Cursive Writing in Reception – A Good Idea?

Alistair Bryce-CleggMark Making, Writing26 Comments

I am regularly get emails from Reception practitioners saying that they have been told they have to teach cursive writing to their children, even though it is against their better judgement. They usually ask two questions.

1) Would I recommend it?

and

2) How do you teach it?

My my answers are usually : ‘I wouldn’t’ and ‘don’t’.

Or, ask the person who has told you you have to do it. They must have a plan!

I appreciate none of the above are actually very helpful, but fundamentally I don’t think that it is developmentally appropriate for Reception children to be cursive writing.

Most (not all ) of the teachers that I have worked with who do cursive writing with Reception tell me they don’t think it is appropriate either and that it actually slows down writing progress and kills enjoyment. It also seems to somehow increase adults alcohol consumption!

But, as I know lots of the readers of this blog teach cursive writing in Reception I thought you could share your thoughts on it with each other via the comments at the bottom of the post. After all, you are people who are actually doing it every day.

I have included a couple of articles in this blog post that may be of interest. The first is a link to a 2017 document from Early Education which is a really useful read. You will find that here . The second is a piece of writing by Pam Hulme from The National Handwriting Association . You can download a pdf here.  Although some of the assessment language has changed slightly since it was written, the content is still very relevant. The third is a 2016 blog post by Ruth Miskin You can find the whole blog here.

Teaching fully cursive writing in Reception: a discussion document

I write as a teacher with more than forty years of experience in primary classrooms, subject leadership and management. Many of those years have been with the youngest children in school, including Nursery. I have been involved in Literacy education at local, national and international levels and have a particular passion for the teaching of handwriting. This includes providing training for schools on behalf of the NHA and as an independent consultant. I also support some individual children with handwriting problems within a London primary school. The impetus for this article is my concerns with the practice adopted in some schools of introducing the teaching of ‘fully cursive’ handwriting with ‘lead in’ or ‘entry’ strokes from the beginning of the Reception year (ages 4 -5 years).

In England, the curriculum begins with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) 0-5 years,followed by the National Curriculum which is divided into Key Stages 1-4. The National Curriculum for English (2014) places high importance on teaching handwriting and confirms the importance of achieving automaticity, so that the child’s higher processes of thinking can be released to work on compositional skills, rather than be consumed by the motor, sensory and perception demands of transcription.

Good early practice in handwriting teaching seeks to establish secure foundations from the beginning then to practise, refine and extend skills. Continuity and consistency are essential factors in helping children retain movement patterns. Those advocating the early teaching of fully cursive with ‘lead in’ or ‘entry’ strokes (see Fig.1 below), wish to establish this practice from school entry (Reception) so that children do not have to alter movement patterns at a later stage.

Whilst this model sounds plausible and is successful with some children, my concern is that it is unsupported pedagogically, is unnecessary and creates failure in some of the youngest and most vulnerable children. I will proceed to outline my reasons:

Early writers

Some children will be already reading and writing letters when they start Reception, including those attending Nursery classes in the same school. The letters they use, and those in the wider print environment, are not likely to have entry strokes. What are the implications for continuity and consistency?

Statutory requirements:

There are no requirements to teach fully cursive writing either in the EYFS or in the National Curriculum. Indeed, the National Curriculum for English places emphasis on the acquisition of letter shape, space and size before joins are taught and delivers clear messages that some letters are best left un-joined.

For Year 2 pupils (6-7 years), the requirements include the following:

And for Years 3-4 (ages 7-9)

The National Curriculum reflects the position that there is no evidence supporting the notion that schemes which use ‘lead in’ strokes and fully cursive writing, are in any way superior to those in which letters start at the top and join with an exit stroke. Although ‘lead in strokes’ are taught widely in other European countries, there is an important age difference for when formal writing is introduced, i.e. at around 7 years of age, as opposed to 4-5 years in England.

Fig.1. Example of cursive letterforms with entry and exit strokes.

Developmental factors

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.

