Pupils’ handwriting meeting expectations? Are you sure?

If you want your school to remain in Ofsted’s good books – quite literally – then your pupils’ handwriting will need to meet the expected standards as outlined by the Standards and Testing Agency in its 2016 teaching assessment exemplification for English Writing in primary schools. That means, now, a child’s handwriting ability can make the difference between a school being awarded ‘good’, ‘outstanding’ or even ‘requires improvement’.

Over a third of your pupils will be struggling – but who?
But here’s the thing, it’s all very well knowing what pupils should be doing to meet the expected outcomes for KS1 and KS2 but how do you know if your pupils are meeting them? If you don’t know what the STA’s requirements look like on the page how can you be sure your pupils are on track? How do you know who is struggling with handwriting and more importantly, if they are, what is causing it?

Statistically a third of your classroom won’t be writing to the expected standards – based on my experience there will be many more who are struggling. You think you know who is struggling but I can guarantee that you will be shocked to find out how many more of your pupils are.

Most of your pupils will have problems with handwriting
Recently, when carrying out handwriting assessments in a local primary school, I found that amongst the 75 pupils that were assessed in Year 1, only two were considered emergent handwriters (that’s being able to write to the appropriate standard defined by the STA’s expected outcomes for handwriting for KS1 and KS2).  This came as quite a shock for the Assistant Headteacher who didn’t realise the extent of her pupils’ handwriting problems much less how to solve them. But how could an experienced and effective educator have missed that fact? Quite simply – appearances can be deceptive.

Looks aren’t everything
Presentation and book work is only a small part of the story. A child who can write neatly but who has to think how to form the letters, or who writes in pain, or who struggles to form the letters correctly, or takes a long time to put them down on paper, for these children writing is an academic yoke not an enabler. The purpose of being able to write, is so that they can transcribe information they learn in class whilst they process what is being taught. If they are being hindered in that process because they are not writing with automaticity, in other words they are focusing on the act of writing not the information being taught to them in class, even if the writing is neat then it’s not doing the child any good.

Bottom line – the purpose of handwriting is to enable a pupil to both take class notes they can read and to produce legible, written work under time pressure in exams. For that reason, beautiful is not necessarily best. Effortless most certainly is. Everyone, given the correct instruction, can write with automaticity.  If a child is to fulfil their potential, both academically and personally, they must learn to write in a fluid, legible and effortless script. So our first job must be to find out who is writing with automaticity and who is struggling to do so.

How can you tell?
Answer – handwriting assessments. Only by assessing each and every child in a class or year group will you know who is writing to the expected outcomes as set out by the STA’s Expected Outcomes for Handwriting for KS1 and KS2, and who is not. When I say ‘correctly’ I mean writing legibly, effortlessly and fluently. And without pain. When examining a child in the act of writing you can tell many things about their handwriting ability. Do they have the stamina to keep up in class? Are their fine and gross motor skills fit for the purpose of handwriting? Do they have spatial awareness and if not could they be on the DCD (dyspraxia) Spectrum? Are they writing all of their letters with the correct entry and exit strokes? If not, they could be on the Dyslexia Spectrum or have other barriers to learning which have not been picked up. In either of those cases, a child should be referred to a SENCO for further assessment. If handwriting is painful – could they be holding the pencil incorrectly? Most of the problems I see, stem from incorrectly holding the pencil; writing with a banana grip, for example, can be a real pain indeed! And who wants to do something that’s painful, right?

 “The difficulty we have is that handwriting isn’t assessed. So it’s being pushed out of the curriculum, because that curriculum is already overcrowded with things that are assessed.  As a result, children are not being given the time they need to develop their cursive style and they’re struggling to complete some of the written tests in time.” Karine George, Headteacher at Westfields Junior School in Hampshire quoted in ‘Put away the iPads, handwriting is the key to learning’ – TES Professional, 9th October 2014

Understanding the root cause of the problem makes it easier to fix.
However, unless you have the knowledge, the time and training to spot these problems what can you do? Ordinarily, a child who is obviously struggling would be referred to an Occupational Therapist but that’s only going to be realistic for a handful of pupils, not a class-full. This is why educators have long since lamented the need for a quick and easy means to assess handwriting which is why I have created our own handwriting assessments.

An efficient and effective way to assess handwriting
Start-Bee’s Handwriting Match Fit Assessment is an affordable way for schools to quickly assess which pupils in each class/year group/entire school are not meeting the expected outcomes. Our assessment examines every part of a child’s handwriting and it takes less than an hour for an entire class to complete (a whole school can be assessed over one to two days as part of school literacy lessons) under the supervision of a teacher and guidance of a Start-Bee representative.  The assessment papers are returned to us for marking (which we do in line with the STA’s expected outcomes for handwriting for KS1 and KS2). Once marked, we then summarise the results on an Excel spreadsheet and provide the school with recommended next steps, including the creation of a handwriting strategy for each pupil/class/year group/school. The resulting data can then be uploaded onto school data trackers so that schools can easily see who is achieving the STA”s expected outcomes and who is not. That way, a headteacher has the hard data to make comparisons and show both problem areas and the resulting “fix” they have put in place, to Governors, the LEA and Ofsted.

Individual handwriting strategies and hard data
With Start-Bee’s Handwriting Match Fit Assessment, teachers are not expected to be Handwriting Specialists or Occupational Therapists, instead, this easy to use tool enables any teacher to quickly assess each pupil’s handwriting and clearly highlight the strategy required to raise each pupil’s literacy outcomes. Above all, by establishing the starting point and outline for each and every pupil, schools are better placed to create a handwriting strategy for their pupils, showing teachers who to focus on and who to give additional support to in the form of an intervention programme. Any pupils who, still, after one year fail to make progress (we look at whether they have not raised by at least one attainment point after working through the intervention programme) are then referred to the school SENCO. With a handwriting assessment in place for every child at the beginning and end of each year, no child should fall through the net, no child will leave primary school unable to write in a fluent, legible and effortless script and that “one in three” statistic will be thing of the past.

Want to know more?
If you’d like to know more about handwriting assessments come and talk to Down Hall Primary’s English Subject Leader, Bec Wakefield and me at the Education Show 16-18th March, 2017. We’ll be on BIC’s stand # H20 (opposite the main entrance). BIC® UK has also organised some unmissable show offerings with the BIC® KIDs handwriting range, which includes graphite pencils, mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens, available at a special show discount. We’ll also be offering attending schools a 10% discount off Handwriting Match Fit Assessments and 20% off the first year’s licence fee for Start-Bee’s handwriting scheme. It’s all good! See you there.