (Cahill, 2009; Daffern, Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2017; Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou & Velay, 2005; Medwell & Wray, 2007). Conversely, there is an absence of research on the long-term impact of not teaching handwriting (Mackenzie and Spokes, 2018).
- Handwriting should be the dominant recording skill taught in the first three years of schooling followed by the addition of keyboarding skills in Years 3 to 6 (Mackenzie & Spokes, 2018)
- The physical act of handwriting benefits early literacy learners because the kinaesthetic action contributes to greater recognition and memorisation of letters. Handwriting practice produced better letter recognition in students than those who solely used typing and digital devices (Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou & Velay, 2005).
- Being able to handwrite one’s own name is an important element in predicting early writing success in young learners (Daffern, Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2017).
- Forming letters by hand contributes to a stronger knowledge of words and assists with spelling. When words are written in a continuous flow rather than typed as separate letters, spelling memory is enhanced (Cahill, 2009; Schlagal, 2014).
- Students who have difficulty with handwriting spend most of their energy directed towards the motor process rather than thinking creatively or developing their ideas. Poor handwriting results in less length and quality of content (Cahill, 2009; Graham, 2010; Medwell & Wray, 2007).
- Students in primary grades write more quickly and their writing is of a greater length when they use a pen. This research contradicts other findings which state children write more quickly if trained to use keyboards (Schlagal, 2014).
- Keyboarding skills should be considered as an alternative if a student is unable to meet the physical demands required of the handwriting task (Handley-More, Deitz, Billingsley & Coggins, 2003). School psychologists, occupational therapists and educational specialists are best placed to advise teachers of the individual adjustments required for student learning (Cahill, 2009).
- Handwriting skills needs to become automated to free up working memory. The ability to use orthographic fluency (that is the skill of forming letters, groups of letters and words efficiently and automatically) is necessary so that higher order cognitive skills can be allocated to the thinking and composing of text (Case-Smith, Holland & Bishop, 2011; Jones & Christensen, 1999; Medwell & Wray, 2007; 2014).
- Girls tend to have better orthographic fluency than boys. Handwriting can sometimes be more problematic for boys (Daffern, Mackenzie & Hemmings, 2016; Medwell & Wray, 2007). However, this may also be due to other factors such as motivation, self-efficacy and the relationship between the teacher and student (Daffern, Mackenzie and Hemmings, 2017).
- Handwriting fluency contributes directly to writing fluency (Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott & Whitaker, 1997).
Even though some students seem to handwrite effortlessly, most students require explicit teaching. Recent research suggests consistent practice which provides students with opportunities to develop emerging skills is most beneficial for developing handwriting fluency (Cahill, 2009; Schlagal, 2014).
Handwriting instruction should include:
- Teacher modelling of the correct formation, sizing and placement of letters. For early learners, writing letters in the air or copying a letter from a correct model is helpful (Graham, 2010).
- Teacher explanations on how to form letters and words must accompany the modelling.
- Short daily practice sessions which prove to be more effective (and perhaps more interesting) than longer weekly lessons.
- The introduction of letters of the alphabet in formation groups rather than in ABC order. This method removes the chance for the visual confusion of letters that are closely positioned within the alphabet (b/d and p/q). For the Victorian modern cursive handwriting script, this means letters can be taught in the following groups:
- anticlockwise letters (a, c, d, g, q, e, o, f, s)
- clockwise letters (m, n, r, x, z, h, k, p)
- the i family letters (i. t, l, j)
- the u family letters (u, y, v, w, b)
Regardless of what order letters are chosen to be taught, it is important that students know the names of individual letters and the sounds that can represent each one. Letter names and their sounds serve as a memory cue and assist the retrieval of the motor-program required to successfully write a given letter (Graham, 2010).
Other considerations in the teaching of writing include:
- Using mnemonics to prompt student letter formation (for example, begin at the top, tail letters go under the line, ‘t’ is a teenager not fully grown or ‘w’ is like a wiggly worm).
- Teachers capitalising on the opportunities to teach handwriting through the writing practices of modelled, shared, interactive, guided and independent writing.
- Linking handwriting to other curriculum areas so that it is meaningful rather than just skill and drill.
- Ensuring handwriting does not take the place of writing. Students should also have an opportunity to write regularly for meaning and purpose.
Victorian Modern Cursive script to a digital device
Alphabet models of Victorian Modern Cursive script (joined and unjoined for right- and left-handers)
These guides contain multiple images of handwriting written on dotted thirds. If you need assistance accessing the concepts explored in these images contact
If a student is struggling with handwriting automaticity, their handwriting will be slow and require more effort to complete. As their effort is aimed at the formation of letters rather than at the higher-order thinking required of a task, less competent hand writers have reduced opportunities to make progress with writing (Cahill, 2009; Medwell & Wray, 2007; 2014).