Fig.2. Areas of development underpinning handwriting (Michelle van Rooyen)

This is no easy task for very young, especially those ‘summer born’ children who are still only four years of age for most of their Reception year. At the end of that year, the Early Learning Goals set demanding benchmarks of attainment. Assessment of handwriting is to be found in Goals 4 and 10, which include these requirements:

Fig. 3. Extracts from Early Learning Goals 4 and 10

There is, quite simply, enough to do without adding extra requirements. The importance of the Foundation stage is in the name! Foundation skills in handwriting should be focused on all of the areas outlined in Fig.1. Practitioners need to be fully aware that the premature rush to get children ‘joining their writing’ when prerequisite skills are immature, may leave a legacy of handwriting problems that will be difficult to reverse at a later stage.

The development of the right oblique stroke necessary for entry strokes is emerging between the ages of 4 -5. Children with delayed development are likely to struggle to achieve this movement and experience frustration.

Fig. 4. From VMI Administration, Scoring and Teaching Manual. 6theEdition (Beery, 2010)

(summarised by Michelle van Rooyen)

For many children in our schools and their teachers, the writing demands of EYFS pose a huge challenge. The letterforms used need to be as simple and fail-proof as possible, with letters taught in ‘formation families which reflect the motor patterns required to write them. Moreover, these letters are similar to those found in texts, unlike those with entry strokes which can look quite different. Joining, whenever it is seen to be desirable, can be taught quite simply using the exit strokes of these letter forms.

Fig. 5. Letter formation families (from ‘Penpals for Handwriting’, Cambridge, 2010)

 

Children with Special Educational Needs

The requirement to join at 4-5 years places a heavy burden on children who may already be struggling to establish basic handwriting skills, especially some of the ‘summer born’ and those with developmental coordination difficulties. Such children may want to be doing the same as their peers and will create their own joined script. Below is one example of writing by a child with such problems at the end of Year 1. He has received considerable support and encouragement in both years, but the demands of joining before he was developmentally ready has left a legacy of confusion.

Fig 6. Example of writing by a child at the end of Year 1 showing confusions with joining

In Conclusion

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!

Pam Hulme

 

This is an excerpt from Ruth Miskin’s blog last year talking about why we shouldn’t teach cursive writing in Reception.

Why should we not teach children a formal cursive from the very beginning?

1. Children learning formal cursive might believe that being a good writer is synonymous with joining letters successfully.

2. Formal cursive takes longer to learn than printing: time that should be spent in learning to read and spell.

3. Formal cursive makes heavy demands on children’s fine motor skills. Boys, in particular, find it harder than printing. (Most have spent less time drawing and colouring than girls.)

4.  Beginner writers often need to stop to think about each letter-sound correspondence as they write. Children learning formal cursive, however, might think they are expected to write the word in one continuous flow.

5. Children find it hard to read what they have written. Words are buried in a spider web of strokes. Many children add the joins once they have written the word making their writing even more illegible.

6. Joining letters is a separate skill, quite apart from learning how to form letters well. It can be delayed until later, leaving younger children free to concentrate on composition, spelling and correct letter formation. Some children, however, may well discover joins for themselves, if teaching has focused on correct formation and orientation from the beginning. For example, joining an ‘i’ to an ‘n’ with a diagonal join (as in ‘in’) or an ‘o’ to an ‘n’ with a horizontal join (as in ‘on’) are simple, natural joins that children might well use as a matter of course as they learn to write these common words. This should not be discouraged.

This quotation, below, by Hugo Kerr (author of ‘The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching’) makes the above points very well.

“All the [children] I see are at basic level and all religiously join up their letters, at great cost in my view. The cognitive effort involved in joining up is obviously large and also obviously reduces capacity to think…adding a large and difficult cognitive task, like cursive writing, to an already rather difficult task in a highly competitive environment is a costly affair, especially for the weaker students.

“It seems to me very clear that [children’s] writing behaviours show them struggling very considerably with joining up their letters per se. A great deal of their sometimes limited capacity for concentration seems to be directed at that fiddly, effortful and (to me) rather unnatural motor aspect of spelling… Bear in mind these are the weaker readers, so they are wide open to demotivation, not to say humiliation, faced with these complicated squiggles, so ridiculous when considered in detail.

“It seems to me self-evident that if cognitive capacity is so ferociously engaged in one domain, there will be correspondingly less of it available for the other domains we are actually interested in. This seems to me to be indisputable.

“If any of this is true, then it may be that we are fetishising joined up writing, or at least perhaps insisting upon it way too early? I find ‘joining up’ cumbersome and threatening (it looks a mess when I’m done; it feels clumsy and I feel stupid).

