Writing Legibility. Does Illegible Handwriting Affect Grades?

One of our great handwriting researchers, Steve Graham, identified the shocking implications of untidy handwriting on the grades allocated to students.  I have always known illegible writing affected marks.  But even I didn’t realise the extreme impact it had and why writing legibility is so important.  It is shocking how hard our children must battle to compensate for untidy handwriting.  They have to be ahead of the curve academically to compensate for the implications of messy handwriting.  Those who question the importance of handwriting legibility may be shocked by the answer.  Steve Graham’s study took the form of having an identical piece of work graded by different groups of teachers.  The only difference in the work was the quality of the handwriting presentation and legibility.  And the results were startling.

Blog post on how untidy handwriting affect grades.

Why it is important to have legible writing?

A piece of work identified as performing in the 50th percentile was the subject of this research study.  It was unanimously agreed that the quality of the work fell in the 50th percentile.  Only this piece of work received some very special attention before it was sent out for marking or grading to the unknowing teachers.

First, they rewrote it in beautiful, legible handwriting.  And while it was the same piece of work of the same standard, it just looked simply stunning.  The group of teachers marking this beautiful but very average piece of work gave it a grading within the 85th percentile!  Let’s think again.  Average work that looked beautiful suddenly skyrocketed from scores in the 50th percentile to those in the 85th!  It immediately becomes clear that illegible handwriting has a considerable impact on a student’s ability to have their academic performance fairly and objectively measured.

Does legible writing matter?

The quality of handwriting can impact the perception of the quality of content.  The teachers perceived it to be of a higher standard simply because it looked beautiful.

But here is the real stinger in this study.  The piece of work was, once again, rewritten. Only this time, poorly presented with illegible writing.  It looked like a mess.  Just like much of the illegible writing we see in our therapy clinics and classrooms.  Once again, it went for grading with a group of teachers.  This time, this average piece of work which was agreed to fall in the 50th percentile, achieved scores in the – wait for it – 16th percentile!

This is both shocking and horrifying.  Untidy, illegible and poorly presented work can cause a child’s marks to plummet from being average to a miserable fail.  This is why writing legibility matters.

An image accompanying a blog post about writing legibility, messy handwriting and handwriting legibility. The quote by Dr Steve Graham, handwriting researcher says: "people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting."The impact of poor writing legibility

This is not a judgment on the teachers marking.  It is a simple human fact that we judge the quality of ideas based on their presentation.  It is human.  Our children’s performance in school is primarily measured by what they write down.  Not only does the quality of handwriting affect grades, but our children’s ability to write quickly is also an issue.  Just like in Masterchef, if the food isn’t on the plate, it won’t be tasted; if a child doesn’t get what they know down on the paper, they will not be credited for what they know.  They need to be able to write quickly to get down everything they know and to be able to get through to the end of the paper itself.

The implications of handwriting legibility

And so what are we to learn from this?  It is essential that we take the teaching of handwriting seriously in our schools.  It is a high priority skill.  We measure our children’s abilities by what they can write down.  Some children do get dispensations, but for the most part, their performance is measured based on handwritten answers.  If we do not equip our children with one of the primary skills to be able to achieve in the examination situation then we are failing them miserably.

An image accompanying a blog post about writing legibility, messy handwriting and handwriting legibility. The quote by Bunty McDougall, occupational therapist says: "If we do not equip our children with one of the primary skills to achieve in the examination situation, we are failing them miserably.."School days are jam-packed with so many things shouting for time and attention.  It is easy for handwriting to receive less time and consideration simply because there is only so much time.  Teachers are forced to make choices and decide where to cut teaching time down.  We need to see handwriting as a skill of critical importance – as important as maths and reading.  No one would cut maths.  No one would cut reading.  Handwriting and early graphomotor skills have a direct impact on the acquisition of both these skills.  Let’s not cut handwriting.

The Telegraph published an article in September 2018 which referenced an extensive study by BIC, the stationary firm.  This must-read article outlining the finding of a study on over 2000 children, supports the findings of Steve Graham about writing legibility.  They quote Tony Sewell, an education writer and former teacher, who said:

Clarity of handwriting isn’t just important in ensuring exam questions are answered in a clear manner, but is a critical part of the learning process.

  Tony Sewell, Education Writer and Former Teacher

The BIC study goes on to reveal that just short of two-thirds of teachers report that there have been times when the felt they were prevented from awarding the amount of marks a student legitimately deserved on account of illegible writing.

Technology and handwriting legibility

We must find the balance between laptops, tablets, computers, and handwriting.  There is no doubt that keyboarding skills are essential for our children, but we need to find the balance between keyboarding and handwriting.  We need to consider the foundations for handwriting legibility and focus on developing those foundations.

Does legibility affect your grades?

What governs legible handwriting?

Pencil control
If pencil control is not well-developed, handwriting is going to be illegible.  Asking our children to practice letters repeatedly when they can barely gain control over the pencil will not bring about the changes we may have hoped for.  Developing pencil control will have a bearing on legibility and improve illegible writing.

Spacing
We are looking at spacing between words and within words.  When words run into each other, it results in illegible writing.

Letter placement and sizing
Children need to learn to distinguish between the sizes of the different letters and to be able to consistently place them on the correct line.  I am a fan of lines.  Over the years, I have found that lines give the children structure that assists with letter placement and, as a result, legibility.

Letter formation
Well-established letter formation has a significant impact on legibility.  When our children are trying to work out how to form a letter and make up a new formation each time, it will compromise legibility.

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In closing about writing legibility

We have read about how dramatic the impact of illegible writing is on the marks awarded in tests and examinations.  We cannot allow our children to be penalised to this extent because of something they are struggling with.  Our children do not choose to struggle with writing legibility.  It is difficult to remediate handwriting that has gone wrong.  Our best chance at helping our children to ensure they learn to write the right way the first time®!

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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