Does the messy handwriting bother you?

"Handwriting is a holistic learning process" - an interview about the background to the ongoing teacher survey

DÜSSELDROF. The Association of Education and Upbringing (VBE) and the Schreibmotorik Institut are currently asking teachers in Germany how well schoolchildren can write by hand. In an interview with News4teachers, VBE federal chairman Udo Beckmann and the managing director of the Schreibmotorik Institut Dr. Marianela Diaz Meyer on her motivation for starting the survey. Study title: STEP 2019 (“Study on the development, problems and interventions related to handwriting”).

Click here for the survey:

In your opinion, what makes a good handwriting?

Marianela Diaz Meyer: When we talk about handwriting, we first think of the writing itself. The decisive thing is the movements that lead to the writing. We call them writing motor skills. These handwritten movements activate certain areas of the brain and thus sustainably support learning to read and write. So handwriting plays a vital role in education. There are basically three aspects that make up good handwriting: These are legibility, writing speed and endurance.

Readability, Mr. Beckmann, is a key criterion for teachers, isn't it?

Udo Beckmann: Yes, for teachers too, legibility is definitely an aspect that defines good handwriting. Second, it is important that it is easy for the child to write and that it can write as relaxed and persistent as possible.

What was the reason for you to start the survey among teachers?

Beckmann: We have observed that the legibility of handwriting has deteriorated among school pupils, that stamina has also decreased and that children tire more quickly when writing. But the main reason we get involved is because we know the positive effects handwriting has on a child's overall learning abilities.

Diaz Meyer: Again and again, teachers and parents complain to us about problems with handwriting in school. A large number of children in Germany do not achieve the standard of readable and fluent handwriting required by the Conference of Ministers of Education at the end of the fourth grade. We reported on the extent of this problem in elementary and secondary schools three years ago, now we would like to take a look at the current status.

Ms. Diaz Meyer, you already indicated in your first answer that handwriting is about more than just beautiful handwriting for you. Why are you committed to the topic?

Diaz Meyer: Handwriting is a holistic learning process. That is why we at the Schreibmotorik Institut have been campaigning for improved handwriting support for six years. We are often contacted by teachers who report that they feel inadequately prepared to teach handwriting - especially when problems arise. We would like to change that by transferring findings from research on the subject of handwriting into practice, for example in the form of European projects, materials such as the SMI Competence Spider or practical reports. Because science has proven several times that handwriting is essential for learning and thus for education.

Mr. Beckmann, do you also see handwriting as a holistic learning process?

Beckmann: I can largely confirm that in the form. Studies show that handwriting develops motor skills well, which also leave traces in the brain. This ensures that facts can be saved better. Writing thus helps in two ways: on the one hand through motor movement, on the other hand through processing in the brain. This is also one of the advantages of handwriting over writing on the computer. In addition, when I write by hand, I have to plan more carefully and think about what I want to write and how I want to write it. In particular, logical thinking is trained more strongly. When writing, better forms of perception and thinking develop in this way, because I have to think through texts that I write by hand.

Do schools and daycare centers have enough opportunities to encourage handwriting?

Beckmann: As with many things, our core problem is that the time resources for everything that has to be done in schools and daycare centers are very tight. Perhaps the subject of writing motor skills or the subject of writing needs to be anchored more firmly in the curriculum. But if you want teachers to spend more time on these original tasks, you have to relieve them, for example through multi-professional teams. As I said: The tightly limited time resources float above everything. If you also consider the shortage of teachers who are currently worrying about all of our questions, the time available has become even scarcer in recent years.

Diaz Meyer: I agree with Mr. Beckmann, time is crucial. This is shown by an intervention study among first graders that the Schreibmotorik Institut carried out together with Saarland University. According to this, just one hour of targeted writing motor skills per week has a positive effect. If we could introduce this one-hour, weekly funding, a lot could already be achieved.

So, more resources, more teaching positions, multi-professional teams are needed - is that what politics can do to promote the topic of handwriting more, or is there even more, Mr. Beckmann?

Beckmann: I would add one more aspect: In teacher training, too, the awareness of the importance of handwriting should be placed more in the foreground - especially in view of the big discussion about digitization. The current hype quickly gives the impression that the introduction of digital media in schools can solve as many problems as possible. However, one must not forget that certain analog activities are required to train motor skills as well as the ability to think. Analog and digital learning are not in contradiction, they complement each other.

Diaz Meyer: This is very important. In the course of digitization, more and more options for written communication are available and individual communication habits are changing within a comparatively short period of time. We no longer write exclusively with pen on paper, as we did for centuries. But digital technology does not rule out handwriting. On the contrary: Current technological developments show how digital media integrate handwriting. For example, there is the interactive whiteboard, augmented paper, tablet and stylus pen. The medium is changing, but handwriting is still needed.

But wouldn't it simply be logical to forego handwriting completely if adults are already typing more than writing by hand?

Diaz Meyer: As Mr. Beckmann has already mentioned, there are many scientific studies that clearly show that typing on the computer cannot replace writing by hand while learning. Writing by hand means that we write distinctive letter shapes. The associated sequence of movements is processed in the brain, which in turn supports learning to write and read. For example, beginners can better recognize letters that they have learned to write by hand. When typing, on the other hand, it always involves the same movement, regardless of whether I press an A, an S or a B.

Beckmann: In education there is the saying “learning with head, heart and hand” - and that happens with handwriting. The crux of the matter is to realize that we need to keep handwriting because it involves acquiring certain skills that must not be lost.

Ms. Diaz Meyer, how can parents tell whether their child may have hidden difficulties with handwriting, even though it produces beautiful handwriting?

Diaz Meyer: The most important thing is not a beautiful font, but that a child can write fluently and legibly. Parents can have this checked at school or even in kindergarten with the SMI Competence Spider, the holistic observation instrument developed by the Schreibmotorik Institut. The aspects that are observed include, for example, the movements that the fingers and the wrist make when writing, whether they cramp, the hand-eye coordination, the concentration and motivation of the child. With this information, educational professionals can discover problems with handwriting, deduce the causes of these and, together with the parents, bring about improvements through targeted exercises.

Regarding the causes of the problems with handwriting, Mr. Beckmann: Isn't it also the case that nowadays more children with motor deficits come to elementary schools than in the past?

Beckmann: We are actually observing that. In addition to motor deficits, we are also increasingly seeing attention deficits. The aim here is to motivate the children, to make it clear to them that it is worthwhile and that a sense of achievement awaits them when they also face the tasks that are difficult for them at first.

Diaz Meyer: These problems with handwriting - I would like to conclude by saying this - do not only exist in Germany, but also in other European countries. Because despite compulsory schooling across the board, 20 percent of young people and around 75 million adults in Europe have insufficient reading and writing skills. That is why the European Commission urges individual countries to act.

Udo Beckmann and Dr. Marianela Diaz Meyer appeal to teachers of all school types to take part in the online survey (time required: 15 minutes) in order to make possible problems public. The study is entitled STEP 2019 (“Study on the development, problems and interventions related to handwriting”). Primary school teachers and teachers from secondary schools are asked various questions in order to take into account the different levels of development of their students. The results are to be published in spring 2019.

Click here for the survey:

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