Should we give up on handwriting?

Should we give up on handwriting and how the Dash test can help us to decide.

There is much pressure to introduce laptops early in academic lives: from parents wanting children to be taught using the latest equipment, to teachers wanting the best results, and employers wanting their future workforce to be technology-fit. On 9 September 2017, the Guardian wrote an article entitled “Cambridge considers typed exams as handwriting worsens”1.

Most students with Special Educational Needs Disabilities (SEND) are encouraged to use a laptop in class and in examinations. The Pearson Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting test, DASH, (9-16 years) displays a useful graph on page 84 that clearly shows the impact of handwriting speeds with SEND children versus non-SEND peers. 

I use this chart to illustrate the need for such pupils to learn to type in order to access their academic curriculum fully when working at speed (examinations).

Figure 1: Average standard scores for each of the DASH tasks for children with and without special educational needs.

That being said, I also regularly encourage parents and teachers of SEND pupils to hold back from allowing the use of a laptop before a pupil is ‘ready’. Again, the DASH test is a useful tool to enable one to judge. Using the ‘copy fast’ and ‘everyday writing’ sub-tests, one can see that a child, who is not ready, will have a slower output on a keyboard than when handwriting. Generally, to make a computer a useful tool, rather than a hindrance, a pupil should be able to copy-type at twice their everyday handwriting speed.

Keyboarding speed advantages aside, there is much to be gained from the continued use of handwriting for SEND pupils who have achieved a legible and functional style. Writing by hand has a positive impact on developing reading skills (James & Engelhardt, 2012). Writing by hand also promotes better conceptual understanding (Anthony et al, 2007; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Horbury, 2016), as well as resulting in a higher quality of written composition (Webb et al, 2013). Handwriting, therefore, seems to be important for conceptual understanding and learning, and to be inextricably linked to the development of reading ability. As this applies to all students (SEND and non-SEND), it is important that those involved in education are aware of the positives/negatives of both handwriting and keyboarding as a means recording information.

Analysis and comparison of the handwriting styles produced, by one person, in each DASH subtest can indicate what learning disability may be present (as each learning disability can manifest itself in differing writing styles).

A comparison of the handwriting styles produced, by individuals, in each DASH subtest 

For instance, typically - a dyslexic student may have neat writing which has been made illegible by spelling corrections:

An ADHD student may have very messy writing as they travel very fast across the page. If on medication, however, he/she may be much neater but very slow:

Same child off and on medication (off medication: free writing/on medication: handwriting lesson)

An autistic spectrum student may have very messy writing unless having a neat script is of interest to them2:

A Developmental Co-ordination Disorder or hypermobile student may have large and ill-formed writing, being hampered by their fine motor weaknesses:

So, handwriting for all pupils should be used (as long as it is legible and functional) when learning is required. However, legibility can sometimes be a warning sign/problem for those with SEND. 

"Handwriting for all pupils should be used (as long as it is legible and functional, when learning is required"

Amanda McLeod, Committee Member and Trainer at the National Handwriting Association

About the author: 

Amanda McLeod runs The McLeod Centre for Learning, which is a CReSTeD accredited centre for students with SEND in Central London.

Amanda is the author and series consultant of the Scholastic Handwriting series (Reception to Year 6). She regularly provides INSET training on handwriting and has lectured twice at The Education Show (2014 and 2015). Amanda also provides INSET training on other subjects such as SEND, study-skills, keyboarding and dyscalculia. Amanda is a committee member of the National Handwriting Association and represents them on radio and television, as well as being one of their trainers.

Amanda McLeod