Is Untidy Handwriting a Disability? Does it Affect Marks?

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 untidy handwriting affected marks.  But even I didn’t know the extreme impact it had, and why it is important to write neatly.  It is shocking how hard our children have to 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 ask: “is untidy handwriting a disability?” may be shocked by the answer.  Steve Graham’s study took the form of having exactly the same piece of work graded by different groups of teachers.  The only difference in the piece of work was the quality of the handwriting presentation and legibility.  And the results were startling.

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Why it is important to write neatly and does handwriting affect grades?

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, it was rewritten in beautiful, legible handwriting.  And while it was the same piece of work of the same standard, it just looked simply beautiful.  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!  Straight away it became clear that the disadvantages of untidy handwriting would have a huge impact on a student’s ability to have their academic performance fairly and objectively measured.

Is untidy handwriting a disability?

The quality of handwriting can impact on the perception of 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, re-written. Only this time, poorly presented with really bad handwriting.  It looked a mess.  Just like much of the bad handwriting 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 why it is important to write neatly!

Disadvantages of bad handwriting – is untidy handwriting a disability?

This is not a judgment on the teachers marking.  It is the simple human fact that we judge the quality of ideas based on their presentation.  It is human.  So to answer our initial question asking: is untidy handwriting a disability, the evidence seems to sadly point to the fact that it is.

Our children’s performance in school is largely measured by what they write down.  Not only does the quality of handwriting affect grades, 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.

Exercises to improve handwriting for kids

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.  It 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.

How to teach handwriting to primary school students is of critical importance.  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, and a teacher is forced to make choices about where teaching time will be cut down.  But we need to see handwriting as a skill of critical importance – as important as maths and reading.  Maths cannot be scored if the numbers are illegible.  Research has shown us that early graphomotor skills – or early handwriting skills – prime the brain circuitry for learning.

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.  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.”  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 handwriting.¹

How to improve bad handwriting

We do need to find the balance between laptops, tablets and 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.  Furthermore, we need to teach handwriting smarter.  We have to apply what research has taught us about handwriting acquisition and make use of a multi-sensory handwriting approach.  We must make use of specific teaching handwriting activities and exercises to improve handwriting for kids.

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In addition, we have to find ways to address the ever weakening foundational fine motor skills of our techno kids.  We need fine motor skills activities to be specific and directed to build the foundations for handwriting skills.  Fine motor skills development has to be taken seriously, focusing on the supporting muscles and movement patterns for pencil control.  And then, we need to focus not on how to improve bad handwriting, but rather to know how to ensure that it is learned “the right way the first time®.”

In closing about why is it important to write neatly

We have read about how dramatic the impact of untidy handwriting 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 have untidy handwriting.  We have learned that untidy handwriting is a disability and that we do not even need to ask why it is important to write neatly.  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

1 Pupils ‘losing marks in exams due to poor handwriting’

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