Cursive or joined up writing in early years: the case against

Cursive or joined up writing in the early years

We already know that there is no mention of handwriting, joined up or cursive writing styles in the EYFS statutory requirements and none about joined up writing specifically in the EYFS Development Matters guidance. We have written about this in our Cursive and joined up writing is not in the EYFS page.

On reading the evidence from this page and below from a variety of sources, we can return right back to the principles of early years and argue that a focus on cursive or joined up handwriting in the EYFS is not appropriate.

Instead we should be prioritising mark making, early writing, letter formation, using letters to make words and making meaning of marks through many rich and varied ways, to create excited motivated learners and writers who own their stories and love their creating. Literacy, language and commmunication are such huge and wide areas that to focus on handwriting itself seems to be a distraction. Why sit children down and teach joined up writing which may not be developmentally appropriate to young children at all?

Evidence from Julie Cigman

Julie Cigman, one of our Associates, is an early years consultant, writer and trainer who is a specialist on boys’ writing and writing in the early years. She makes these excellent points when reflecting about the specific teaching of cursive and joined up handwriting in the EYFS:

  • It places the emphasis on transcriptional writing over compositional, and the finish product is prioritised over the process of ‘becoming a writer’
  • It puts too much pressure on children too young, especially children who don’t have the fine motor skills to form conventional letter shapes
  • It’s very hard for children to read their own writing, so children can’t make the link between reading and writing
  • Handwriting has to be taught in adult-focused sessions, taking time away from child-led learning
  • What’s the rush? We don’t stop children crawling because they’ll have to ‘unlearn’ crawling when they start to walk
  • Becoming a writer is a developmental process, from mark making to conventional writing and spelling

More from Julie can be found in her publications or on her Facebook page

Evidence from the National Handwriting Association

The National Handwriting Association (NHA) has a page on their website called What is handwriting? and they state

Handwriting is a very complex skill to master, one which involves linguistic, cognitive, perceptual and motor components, all of which have to be coordinated into an integrated fashion. Although we take it for granted, some people, young and old, find handwriting very difficult to perform and feel they need help to perfect the skill. Support from those with expertise and experience is nearly always appreciated.

To write is to be human.

Their website includes two discussion papers: teaching fully cursive writing in reception a discussion paper by Pam Hulme and Continuous cursive: cure or curse by Angela Webb. Both these papers are written by literacy consultants and advise against using cursive in EYFS but they also acknowledge that there is little advice out there. Pam Hulme states

Handwriting is a complex perceptual–motor skill that is dependent upon the maturation and integration of a number of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills (see Fig.2 below). Achievement demands the orchestration of multiple skills involving the eyes, arms, hands, memory, posture and body control as well as managing pencil, paper and following instructions. (page 3)

Handwriting teaching in many English schools is a subject of concern. There is a widespread lack of professional development in this field. Newly qualified teachers often start with little or no knowledge of the subject and there is inadequate understanding of the skills that underpin sustained development. There are frustrating contradictions between the expectations in the EYFS and the National Curriculum documents coupled with pressure on schools to achieve ambitious early outcomes. Recent government advice on how to teach handwriting has been scarce. There was excellent advice in ‘Developing Early Writing’, Section 3 (DfES, 2001) but in most schools this publication has been buried in the tsunami of other initiatives. Also widely unknown is the helpful circular, Developing handwriting (2009). The EYFS publication ‘Mark Making Matters’ 2008, contained helpful advice, but omitted specific guidance about teaching letter forms.

In this climate, it is all too easy for practitioners to ‘fast forward’ to what appears to be accelerated progress and ignore signs of un-readiness. The focus of the Reception year should be to foster and strengthen the areas of development which provide the basis for long-term success in handwriting and to identify those children who need extra provision to strengthen their skills. There is a pressing need for teachers to ‘hurry slowly’ when growing young writers! (pages 7-8)

Angela Webb in her paper states

… I would appeal to any teachers and therapists reading this article to examine the true rationale for choosing one approach over another, to have the courage to promote the practice which has evidence of greatest benefit to the child, and to ensure that the effort and care which is invested in teaching the young to handwrite is not squandered by unnecessarily adopting approaches which are unhelpful. (page 6)

Further references and resources about joined up and cursive writing for your information

We have collected and researched some information about handwriting to support you. You can find this information on our Joined up writing after the EYFS ELGs page. 

Evidence from South Australia

A well researched and informative document called Handwriting in the South Australian curriculum provides an extremely insightful and useful guide to handwriting in the early years with illustrations of writing. It shares that there are 5 stages of writing for young children

Hill (2006, pp 283–286) proposes the following developmental model that represents stages in young children’s writing:

  • Beginning writing
  • Early emergent writing
  • Emergent writing
  • Early writing
  • Transitional writing
  • Extending writing. 

It states that the first 4 stages will be experienced in the early years (EYFS Nursery and Reception in the UK or Australia’s birth to five age group) and goes on to say

Educators of beginning and emergent writers learning to recognise, form and name letters and numerals emphasise the purposes of legible handwriting.
They focus explicitly on handwriting in their teaching programs, including specific lessons on correct letter and numeral formation, posture, paper placement, seated position and pencil grip. 

