Ruth’s Blog: Some joined up thinking about dyslexic children and joined up writing

Reception teachers show huge relief when I point out that Ofsted doesn’t require them to teach cursive writing. But then they say ‘Isn’t it good for dyslexic children?’

When I ask them how their weakest readers (i.e. potentially dyslexic children) are coping with cursive writing, they always say:

  • Boys, in particular, find it massively harder than printing.
  • Children can’t write the word in one continuous flow. They need to stop to think about each letter-sound correspondence as they write. 
  • Children can’t read back what they’ve written – neither can the teacher. Words are buried in a spider’s web of strokes. Many children add the joins once they have written the word making their writing even more illegible.
  • Worst of all – they spend more time teaching cursive writing than teaching reading.

I totally agree with them. What’s more, telling children that every letter starts on the line is just untrue. Letters only start on the line if the letter before finished there. Try writing: when, look, would, very.

Joining letters is a separate skill, quite apart from learning how to form letters well. It is better taught once children can print quickly and easily – and read.

Some children will always need more help than others whether they are potentially dyslexic or not. (And we don’t know one way or another when they’re five.) So make it simple for everyone from the start, and get them to practise every day.  See my blog, Teaching Handwriting in Reception.

I love this quote by Hugo Kerr, author of ‘The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching’

“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?”

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