Rising numbers of students are doing their exams on computers rather than having to complete handwritten papers. Universities such as Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge are all testing the move and more than 60% of universities have brought in ‘e-exams’ in at least one or two modules according to a recent academic survey. As touch-typing takes over, we ask a number of heads and educationalists, is this the end of handwriting?

Hilary Wyatt, Head at The Lyceum

Sometimes parents ask why we teach handwriting at school at all; surely it is an obsolete skill? Of course, we must teach computer skills to ensure that our children are well-prepared for the future but developing a neat and swift cursive script is just as important and there is sound academic research that supports this view.

Joyce Rankin, who is on the State Board for Education in America and wrote The (Hand)writings on the Wall, cites research studies that have proven that there are direct links between developing good handwriting skills at an early age and academic achievement in both literacy and numeracy as children progress through their schooling; brain imaging has actually found that handwriting activates the brain more than typing because it involves more complex motor and cognitive skills.

I have always found that the process of writing something by hand helps me to learn it and research says it helps to ‘etch it into the memory’. We all remember those long lists of spelling words that we learnt through writing them out over and over again; the process of writing them down was actually teaching the brain to remember them. Why would we deny our children this highly effective learning tool?

Handwriting activates the brain, involving complex motor and cognitive skill

Studies show that handwriting contributes to reading fluency as it activates the visual perception of letters. This is especially important for those who struggle with acquiring language skills. According to Marilyn Zecher, a language specialist, children with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read and to spell because their brains associate sound and letter combinations inefficiently. She says that cursive helps with the decoding process because it integrates hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and other brain and memory functions.

The last and most important reason to teach handwriting is that having illegible handwriting can have a serious impact on a child’s self-esteem and can hinder their learning irreparably.

Sally Hobbs, former head and schools consultant, Mavor Associates

I am very aware of how deeply embedded into our lives the typed word has become. In the 1990s and Noughties many of us involved in primary education eagerly embraced technology, seeing the potential of the infinite variety of applications. Touch-typing programs proliferated. Certificates were awarded for the successful integration of ICT into the primary curriculum and I studied this subject on a scholarship to the USA. I was definitely not going to be a Luddite.

But never did I consider dropping handwriting from the curriculum. There was far too much evidence to support its value.

Children in Early Years develop physical co-ordination and mental stamina through mark-making, colouring and tracing. The Montessori method advocates a kinaesthetic approach, using sandpaper letters, salt trays and plasticine so children feel the shape of the letter and develop fine motor control. They draw the shape in the air as they repeat it. All children, left- or right-handed, should be taught the correct posture for writing and  pencil grip to avoid discomfort. I am firmly in favour of cursive writing right from the start, with Early Years children being taught the ligatures to connect one letter with the next. Descenders/ascenders should be the right depth/height and the link strokes smooth and regular. Letter strings, such as in words ending in -ing or -ght, come naturally to children writing these cursively.

I am firmly in favour of cursive writing right from the start

When asked to advise on future schooling  I always found the most efficient way to assess a child’s written level of English and creative potential is through a piece of unaided writing. All pupils, with only a handful of exceptions, need to write quickly and legibly in their examinations. On school visits parents should search for handwritten work by the pupils and value the integrity of the teacher who leaves untouched the occasional spelling mistake, celebrating the originality of the work displayed.

To support their child’s learning, parents must, alongside paying attention to regular reading,  number bonds and the world around them, ensure their child witnesses them, their primary role model, handwrite thank you letters, telephone messages or shopping lists.  What better new year resolution than to spend ten screen-free minutes a day on handwriting? It will be a sound investment.

Stephen Winchester, Head of English, Beaudesert Park School

Handwriting is still alive and kicking here at Beaudesert, but very much part of a mix. We certainly place more importance on typing skills as the children near the age when they move on to their various senior schools of choice aged 13.  Most can touch-type by the time they are 11, and we are working towards this being by the time they are 9.

The children start to put pen to paper in Nursery, with dedicated handwriting sessions the order of the day during those early Pre-Prep years. At that stage physically forming the letters helps the children develop fine motor skills, and the action of writing or drawing them also taps into different ways of learning which helps embed the information. In fact there is a substantial body of evidence which suggests that, whatever your age, the physical act of writing something makes that thing more readily memorable. As a result, work such as revision notes and spellings can hold more benefit if written than typed, even if the latter may take less time. Good, clear handwriting is celebrated in different ways throughout the school. Standout examples are displayed on noticeboards across various year groups, and children in Year 4 are each awarded a ‘Pen Licence’ when their handwriting has achieved a certain standard. At that point they are promoted to writing in class with a special pen instead of in pencil. There’s also a popular calligraphy extra-curricular activity.

Handwriting forces us to take responsibility for what we put on the page

Touch-typing skills are celebrated, too. They are taught in dedicated ICT sessions, with children encouraged to practise at home using BBC Dance Mat or typing.com.  Once the children have reached a certain standard they can choose to sit a WPM (words per minute) test, and we publish a top 100 list. The current winner clocked up 63 WPM.

Julian de Bono, Director of Studies, Port Regis

The difference between a handwritten thought and a typed one goes beyond the merely technical. It is true that handwriting teaches fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination that will be crucial to the work of future surgeons and engineers; it is also the case that its slowness allows children to think and edit more carefully while articulating their thoughts. Every sixth-form invigilator has seen A-Level students, having spent years typing, massaging the muscle between finger and thumb just 40 minutes into a handwritten exam. There is more to it than that, however: typing and writing are not the same.

Typing is the common currency in adult life: every keystroke is the same, unrelated to the eventual shape of the letters, and this disassociates us from the words we use – it promotes a bureaucratic, uniform style. We write what the reader wants to read, not what we want to say. Handwriting forces us to take responsibility for what we put on the page. Few poets start by typing a first draft; if we want our children to stand out in a world saturated with written information, we need to teach them that writing is more than a function – it is a craft.