Depending on learners’ needs and their developmental stages, educators focus on particular aspects of handwriting to support: 

  • the purpose of legible writing
  • the ability to differentiate between drawing and writing
  • an understanding that writing can represent thoughts, ideas, messages and speech
  • the development of fine motor coordinationa writing-hand preference 
  • ​awareness of the terms and concepts relating to written and printed material—spaces, words, letters, direction
  • letter formation (see Appendix 1): starting and finishing points, and direction and number of strokes- slope, size, shape, proportion, placement and spacing of letters- letter links (hooks and kicks) if appropriate – the equal-size relationship of heads (ascenders), bodies and tails (descenders) 
  • numeral formation 
  • appropriate pencil grip
  • paper placement and hand, arm and sitting positions (relating to left-handers and right-handers) 
  • a visual memory of letter shapes
  • movements that form the basis of later automatic processes in handwriting
  • the ability to identify and correctly form lower-case and upper-case letter​

Learning to write is a physically and mentally demanding activity. Educators can help beginning and emergent writers by using warm-up activities to prepare learners physically, and the ‘language experience’ approach to create links between spoken and written language. 

​Evidence from Ireland

The NCCA research report no. 15 Literacy in early childhood and primary education 3-8 years (2012) is a deeply researched and useful paper to help us in our pedagogical thinking. It addresses literacy on the whole, but writes this about handwriting in particular 

Although much attention has been focused on beginning reading interventions for young children at risk of reading disabilities, research on writing instruction remains an emerging area of research (Edwards, 2003). In fact, it may be said that handwriting has a low status and profile in literacy education and in recent years has attracted little attention from teachers, policymakers or researchers  mainstream educational processes (Medwell and Wray, 2007; Graham, Harris & Mason, 2005). It is well recognised that a significant number of children experience writing difficulties throughout their schooling.This includes children with general learning disabilities (GLD); attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD); autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and those with emotional behavioural disorders (EBD). 

The research indicates that a higher ratio of males to females experience these difficulties and it is likely that their handwriting difficulties will impact upon their ability to compose written language.There is also evidence that explicit systematic instruction can improve not only the handwriting of these children but also their written composition (Medwell & Wray, 2007). 

It has been established that handwriting is not merely a motor skill but that visual-motor integrations skills together with memory processes contribute more to handwriting than do motor skills (Berninger & Graham, 1998; Berninger & Amtmann, 2004). In addition, visual motor integration accounts for more than 50% of the variance in written language performance in young children going as high as 67% in the 7-8 year old age group. (Jones & Christensen, 1999; Graham et al.,1997).There is now a growing body of research suggesting that handwriting is critical to the generation of creative and well-structured written text and has an impact not only on fluency but also on the quality of composing for young children (Berninger & Swanson, 1994; Graham et al., 1997) 

Because text transcription skills require such mental effort on the part of young children, writing development can be constrained since they minimize the use of other writing processes, such as planning, which exert considerable processing demands (McCutchen, 1988). 

This in itself creates barriers to the integration of new attention demanding skills and strategies in their approach to writing. However, explicit and systematic instruction can provide struggling writers with planning strategies which in turn improves writing performance (Graham, Harris & Mason, 2005; Saddler, Moran, Graham & Harris, 2004). In addition, specific instruction in spelling and handwriting can enhance sentence construction and writing output (Berninger et al., 1997; Berninger & Swanson, 1994; Jones & Christensen, 1999; Graham et al., 2000; Graham, Harris & Fink- Chorzempa, 2002)…. (pp 103-105)

…. The capacity of working memory is particularly associated with the literacy scores of younger children. If they have to devote large amounts of working memory to the control of lower level processes such as handwriting there is little working capacity left for higher level processes such as the generation of ideas, vocabulary selection, monitoring the progress of mental plans and revising text against these plans. One solution proposed to the problem of limited working memory capacity is to make some processes such as handwriting, automatic, in order to free up cognitive resources to deal with higher level processes. It was noted in Chapter 3 that children’s writing emerges from their early drawing as they seek to express meaning and understanding.This can be viewed as an early stage in a journey that sees them engage in considerable experimentation with writing forms as they move towards conventional and proficient writing. (p243)

Reflecting on this evidence and research, points me further in the direction of teaching in developmentally appropriate ways at the appropriate time for the child when teaching and playing in the early years. Literacy and writing are such wide areas that so many experiences can all contribute to the ability of a child to be ready developmentally and dispositionally to writing by hand and then learning cursive and joined up handwriting. 

Meaning of terms 

  • writing: the activity or skill of writing
  • handwriting: using a pen or pencil to write, a person’s particular style of writing
  • cursive writing: has lead-ins (entry strokes or ‘whooshes’) before the letter and exit flicks after the letter
  • pre-cursive writing: has exit flicks only
  • joined up writing: joining all letters in a word together using the lead-ins and exit flicks, keeping pen or pencil on the page; can be a quicker form of writing (also called cursive joined and continuous cursive)

Further information

Content published on 24.3.17.