“What evidence is there that teaching joined-up writing early is necessary or useful? Would we know what it was aimed at?”

 

So, I would be very interested in your views. If you have any links to other articles that everyone might find useful, then stick them in the comment box.

Alistair

26 Comments on “Cursive Writing in Reception – A Good Idea?”

  1. I agree completely with this article. I am currently teaching in a school nursery where we are expected to teach continual cursive for name writing. I have been teaching for almost 30 years and have never had so few children leaving nursery unable to write their name. Next year I am back in reception and have been home visiting this week. Half our cohort do not attend our nursery and it was so lovely to see how many of these children could print their name beautifully. Yet I know in September I will crush their success by forcing them to rewrite everything in cursive. We are destroying flow and hindering creativity.

  2. Am horrified as a retired teacher of Reception children that my grandson is being taught cursive writing at the age of 4. Having shown him how to form lower case letters correctly to write his name he produced legible letters of the correct size.
    Yesterday ,as part of his homework, he had to look for the letters a,s,p and t in his storybook. His comments were ,where is the whoosh?
    If the letters don’t match how does this help with reading?
    Am sure reception age children don’t possess the fine motor skills required to produce free flowing writing that is age appropriate at this stage of their education. Would love to know who’s I
    great idea this was?

  3. It makes sense to me to teach exit strokes but not entry strokes. Try writing ‘book’ and see how you joined the two ‘o’s. It was probably with a horizontal stroke at the top, not a diagonal stroke from the bottom. Yet we teach all pre cursive letters starting with a diagonal entry stroke from the bottom. Exit strokes are always the same and lead to natural joins, whereas entry strokes vary according to the previous letter. Personally, if your writing is clear and neat, I don’t think the style matters.

  4. I was horrified when I walked into my son’s reception class and saw that they taught cursive handwriting so I reviewed the literature hoping to find some evidence that this was appropriate practice. I couldn’t find any. I did read some articles that suggested cursive was helpful to children with dyslexia because the letters are more easily distinguishable. My son was printing words when he entered reception and now at the end of the year his writing looks like a spider crawled through an ink pot! As he becomes ready physically to write this way I hope his legibility improves, unfortunately his view of himself as a writer and his self esteem have been negatively affected.

  5. Alistair I am so pleased there is finally something on this! In our school we’ve worked hard to keep print in Reception. We now start pre-cursive in Year 1 in an EYs way, using whole body gross motor movements, multi-sensory activities such as paint on tables to write a sound or using our feet and a paintbrush outside! On a Friday we then attempt pen to paper to write that sound. I have 15 summer borns in my class, 10 of those are boys, and they are the most quiestest and calmest children on a Friday handwriting session it’s amazing. Total advocate for EYs practice! Have continued continuous provision all year in Y1 for the first time ever too this year, it’s also moving into Y2 in September! All thanks to your courses and books, so thank you 🙂

  6. Hi Alistair, I am very interested in your post and the comments of others.

    NATE Primary magazine published an article I wrote about handwriting, so rather than repeat my thoughts and experiences, I hope you don’t mind if I provide the link to my article instead for those who might be interested:

    https://phonicsintervention.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/NATE_TE-PM_Spring-2017_22-26-HEPP-FINAL.pdf

    Also, as I provide free handwriting resources, I’ve completed your online form with my handwriting website: http://www.debbiehepplewhitehandwriting.com .

    Warmest good wishes,

    Debbie

  7. I completely agree with all the above comments. It puts the children off writing and many can’t do it. Cursive is much harder to read back and therefore a barrier to achieving statements such as ‘ forms recognisable letters ‘ Can write sentences which can be read by themselves and others’ . The biggest issue with this for me is the effect it has on self -esteem and overall writing confidence, and what is the issue that we see in many of our schools? Reluctant writers ! So why make it harder for them? I remember a really good point that you made in your TED talk Alastair -that children are NOT born reluctant writers. We do this to children. Another example getting it wrong, frustratingly because of the pressure and what we are told we HAVE to do. Our expertise and knowledge of the EYFS tells us this is absolutely NOT the way. Thank you for arming us with this information to yet again fight the Early Years corner.

