Evidence and research about writing: EYFS and beyond

References and resources about cursive and joined up handwriting

On our Cursive and joined up writing are not in the EYFS and Cursive and joined up writing in early years: more evidence against pages we present the evidence and argument that joined up or cursive handwriting is not part of the EYFS statutory requirements and our evidence presents the case that it is not developmentally appropriate to be taught generally in the early years. 

However, once a child has achieved or exceeded the early learning goal for literacy and can write letters with confidence, it is possible that a cursive style of joined up writing (handwriting) could be taught IF you believe this to be appropriate for individual children. This is a style that probably has either the lead-ins or flicks at the end, or a combination of both depending on your setting’s policy. We would not endorse a fully joined up style at this stage. However, there are some that argue for continuous cursive and we have put some of these references to this page. It is important that you weigh up the evidence and support it with your assessment of the children that you are teaching, to check if it is pedagogically suitable and appropriate to teach any cursive or joined style of handwriting. 

Questions to consider might include these

  • If I am to model a handwriting style to children what should it be?
  • what is the handwriting policy in my setting and is it appropriate for early years taking the curriculum and requirements into account?
  • are some of my children – if they have exceeded the early learning goals – ready to learn handwriting and if so, how should I teach it?
  • should adults in the setting write in print, cursive or joined up?
  • should the environmental print, labels and displays be in a certain font or style in line with our handwriting policy or should we show a variety?
  • should all adults teaching the children model the same handwriting style and letter formation?

Below we have gathered information, guidance and evidence to help you formulate your ethos and principles for handwriting teaching and cursive or joined up writing with your children once it is developmentally appropriate. 

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 in a continuous flow, keeping pen or pencil on the page; can be a quicker form of writing (also called cursive joined and continuous cursive)

National strategy on writing

The National strategies document Gateway to writing – developing handwriting (2009) states

Is there a recommended style of handwriting? Each school should have a handwriting policy which aims to teach children to write in a way that is legible, fluent and fast. This entails a style which enables the letters to be joined easily. If children find the physical act of scribing taxing, they will be unlikely to develop into confident effective writers. 

Continuity from EYFS through Key Stages 1 and 2 is vitally important. Not only should a school have an agreed style, but also an agreed ‘patter’ for helping children to recall the required movement for each letter. Teaching assistants and student teachers should be aware of the style and the ‘patter’. (page 4)

When should I introduce joined up writing? As soon as possible once children are secure in the movements of each letter. 

Words such as: at, am, it, in, up make good starting points. Some rimes work well: pin, win, tin, bin, din, etc. Rimes containing the vowels a and o are harder to join into from the base because the pencil has to travel up and round to the starting point of the letter, e.g. cat, dog, and should be avoided at the beginning. If you introduce each digraph as one joined unit, that reinforces phonics and handwriting, using multi-sensory channels to reinforce both. As soon as possible, you can start encouraging the use of joined up writing for practising some of the high frequency words too, to help to reinforce the fact that these words need to be remembered as wholes, e.g. the, little, was. 

Most letters join with diagonal lines, e.g. man. When children start joining into n and m, there is a tendency to go into the base of the letter rather than using a diagonal join to the top of the letter. Draw children’s attention to the letters which join from the top: o, v, w. The actual shape of the letter e depends upon whether the preceding letter finishes at the top of the x height or the bottom. For instance, when e follows d, it will simply be a loop; when it follows f, it is more likely to have the traditional e shape. Joining all letters has been shown to inhibit fluency. Many styles do not join after letters that finish to the left (s, b, j, g, y) (page 7)

National Handwriting Association

The National Handwriting Association (NHA) discussion paper teaching fully cursive writing in reception a discussion paper by 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 letterforms.

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)

Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE)

The CLPE reading and writing scales document is a very useful resource for looking at a child’s progressive journey in literacy from beginner writer to mature independent writer. The document states

Learning to write, like learning to read, is a journey from dependence to independence. Attainment in writing is intrinsically linked to the reading culture of the classroom and school. A programme of reading high quality texts aloud and the opportunity to explore a wide variety of texts and genres will enable children to become increasingly aware of purpose, audience, form, voice, written language structures and rhythms, generic markers, language registers and conventions. These form the foundations of a child’s later understanding of written language systems.

Spoken language is the first and most important resource that young writers have. Children need to have a wide experience of story, knowledge of written language and how this works and knowledge of how print works as a means of communication. Young children can compose long before they can transcribe and many teaching approaches at this stage focus on easing the burden of transcription and enabling children to compose more freely. Therefore, initially a child needs the help and support of another person, usually an adult, in order to write conventionally. This support can be gradually withdrawn as transcription becomes easier and the child increases in independence, finding their voice as a writer. 

Progress and development will be multi-dimensional. Some kinds of progress will be in the area of composition, and other kinds will relate mainly to transcription. Inexperienced writers who are still struggling with transcription may also need support with developing spelling skills – moving from the phonetic stage to gaining increasing control of standard spelling – and gaining better control of handwriting. As children become more experienced writers, adults will need to use approaches which encourage children’s independence as writers; exploring form, voice, awareness of audience and the needs of the reader. Children will need to explore a wide variety of forms and styles, as well as having ample time to work on their writing – thus increasing their ability and stamina to manage extended texts. Adults should model and demonstrate how written language works as a means of communication. Children need to explore different ways and means of composing and publishing writing, including digital and multi-modal texts, related to purpose and audience.

Spelling and grammar, linked to language and form, should be taught, modelled and explored as an integral part of the writing curriculum.

The National Literacy Strategy

Developing early writing (DfEE 2001) pages 156-164 handwriting section gives lots of advice. 

