Research School Network: How to teach handwriting in the early years Dr Polly Crowther of East London Research School explains how to support children’s handwriting skills in the Early Years.


How to teach handwriting in the early years

Dr Polly Crowther of East London Research School explains how to support children’s handwriting skills in the Early Years.

by Research Schools Network
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Fine motor control and oral composition develop apace in the early years. However, the combination of complex skills required for writing is difficult to teach, and the writing ELG challenging to achieve. Handwriting instruction can be an acute pressure for early years teachers and so we need practical insights and good evidence to draw upon in developing our approach.

Early handwriting instruction shapes a life-long skill. Handwriting is an important skill that supports effective learning. Berninger et al’s (2002)S names transcription as one of three key aspects of writing development.

Often, debates on handwriting policies focus on cursive versus print, but rigorous research on this is limited. As such, Early Years teachers have weak evidence with which to navigate strong views. In response, leaders need to develop a logical, cross-phase approach to early handwriting instruction.

The DfE’s Reading Framework says schools should consider the advantages to children of delaying the teaching of joined handwriting”. The report cites Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings, in which highly regarded schools did not teach cursive or pre-cursive in Reception. Newly validated phonics schemes must not use cursive writing. Additionally, there is no statutory expectation for cursive in EYFS.

The evidence for early handwriting instruction

So what does the evidence say about teaching handwriting in the early years? The hunt for evidence to prove either side of the cursive/non-cursive debate is fruitless. Early years teachers should focus on the evidence we do have to shape instruction.

The EEF’s report Preparing for Literacy” recommends Developing children’s motivation and capability to write’. It suggests that we focus on three connected elements of handwriting instruction:

● Practise
● Motivation
● Product and process

Product and process

The finished product (a letter) can look correct but be formed using a flawed process. A flawed process hinders fast, fluent transcription (see the diagram below). Embedded handwriting problems often come from process misconceptions. We can address this from the start with a focus on the correct start point and movement pattern of each letter. TheNational Handwriting Association (NHA) suggests that print letters are easier to learn. Fewer strokes place less pressure on working memory.


Extensive practice in the EYFS helps children to master complex transcription skills. In EYFS, there is some evidence thatyounger children will benefit from unstructured activities, such as drawing. Older children might benefit frommore direct guidance on what and how to write specific words and letters.

The NHA’s Good Practice for Handwriting Toolkit’ explains procedures for effective practice. They advise helping children with posture, pencil grip, pressure and paper control.


For extensive practice, children need to feel motivated to write. Attractive writing tools might have a short-lived benefit. Chances to publish’ and share written work is likely to develop sustained motivation, alongside having a reason to communicate in writing. The Center for Early Literacy Learning’spractice guides include ideas for motivating activities. Developing children’s oral composition, alongside their desire to tell stories out loud, can encourage writing too.

What about children who struggle to write?

Many children find handwriting a challenge and may need more support. The EEF emphasises accurate diagnosis and targeted intervention: we must focus on to the specific misconceptions and barriers for each child. It is difficult to unlearn handwriting habits. Diagnosing difficulties during EYFS is powerful. The NHA’s categories (such as size, sitting on the line, spacing) can support assessment. Aspirer Research School have shared useful recommendations fordiagnostic assessments in handwriting.

Fine motor skill interventions are popular in supporting handwriting development. To be effective, they must target the specific skills required for handwriting. In general, however, motor instruction has less impact than direct handwriting instruction (Santangelo & Graha, 2015).


Handwriting instruction does not have a simple solution that will suit all settings. However, evidence points to underpinning principles for a coherent curriculum. The early years is a time to cultivate motivation and joy in writing. Handwriting instruction should prevent the development of long-term misconceptions. It is no easy balance, but following a focus on process, motivation and practice is likely to help.

Other research and resources:

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.

Dunst, C. J. and Gorman, E. (2009) Development of Infant and Toddler Mark Making and Scribbling’, CELLreviews, 2 (2), pp. 1 – 16.

Santangelo, T. and Graham, S. (2015) A Comprehensive Meta-analysis of Handwriting Instruction Educational Psychology Review28(2)

National Handwriting Association Good practice for handwriting toolkit’.

Center for Early Literacy Learning Practice Guides for Practitioners.

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