  8. I so agree with Emma’s points about teaching in EYFS in terms of preparation for KS1. If we hold dear to our hearts and practise that EYFS forms the foundations of success in the next stage we need to make sure that the foundations are solid and have depth and breadth. Simply because the practise of cursive writing may be adopted across a school and therefore in some cases imposed on EYFS when some children are not ready is not an acceptable way to build foundations of sucess. Children’s self esteem will just come tumbling down. Strategies in schools need to build on excellent early years practise and not impose a policy that does not meet the needs of our youngest learners. Many years ago I heard a speaker at a nursery course say ” you wouldn’t prepare a child for a famine by starving them would you?” This has stayed with me for all of my 27 years in education so far and the ethos of my approach to transition and good EYFS practise so yes Emma let’s continue to prepare our children well so that they do indeed shine!

  9. At last some sense on this matter. I have always gone with the child and they will do it when they are ready and only then. As EYFS teachers we should hold strong on to the things we know work and what is best for the children. It does not say ‘cursive’ anywhere in the EYFS curriculum. I was told I had to do this when I started a new school last year and it went against all I believed in, so I held firm to my beliefs and didn’t do it. We have to think of seven areas of learning and the experiences that goes into making EYFS a wonderful learning environment. We do not teach our children so they can be ready at end of year 2. We teach them what they need to know in EYFS and then they shine and can deal with any of the Yr 1& Yr 2 stuff.
    Thank you Alistair, you continue to inspire and open professional dialogue.

  10. I totally agree with Katie N. I have taught both along ways alongside reading and spelling and those children with less readiness find the same challenges with both. I have also worked further on in school at the stage when cursive is introduced and had a nightmare with children, mostly boys, who had just mastered non-cursive formation and were now challenged to relearn how to form each letter. Those children didn’t have to, it was all part of a continuum and anyone who knows the way I teach will know that in my class everyone is special on their own merits but they hated having ‘baby’ handwriting and that secretarial aspect of writing took centre stage until they were through the worst of it. Those were largely the children who were also facing challenges with reading and spelling and so throwing writing into the mix completely bashed their confidence.
    We definitely found that introducing it from the beginning, along with being realistic about individuals who needed more individualised planning had more positives than negatives. With hugely surprised me after resisting for so many years. Eradicating adding on flicks and curly twists etc after a letter has been formed is down to being explicit with the children as they are writing before they get into this as a habit.

    1. I agree with Alison!
      Children shouldn’t be spending hours with a pencil (doing cursive or otherwise) unless they are physically ready. If that means there is hardly any emphasis on putting letters on paper in EYFS, so be it. I’d rather they developed the appropriate physical skills (lots of funky fingers!) and an interest in reading first. When they are ready, and not before, teaching them that all letters start on the line with an entry stroke (no need to insist they are joined yet!) means no need to re-teach later and destroy confidence. Keep in mind the end goal is being able to write fluently – not tick a box for an ELG, KS1 or KS2 standard! With this approach we have seen incredible standards of hand writing (especially amongst boys) that puts me to shame!

  11. I have done both. My experience though in a class of young summer born reception children whom I took on into year 1 was that cursive writing hindered them considerably, I could usually read what they were attempting to write but it wasnt possible for others to do so and they struggled to read back to me.
    I liked the approach advocated by Cripps in a Hand for Spelling, joining letters in digraphs etc from the outset. This was far more successful. Consistent use of a Sassons font in any printed classroom materials also helped considerably.

  12. I’m EYFS lead and teach Reception and we used pre-cursive this year. It has been awful. It slowed those who came in printing, it put off those new to writing and those with physical difficulties or poor gross and fine motor skills had no chance. Our writing has really suffered.

  13. Having taught cursive in Ks1 I realise that the children must be forming the pre cursive confidently before they can even begin to try the joins. The learning of the letter shapes for reading and spelling is much clearer when using the pre cursive font, with clear shapes to help develop pencil control. When I taught year 1 and 2 I found moving to the cursive and joined script a natural progression, as long as it was taught daily in very short sessions (5-10mins). Again it cones back to the readiness of the individual child! ☺

  14. Thank you so much! I am relieved so say that our professional instinct in our school has meant that we don’t teach cursive for all of the reasons above. Now we have the research to support us. However at my children’s school my summer born daughter is trying sooo hard to write in pre cursive style, she has add on flicks here there and everywhere. Good eyfs practise should mean that children are mark making in a wide variety of ways, so the notion of ‘every letter starts on the line’ is meaningless! My heart breaks for my little girl who is forming letters in the wrong direction just to try to get her lead ins right-and the poor girl is left handed!!! I’m a governor at the school but I’m not sure whether bringing it up is too operational when I’m meant to be strategic! I might just bring it with a ‘this makes an interesting read’ comment. Thank you for all of your thought provoking and challenging blogs.

