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Child's hands writing in school exercise book

Has a gap in old-school handwriting and spelling tuition contributed to NZ’s declining literacy scores?

The recently reported decline in student performance in international tests for literacy, science and maths confirmed a view in some quarters that New Zealand’s curriculum is in need of an overhaul.

Notably, the New Zealand Principals’ Federation called for increased leadership and direction from the Ministry of Education. Federation president Perry Rush said:

We need more clarity when it comes to the knowledge that teachers and principals use when they’re engaged in teaching and learning, so that’s about what is in the curriculum.

This is a complex debate, but one area where greater direction might help is the teaching of the seemingly basic but vital skills of handwriting and spelling.

Children require time to develop the necessary capability in these complex foundation skills. Without them, they will struggle with the higher-order skills of constructing paragraphs and composing texts.

But teaching handwriting and spelling is often marginalised. Many schools question the value of spending time on the formal teaching of these skills. Compared with other areas of literacy, teachers have struggled to find direction.

The importance of handwriting

It is common these days to hear handwriting will soon be unnecessary; digital technology is rendering it redundant and most people rarely put pen to paper anymore.

But handwriting is still used for many everyday tasks, as well as in most test and exam situations. More importantly, studies show the brain activates differently when writing by hand than when writing on a keyboard.

The importance of this brain activity is seen in the way learning correct letter formation is involved in embedding letter knowledge. Teachers notice older children who struggle with writing composition often also have a problem with handwriting.

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Efficient letter formation affects the amount and quality of writing output. One study of beginning writers reported up to 30% of the difference in writing achievement was attributed to capability in handwriting and spelling.

Mastering handwriting involves learning various techniques and needs focus over a number of years. However, it can be difficult for teachers to justify a place for teaching letter formation in the busy school day.

Young girl using laptop computer
Studies show the brain activates differently when writing by hand than when writing on a keyboard.

Spelling is the basis of writing

The teaching of spelling has been undervalued, too. Teachers have been guided to help children work out spelling rules but the complex code of English spellings needs explicit teaching.

As with handwriting, spelling may seem unimportant in an age of digital spellcheckers. But spelling ability reflects what children know about words, including word meanings. Children I speak to report that difficulty with spelling puts them off wanting to write at all.

This is a real problem. The easier it is to put words on a page, the more it frees the writer to compose ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

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It is easy to undervalue the foundation skills of handwriting and spelling — they can seem less important than producing a complete written composition. The focus of assessment is on the written “product” rather than progress in the foundation skills.

But mastering those skills is big and important work for beginning readers and writers. Any decline in their ability could be a canary in the education coal mine.

Teachers and learners deserve better

There are, however, some hopeful signs. A more explicit approach to teaching spelling, in part derived from strategies for helping with literacy difficulties, is gaining ground.

New early reading books that follow a clear sequence of word patterns are due to arrive in schools at the end of March. These resources have been eagerly awaited by schools keen to make a difference to their students’ learning.

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At the same time, teacher training will need to include the tools required for such systematic teaching. As one New Zealand study has shown, teacher knowledge about important literacy concepts has generally been lacking.

The fact there is a lack of consistent training for teachers in such an important area should be cause for real concern. While many schools are making important teaching and system changes to ensure success for all their learners, they cannot do it alone.

Guidelines for teacher training, school curriculums and professional development need to be clear and consistent. We can liken this to a GPS system, but for teaching. Good directions in education are vital to ensure all children arrive at the right destination at the right time.

Learners and teachers deserve nothing less. They need much more.

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