On World Letter Writing Day (September 1), writing and literacy expert Dr Noella Mackenzie of Charles Sturt University’s School of Education said some children are unable to perform efficiently on tasks that require them to write – by hand or on keyboards – because they have not learned the skills or practised them enough.
“If our handwriting or keyboarding is automatic and fast, we can concentrate on other elements of writing, such as composing the message,” Mackenzie said.
“But handwriting and keyboarding skills both require complex sensory, motor, perceptual and cognitive skills and we are not giving students the instruction or the time to develop and practise these skills so they become efficient and automatic practitioners.
“If we expect a child to produce a piece of writing, we need to teach them how, so they can choose the best tools for the task and use them efficiently so they don’t interfere with the task itself.”
Mackenzie said the Australian education system was “dropping the ball” in teaching handwriting skills, which remain essential for students at all levels of schooling and which support the development of reading, spelling, vocabulary and other cognitive abilities, as well as fine motor skills.
“Students continue to be required to write in all disciplines, with much of their school day involving writing of some kind,” she said.
“In addition, mounting evidence shows that taking notes with a laptop can be less effective in supporting learning and recall than taking notes by hand.”
Today’s students are also expected to perform writing tasks on computers and other digital devices – again without targeted instruction and practice, Mackenzie said.
“The Australian curriculum has specific targets for children in using digital devices from the first year of schooling, but doesn’t outline how they are supposed to develop the skills to reach those levels of performance,” she said.
“As educators deal with an increasingly crowded curriculum and place more emphasis on NAPLAN and other testing, something has to give – and in some classrooms it seems to be teaching children the handwriting and keyboard skills they need.
“We have NAPLAN testing that requires Year 3 students to produce an extended writing piece on the computer – but those children haven’t been taught how to type.”
In Mackenzie’s 2016 survey of 434 parents, 336 teachers, 79 retired teachers and 17 parents whose children were home-schooled, more than 90 per cent of each group believed handwriting was still important, and most thought it should be taught throughout primary school.
Most of the teachers surveyed (87.5 per cent) and retired teachers (90.5 per cent) agreed that efficient handwriting frees up working memory so children can concentrate on their composition rather than on the task of writing itself.
Yet in the past five years, only 10 per cent of the teachers had participated in professional development related to teaching handwriting and less than 3 per cent in professional development related to teaching keyboarding.
“The Australian curriculum is clear that handwriting should be taught from the start of school until Year 7, but teachers continue to ask me whether they should spend time teaching it – and my research shows teachers are not confident that they can teach it,” Mackenzie said.