  15. We have introduced it this year. I have found as an experienced Early Years practitioner, the children have not been as keen to write independently. They constantly need reassurance and instead of thinking about what they are writing they are asking what does this letter look like. Lots of the children who could already form letters when they started school have not made as much progress as similar children in previous classes. They constantly ask can they do ‘normal’ writing.

  16. I agree with Katie. When I moved to YR five years ago, and was told we had to teach cursive, I hated it to begin with, and looked everywhere at the time for research to prove not to do it, but actually, I have to say, now I have experience in it, I can see how it really benefits children. We did need to learn to adapt our practice for it work. I.E. resources to help them, ditties etc. We have found it has helped children as all letters start in the same place so it helps our children who struggle as they don’t have to process, does this letter start at the top, middle, bottom (we don’t join in YR, or use exit strokes, but we do use entry strokes), and the amount of children making rapid progress to reach exceeding in PD has really increased. It hasn’t impacted on the children getting to their writing ELG, and the children are exposed to print and cursive around the environment and explicitly in phonics sessions so we haven’t had any issue with confusion.

    We have a sound book where children learn to write the sound in school, and it goes home for parents and children to contribute to as well if they wish.

    Looking forward to Year One, it the teachers also say it has helped immensely with children noticing spelling patterns.

    When I go to moderation and look st the difference between schools who do cursive, and those who don’t, the difference is usually stark. Not just in the physical handwriting itself, but also content. I am definitely a convert to cursive!

  17. This is so timely for me. In September I am moving to a school that teaches cursive from Nursery after having spent 11 years in a school nursery that taught using printed letters. It will be quite an adjustment for me!

    My daughter has just entered the same school at year 2 and has had to make an almost instantaneous switch to cursive too, which has had a huge effect on the legibility of her previously neat writing!

  18. I hate it, they struggle to coordinate the movement required for entry and exit and feel like they are failing. Feel like I’m going against what is developmentally appropriate.

  19. As an EYFS Lead and having taught both cursive and non cursive letter formation I find the exact same difficulties with both. We trialed a year of teaching cursive formation and made fun rhymes up for the formation to have ‘kicks and flicks’ and this was no easier or harder for the children to learn and form. I would support teaching with cursive (or ‘kicks and flicks’ as we call them in EYFS) if your school expects this formation later in school. I would recommend it being taught from EYFS as this sets the standard and the key skills from day one and you are not re training later. If you had asked me before I started teaching it I would have agreed with the article above but having seen the benefits for the cursive writing furthur up in the school and having seen the writing ready for Year 1 I would support this. Just to touch upon the SEN children I agree they find it difficult but for the majority of those children it was the same level of difficulty they would have found with non cursive writing. Again, having seen their writing further up in KS2 I feel it supported them learning it from the start of reception rather than re teaching them later in their school journey.

    1. Hi Katie

      Did you school follow a scheme of work to teach cursive handwriting? Or are you aware of any suitable for reception.

      Many thanks,
      Lauren

      1. Hi Lauren,

        We made our own up. We made our own rhymes for each letter and teach them in groups. E.g c, o, a, d, g all start the formation in the same way so we usually find the first letter in each group can take a while to grasp but once they’ve mastered that one the rest follow easily.

        1. Hi Katie,

          Thank you for your reply. I hadn’t thought of that, I will definitely consider it when i am teaching, thank you.

  20. I teach cursive writing in FS as part of a ‘whole school’ policy to improve writing in an age where there is an obsession for presentation – that being that good presentation = every child’s piece of work looking the same. (So depressing).
    The biggest impact on my children is their willingness to -just write, mark make, have a go – because already in their journey they are being told there is only one way to do it and if you can’t do it that way they are failing! ????

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