Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Handwriting and composition

The links between handwriting and composition: An emerging programme of research

Jane Medwell and David Wray

Handwriting, and in particular orthographic-motor integration (automaticity of letter production), appears to play a role in facilitating higher order composing processes by freeing up working memory to deal with the complex tasks of planning, organizing, revising and regulating the production of text. In this way, automatic handwriting facilitates composing. Research undertaken into the predictors of writing competence suggests that automatic letter writing is the single best predictor of length and quality of written composition in the primary years (Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997). This is a startling finding, especially given the relatively low status and lack of attention given to handwriting in the curriculum.

In the educational literature about writing, and enshrined in the National Curriculum in England, is the assumption that handwriting will become automatic relatively early in the writer’s development, freeing up cognitive resources to facilitate composition. As national statutory testing does not assess handwriting speed and addresses only writing style and neatness we do not know to what extent this assumption is valid. We may be assessing the wrong aspects of handwriting and failing to assess an aspect which is important. We do know that a significant proportion of children experience handwriting difficulties throughout their schooling. More of these children are boys than girls and their handwriting difficulties are likely to impact upon their ability to compose written language.

There is evidence that intervention to teach handwriting can improve not only the handwriting of these children, but also their written composition (Jones and Christiansen, 2000). Handwriting instruction will not solve all the difficulties of writing, but a short-term intervention may improve the composing of many children, especially boys. In this research we aim to explore the following questions:

  • What levels of orthographic-motor integration do children in Y2 and Y6 in English schools show, measured on a simple class test?
  • Is orthographic-motor integration correlated to composing quality in children in Y2 and Y6?
  • What proportion of children at Y2 and Y6 would benefit from handwriting intervention?
  • What are the effects of intervention of various types on the composition of these children?

Several publications have already emerged from this research, and more are in the pipeline. The project has also had a considerable media profile. Publications and links to media coverage can be seen on the project outputs page.