Handwriting – the Tucha Experiments

I blogged a while back about handwriting (here), and what I was doing to support my students with it. David Didau has also written about it here. What you’re reading now is simply an update to my first blog, and features three fundamental principles for addressing a lack of fluency in the handwriting of secondary school children, namely:

Don’t offer rewards for neatness. It’s counter-productive.

Don’t draw attention to the physical writing process.

Don’t ask students to focus on handwriting while introducing new words.

I hope to challenge some of the common approaches to handwriting. This is not about primary strategies. Primary school teachers are, without question, the experts in this field. Handwriting is an explicit part of the primary framework, and primary school teachers address it as an embedded, routine part of their practice.

Most children arrive at secondary school with clear, confident, fluent, handwriting. There is no denial of this on my part. Something that is not helpful to the debate is to lay blame at feet of the secondary school teachers for a sharp decline in handwriting. There are a host of factors at play here – many of which are well researched – including puberty, a decrease in the use of fine motor skills, and the fact that there is no longer a statutory requirement for handwriting to be explicitly taught at KS3 and KS4.

Also, as a partial aside, I reject these claims:

  1. “It’s too late by the time they reach secondary school”

If that were true of anything, then we should give up now on all of it.

  1. “Students use computers in school all the time anyway”

Not true. They really don’t. I haven’t been in a computer room once this academic year.

  1. “We don’t need to be able to handwrite as adults”

Again – a fallacy. And although we certainly handwrite less, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay to send our pupils out into the world with a sense of shame and embarrassment about the way they write.

Establishing Aims

I want my pupils to achieve:

  • Legibility
  • Readability
  • Speed
  • Fluency

And to achieve these things, we need to work on automaticity. That’s the ability to write fluently, without having to dedicate cognitive effort to the process. The automaticity that we want to establish is secure with most children while they’re still at primary school. For a minority, it’s not. We need to work on letter formation, spacing, and firm hand techniques until we have established automaticity of well-formed letters.

This is a sample of handwriting from week one of Y7, in the academic year of 2016/2017. There were no identified SEND needs and the child had arrived with a 4c. I include this picture as an illustration of the handwriting profile that some secondary school teachers are working with. There’s a sense of hopelessness – where do I start with this?!

Handwriting Sample1

Tucha et al.

Once again, if you’re interested in working on handwriting, then I would really recommend that you read my first blog. It’s important that you have read and understood the Red Light Analogy before you read any further.

Some of Tucha et al.’s experiments that I did not include in my first blog are detailed here. From these experiments, I have developed some key principles for my own practice. These are not based on meta-analyses, or large studies. They’re just based on Tucha’s papers. I am aware of the limitations of this. However, there is a paucity of handwriting research on skilled adult writers and teens, and this research is not only helpful, but fascinating.

I have organised this section under the principles that I have developed for my own practice. Under each is a description of the related Tucha et al. study.

Don’t offer rewards for neatness. It’s counter-productive.

Tucha et al. (2007) undertook an experiment with skilled adult writers and school-age children. Participants were asked to write a simple sentence, repeatedly, under the following conditions:

  1. Participants were asked to use their normal handwriting
  2. Participants were asked to use neat handwriting
  3. Participants were promised a reward for neat handwriting

The reward was vouchers to the cinema, which both adults and children found an attractive offer.

The results:

  1. Request for normal handwriting – NO EFFECT ON FLUENCY
  2. Request to use neat handwriting – LESS FLUENT
  3. Promise of a reward for neat handwriting – LESS FLUENT

“The present results indicate that both the instruction given (neat handwriting) and motivational factors (winning a reward) may impair handwriting automaticity.” (Tucha et al 2008)

This rings true with me. When I know that something desirable is at stake, I suddenly get a pang of anxiety and my confidence wanes. Of course we can reward for neatness – but the reward should be retrospective and not promised immediately before the writing begins.

Here are the inversions from a participant in this experiment – the number of inversions indicates a lack of automaticity (read the first blog for this to make sense!):


Don’t draw attention to the physical writing process

Tucha et al. (2005) undertook an experiment with skilled adult writers.

Participants were asked to write under the following conditions:

  1. Normal writing
  2. Writing with eyes closed
  3. Writing while visually tracking pen tip
  4. Writing with eyes closed while mentally tracking the highest position in each letter.

The results were as follows:

  1. Normal writing – NO EFFECT ON FLUENCY
  2. Writing with eyes closed – NO EFFECT ON FLUENCY
  3. Writing while visually tracking pen tip – LESS FLUENT
  4. Writing with eyes closed while mentally tracking the highest position in each letter – LESS FLUENT

The researchers comment that:

“The findings confirm studies reporting that automated handwriting movements are independent of visual feedback (Marquardt et al., 1996).” (Tucha et al 2008)

“…conscious visual and mental control of graphomotor output obviously hampers the production of automated handwriting movements.”  (ibid)

Have a look at the students in your class who find handwriting a chore. Mine often track the pen tip. It reduces fluency. They need to practice shapes and letters until they are so confident that they don’t need to literally track every letter. It’s inhibitive.

Don’t ask students to focus on handwriting at the same time as introducing new words

Tucha and Lange, in 2004, conducted an experiment with skilled adult writers:

Participants were asked to write lists of words and nonwords, presented to them with a tape recorder. Nonwords corresponded, lexically, to familiar words.


Words were written with fluency.

In nonwords, the number of inversions in velocity was increased and so the handwriting was less fluent.

This seemed strikingly obvious to me, once I thought about it. Whenever I’m presented with a new or obscure word – especially one for which I need to up to get the spelling, or listen to it being spelled out, I lose fluency in my writing. We’re regularly introducing new words and phrases in school. There’s no problem with that – but handwriting fluency practice should not come at the same time.

“This increased dysfluency of handwriting movements can be explained by the allocation of attention to the writing process.” (Tucha et al., 2008)

The approach

You can read about the steps I took and the resources I developed on my previous blog. This is a summary of the principles that I work to:

Lessons Learned:

  • Any ‘bolt-on’ intervention won’t work – this needs to be part of the daily routine. 10 minutes every lesson will work. An hour a week, or a ‘handwriting club’ will not (I’ve tried it!)
  • Give time to this. If you’re definitely dedicated to improving handwriting, then put aside the time for the practice every lesson. They shouldn’t be thinking about anything else in this time.
  • Don’t try to mix handwriting practice with any new learning.
  • If you’re going to reward for this, then do it after the event – never during or before.
  • New words will never be automatic (for any of us)
  • Focus on legibility and becoming automatic with legible letters.
  • Automaticity takes years but it’s never too late.