Local authority advice

Not many LAs have published a policy or approach to handwriting online. However, interestingly, Islington’s Developing handwriting in the EYFS advice recommends beginning to use a precursive style of handwriting in the EYFS stating

It is important for children to be taught the cursive style of each individual letter (with a ‘flick’) so that when they are introduced to continuous cursive handwriting this will be easier…

Some schools introduce continuous cursive script in reception (joined up, starting on the line). This is only recommended if children are able to confidently form letters in the correct way and are ready in terms of their fine motor skills and pencil control. If continuous cursive handwriting formation is introduced it is suggested that individual letters are practised as a follow up to the sound taught in the discrete phonics session. Practise sessions should be short and as informal as possible. 

Other evidence for consideration

This Cursive writing website shows the different fonts and formats for cursive, precursive or joined or partially joined handwriting. It was developed to support schools that are teaching cursive writing in the EYFS and across the school for resources and guides. It states pros and cons for using cursive writing from the start on the website

Cursive writing from the start – pros

  • Traditionally, children have learnt to print letters when they first start writing, then they have to learn a new style of handwriting when the time comes to move on to joined writing. If cursive writing is taught from the start, only one style is needed.
  • Letters are produced in a flowing movement, which helps the development of a physical memory of how each letter is written.
  • Letters all start in the same place and flow from left to right, which reduces the likelihood of reversal mix-ups such as b/d and p/q.
  • Because of the smooth flow, writing soon becomes quicker and easier.
  • There is no messy transition stage when children move from print to a joined style.
  • A cursive style of handwriting is recommended by the British Dyslexia Association.

Cursive writing – cons

  • Letters written in cursive style can look quite different from printed letters in books.
  • In the early stages, writing can look messy as the movements are slightly more complex than print-style letters.

But here we are forgetting that children aged 3-5 might not be developmentally ready to write in this way. Have they had rich gross and fine motor practice? Have they had lots of experience in story making and telling, creating, mark making? Do they have a preferred hand?

There are so many factors to consider before approaching a policy for handwriting covering the EYFS. Indeed, given the evidence so far, my thoughts would be about including so many rich and diverse experiences across the EYFS so that children are ready for picking up a pencil and writing, confident in talking and telling and therefore developmentally ready to handwrite (as opposed to mark-make and write) when they enter Key Stage 1 or 2. 

Interestingly, supporting this rationale and contradicting the information from the previous website reference, is Debbie Hepplewhite’s website and information about her handwriting cursive style recommends that children are taught print first and then learn cursive and joined up writing from age six. 

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, pints 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 handwriting. 

British Dyslexia Association 

The BDA on their website publish a page with advice to parents about Help with handwriting which states

Typically, when first learning to write, children ‘print’ their letters. They then move on to ‘joined up’ writing at a later stage. For children with dyslexia, learning two styles of handwriting can add an extra layer of difficulty and cause confusion. It is, therefore, much more helpful if a young child can learn to use a single system of handwriting right from the start.

The most widely recommended handwriting style is called continuous cursive. Its most important feature is that each letter is formed without taking the pencil off the paper – and consequently, each word is formed in one, flowing movement.

The key advantages to this system are:

  • By making each letter in one movement, children’s hands develop a ‘physical memory’ of it, making it easier to produce the correct shape;
  • Because letters and words flow from left to right, children are less likely to reverse letters which are typically difficult (like b/d or p/q);
  • There is a clearer distinction between capital letters and lower case;
  • The continuous flow of writing ultimately improves speed and spelling.

This seems to apparently contradict early years pedagogical considerations about handwriting but it perhaps is misleading because a child is not usually diagnosed with dyslexia in the EYFS. However, many school handwriting policies and websites quote this advice to justify using cursive writing in the early years. We must bear in mind that children who might present with dyslexia in primary and key stages 1 and 2 will need a great amount of time in the EYFS to develop gross and fine motor and gain confidence in storytelling and other literacy aspects and they would only begin to form letters later on. Thus this fits with early years pedagogy and is in line with the EYFS evidence. 

The argument that forming letters by a method of cursive where the pencil does not leave the page (making one letter in one movement) helps physical memory is one that I can understand. This then makes me think about the teaching of letters and modelling letter formation. I can see that showing and sharing this method could be helpful – but we are forgetting that perhaps this is not the argument in the first place. Rather, perhaps our argument for cursive, prescursive and joined up handwriting is that it can only start when developmentally appropriate for children and this is not in the EYFS at all. 

USA research

An article published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy in 2015 entitled Handwriting in early childhood education: current research and future implications writes this as its conclusion

Conclusions and implications for practice 

Although the link between handwriting and academic achievement has been well established in the research literature, little is known about the development of handwriting before children enter school. Moreover, the extent to which handwriting readiness affects formal handwriting instruction once children enter school, and the best practices to teach young children hand-writing readiness skills effectively before they enter school remains unclear. The current paper serves as (a) a call for researchers to continue examining the role of handwriting on the early education and development of young children and (b) a call for practitioners to develop and implement programmes they know to be best practice when teaching early handwriting or handwriting ‘readiness’ skills. Quickly becoming recognized as important school readiness skills (Dinehart and Manfra, 2013; Grissmer et al., 2010; Son and Meisels, 2006), examining how best to improve fine motor writing skills and handwriting readiness in the years before children enter school may be critical to improving academic skills in the long term. 

The article presents an argument that more research is needed in this area and we now come back to whether it is relevant, pedagogically important or developmentally appropriate for young children to be taught handwriting and at what age and stage to start?

Further information

Useful international links

It can be helpful to research what other countries are advising in their early years practice

Content published on 24.3.17. Updated April 2019.