Additionally, students who struggle with handwriting often feel frustrated and tend not to persevere with composing (Case-Smith, Holland & Bishop, 2011).
There have been many studies undertaken on the benefits of handwriting intervention for students who lack automaticity with their handwriting. Explicit teaching of handwriting over an intensive period can improve the automaticity of students’ handwriting both in a primary and secondary settings (Christensen, 2005; Jones & Christensen, 1999; Graham, 2010; Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000). Improvement in handwriting speed and accuracy does impact the ability of students to generate written text.
A typical handwriting intervention might include the following:
- Undertake a timed pre-test. From the analysis of the pre-test, specific, individualised learning is targeted for students including letters each student is having difficulty with.
- Intervention takes place for 10-15 minutes per day for a given period (Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000). Research by Jones & Christensen (1999) recommended an eight-week period for noticeable results.
- Elicit the assistance of teacher aides and parent volunteers to help facilitate the intervention. However, overall guidance and setting of goals should be directed by the classroom teacher.
- Explicit modelling of letter formations occurs during each intervention lesson followed by guided and independent practice (Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000).
- Students practise each letter until they became proficient through a variety of methods (e.g. dots to show starting points and direction, tracing letters, writing letters in different colours, developing mnemonics to recall correct letter formation) (Jones & Christensen, 1999).
- Students complete the missing letter in an alphabet sequence. As students became more proficient, more letters are required to be filled in (Jones & Christensen,1999).
- Students learn how to write the target letter in fun or unusual ways (e.g. write the letter very small, tall, wobbly, in bubble writing, turn the letter into an object that will remind them of the letter-turn s into a snake) (Graham, Harris & Fink, 2000)
- Students write against the clock for 1 minute. The number of letters successfully formed are noted and students attempt to beat their own score (Jones & Christensen,1999).
- Intervention practice could also take the form of signing in and out of the classroom, writing a lunch order, include headings at the top of work such as day/date/month/topic, student address and first and last name (Cahill, 2009).
- A timed post-test undertaken after the intervention to show improvement in automaticity and length. The aim is for letter formation to be “quick, smooth and effortless” rather than of a “copy-book” standard (Jones and Christensen, 1999, p. 48).
Cahill, S.M. (2009). Where Does Handwriting Fit In? Strategies to Support Academic Achievement. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44 (4), 223-228.
Case-Smith, J., Holland, T., & Bishop, B. (2011). Effectiveness of an Integrated Handwriting Program for First-Grade Students: A Pilot Study. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(6), November/December 2011, 670-678.
Christensen, C. A. (2005). The role of orthographic-motor integration in the production of creative and well structured written text for students in secondary school. Educational Psychology, 25(5), 441-453.
Daffern, T., Mackenzie, N.M., & Hemmings, B. (2017). Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation? Australian Journal of Education, 61(1), 75-87.
Department of Education & Training (2002). The Teaching of Handwriting (Revised Ed.). State of Victoria: Communications Division for the Office of School Education, Department of Education & Training.
Graham, S., Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., & Whitaker, D. (1997). The role of mechanics in composing of elementary school students: A new methodological approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 170-182
Graham, S., Harris, K.R., & Fink, B. (2000). Is handwriting casually related to learning to write? Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 620-633.
Graham, S. (2010). Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting. The Education Digest, 76(1), 49-55.
Jones, D. & Christensen, C. (1999). The relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students’ ability to generate written text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(1), 44-49.
Longcamp, M., Zerbato-Poudou, M.T., & Velay, J.L. (2004). The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychologica, 119(1), May 2005, 67-79.
Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R. (2018). Handwriting, keyboarding or both? In N.M. Mackenzie and J. Scull (Eds.), Understanding and Supporting Young Writers from Birth to 8. (pp. 137-164). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: what do we know and what do we need to know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15.
Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2014). Handwriting automaticity: The search for performance thresholds. Language and Education, 28(1), 34-51.
Poole, D.M. and Preciado, M.K. (2016). Touch typing instruction: Elementary teachers’ beliefs and practices. Computers & Education, 102, 1-14.
Schlagal, B. (2014), Best Practices in Spelling and Handwriting. In Steve Graham, Charles A. MacArthur & Jill Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best Practices in Writing Instruction (2nd Ed.), (pp. 257-283). New York: Guilford Press.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), (2017).
Victorian Curriculum Foundation-10: English. Victoria State Government.