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Research School Network: Using diagnostic assessments to support effective planning in handwriting How COVID-19 has affected handwriting


Using diagnostic assessments to support effective planning in handwriting

How COVID-19 has affected handwriting

Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns have impacted on children’s learning in numerous ways. For us, we found that one area that had deteriorated was handwriting, mostly because remote learning had led to a lot of work being typed. For many, rightly or wrongly, the presentation of a piece of work is often used to assess the quality of the content; if the handwriting is messy then your assumption is that the content will be of equal poor quality. Often, this is not always the case, but in a world that does judge on appearance it is something that we can improve with our children.

When there are gaps in so many other subjects, why spend time on handwriting?

Accurate letter formation is an essential early skill that forms the basis of a fluent handwriting style. However, it is also important to focus on the speed of pupils’ writing as well as the accuracy. Slow or effortful transcription hinders writing composition as pupils have to concentrate on monitoring their handwriting and spelling and are less able to think about the content of their writing
. (Improving Literacy at Key Stage 1 (2020) p.35)

Handwriting Triangle

As you can see from the Simple View of Writing (Berninger et al, 2002), the act of writing is split into three parts that all require the working memory to enable the skills to operate. The more we work on the transcription skills, the more automatic they are for our pupils. Once their working memory is no longer focussed on letter shape, size and positioning, it can be focussed on the other parts like generating ideas, thinking more deeply about word choice and meaning and using metacognitive strategies.

How we conducted a diagnostic assessment for handwriting

We do have a clear, progressive handwriting scheme, however, a lot had been missed due to Covid-19 so teachers were left wondering where to start from –

Do they go to the year before and risk the children always being a year behind?

Do they go to where they should be at this time of year but risk the gaps widening?

This is where handwriting diagnostics have been incredibly useful. In our school, we use a diagnostic that has been adapted from a free resource from the National Handwriting Association (NHA) called Good Practice for Handwriting Toolkit.

We also use a scheme that follows the letter families that are promoted by the NHA– curly caterpillars, long-legged giraffes, one-armed robots and zig-zags.

Letter family

Before we can start to use the diagnostic, we need a piece of handwriting to assess. For this, we ask the children to complete a short piece of writing – we use the pangram The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ to ensure we have evidence for every letter of the alphabet. We ask the children to write it 3 times in their neatest handwriting and to time themselves doing this. This allows us to see the link between the quality of the handwriting and the time is has taken. As you can see from one below, 8 minutes for 3 sentences shows that this child has an inefficient writing style and they are a long way from becoming fluent.

Brown fox

Once we had the assessments it was time for the diagnostic. You can certainly complete a diagnostic for each child but we wanted to use our time more effectively.

First, we grouped the children into 3 groups to quickly assess the quality of their handwriting, top, middle and bottom. Then we completed a diagnostic for each group. Because the children had all completed the same assessment it was easy to compare and to scan the writing to assess the shape and formation of each letter. As you can see from the blank diagnostic below, the teachers judge the shape of the letters from Excellent to Poor. We repeated this for each letter family. Straight away teachers were spotting key teaching points and which letter family needed the most work.


We then moved down the diagnostic looking at the other areas, size, spacing and whether the letters were sitting on the line.


Once the diagnostic was complete, the teachers decided on the next steps for each group and, ultimately, their class. We do not have a lot of time before the summer and we cannot plan to teach every gap. Therefore, we discussed the quick wins’ – the letter families that could be focused on that would benefit the majority of the pupils.

This activity did take about an hour but the teachers left with a really clear understanding of their children, their needs and most importantly, a clear understanding of what needed to be taught to fill the gaps in their class.

Feedback from one teacher was:

I found the process really useful. It was very interesting to take time and observe each letter individually, from this we have made the best use of handwriting lessons for the rest of this term. We are now focusing on individual class needs based on assessment, which we hadn’t done before directly linking to handwriting. It was also positive to be able to spot what exactly were the issues presented in certain letters i.e. size, formation etc.

The teachers have now put this information into a plan for the final half term, ensuring that they are using their handwriting lessons more effectively.

Sarah Izon

Lead of Aspirer Research School
Literacy Lead at Wilbraham Primary School


Berninger, V. W., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R. D., Begay, K., Coleman, K. B., Curtin, G. and Graham, S. (2002) Teaching Spelling and Composition Alone and Together: Implications for the Simple View of Writing’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 94 (2), p. 291 – 304.

Bilton, Christine and Tillotson, Sarah, Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), corp creator. (2020) Improving literacy in key stage 1. [ Guidance report ]

National Handwriting Association (2017) Good Practice for Handwriting Toolkit, Published by the National Handwriting Association S’ Factors Revised from S’ Rules 2017

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