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Getting the basics sorted: Handwriting

PWP Case Study

Jo Pearce, Headteacher at Watermoor Primary, has detailed how she and her team tackled improving the standards of handwriting and presentation in school.

Watermoor is a smaller than average primary school in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. The percentage of pupils entitled to PP is above the national. The percentage of pupils with EHCPs/statements of SEND is above the national.

The school has been on a journey of improvement since 2010 when it was in special measures. 6 years on, the pupils achieve results in line with national expectations and many make accelerated progress through school to achieve results above expected levels. The school has a Talk4Writing curriculum for English and the teaching of reading and writing is high priority.

The standard of pupils’ handwriting and presentation is now consistently good throughout the school, and continues to improve. Pupils make outstanding progress in handwriting from their starting points.

An area for improvement

In Autumn 2013, areas for improvement for the school were identified by the senior team, and subsequently Ofsted. Handwriting and presentation, especially in KS1, was identified as a barrier to progress.

In KS1:

  • Some pupils had fine motor issues which hindered their writing
  • Some pupils were using an awkward and uncomfortable pencil grip
  • Poor handwriting was slowing down the writing process and pupils were not writing enough

In KS2:

  • Some pupils had good handwriting
  • A significant group of pupils still had poor handwriting and there was a sense of frustration from the staff that they had ‘tried everything’ and could not make a difference

Across the school:

  • Handwriting was being taught discreetly in handwriting books. This was of good quality but was not being applied successfully into everyday writing.
  • Presentation in all subjects, although improved, was not yet at a high enough standard

In a staff meeting, the team talked honestly about the issues above. A discussion was had about the barriers the pupils had, as perceived by the teachers, and the team was encouraged to think carefully about the future: how do we want this to be? What do we want it to look like?

It was then up to the senior team to carefully plan a response to the question – how are we going to do it?

Phase 1 – Urgent action to raise standards across the school

Visiting other schools

  • Trevthick Primary School in Cornwall
  • Knowle Park Primary School in Bristol
  • St George’s Primary School in Battersea, London

The strategies adopted were inspired by and copied from the schools listed above. It was important for the teaching staff to visit these settings in order to obtain a vision for and an understanding of the high standard that could be achieved.


The team spent a lot of time unpicking the importance of modelling during teaching, and how best to do that for different subjects, ages and stages. St George’s was a key influencing factor here in relation to handwriting. They had bespoke paper with handwriting lines, which then matched A4 books with handwriting lines. It was clear that the missing link for Watermoor pupils was the ability to look at the teacher’s modelling and then copy the formation or join immediately in their own book. The lines allowed for teaching and scaffolding e.g. ‘have a look at my tall letters – they reach the top line – do yours?’ The school purchased:

  • Flipchart paper with handwriting lines
  • A4 books with handwriting lines for use in English lessons and across the curriculum

All teachers now use the handwriting lines on the flipchart paper when leading shared writing sessions. At the beginning of the process the teacher in KS1 used a flipchart paper with very big lines. This meant that the modelling of the formation was very clear and for all to see.

All pupils were given new ‘learning journey books’ which had handwriting lines throughout. Some pupils in EYFS/KS1 were given yellow ‘class mates’ books which had slightly bigger lines in.

A ‘school font’ was adopted and is now used for all worksheets, letters and some displays. This was something that all three schools above had in place.

Teachers and TAs model high quality handwriting at all times. This is important during shared writing, and when marking. The literacy leader led handwriting workshops for staff who wanted some practice and specific teaching of the agreed joins and formation.

Fine motor exercises and specific teaching of letter formation in KS1

The most urgent action needed to be taken in KS1. The teacher planned daily handwriting workshops. These took place for 2 terms. They included fine motor activities and/or specific handwriting teaching depending on the needs of the pupils. These were fun, active sessions – pupils were highly praised for effort and engagement.

Consistent Expectations – a whole school approach

These small changes also made a big difference:

  • The school developed a set of ‘presentation expectations’ for all pupils in all subjects – decided by the teaching team, shared with the pupils and most importantly monitored and expected by all staff. This includes statements that may seem obvious such as ‘we use sharp pencils’.
  • Celebrate achievement: Pen licenses for those pupils who were showing a consistent, clear handwriting style, writer of the week awards
  • Showing the standard: ‘Gold standard boards’ for writing and maths in every classroom – a small display to show examples (photocopies) of pupils’ work that meets the school presentation expectations

Phase 2: changing whole school systems, starting at the beginning (EYFS)

EYFS target areas

By tracking pupils, and monitoring progress, the team have identified that – as other schools and research tells us – there is a connection between language deprivation, managing feelings/behaviour and fine motor skills. Pupils with issues in all of these areas find writing difficult. If these pupils are boys, they tend to under achieve.

The Pre-School Class (EYFS 1) and the Reception Class (EYFS 2) have adapted their curriculum so that provision prioritises these areas.

Early guided writing

In guided writing sessions in EYFS and Y1, the teaching is slowed down so that the pupils can clearly see how the teacher forms the letters, uses capital letters, finger spaces and full stops. I’m going to show you, now you have a go. In addition to this, the teacher ‘watches like a hawk’ when the pupils begin to write, and intervenes and re-teaches immediately, rather than allowing poor habits to form.

The ‘hidden’ skills for writing

To be able to write, pupils need to:

  1. a) have good skills in concentration and focus
  2. b) sit at a table for a period of time
  3. c) listen to the teacher/TA and copy the model

These routines are practised expected in both EYFS classes and pupils who are unable to do this are monitored and targeted with further support.

Handwriting Policy

It was important to write down the expectations for teaching handwriting, as well the expectation for typical progress in handwriting through school. Once pupils have demonstrated good letter formation and finger spaces in Y1, they will begin to join their handwriting.

Phase 3: sustained improvement

Talk4Writing Curriculum

The school teaches writing through three phase learning journeys: imitation, innovation and invention. This support pupils in developing their language and plot patterns and their understanding of the writing process. Through the curriculum, the pupils are taught a variety of ‘tools’ for writing so that they become competent writers in KS2, choosing the most appropriate writing tool for the purpose. This approach gives pupils the skills to write and gives them something to write about and is a key part of the improvement in handwriting. It supported the pupils the motivation to improve their handwriting because they love writing and want to write.

Soundswrite Phonics

The pupils at Watermoor achieve well in phonics. The ‘Soundswrite’ approach prioritises writing and spelling from the start of teaching in EYFS 1. Although pupil use mini whiteboards during this session, the teachers model good handwriting and expect it from the class. Every phonics sessions includes writing. From EYFS onwards, spelling patterns are modelled with the correct handwriting join. Pupils start to practise joining in these sessions and are therefore more prepared when they move on to joining in Y1.

Monitoring and evaluation

The subject leader regularly monitors the impact of teaching on learning. This is done through learning walks and feedback, discussions with pupils, evaluations of individual lessons, book looks and data analysis. Presentation and handwriting is always evaluated during book looks, in addition to the other priorities on the RAP. Senior Leaders are ‘fussy’ about the quality of marking in relation to the standard of the adult’s handwriting and presentation as well as the quality of the feedback. They are also ‘fussy’ about the quality of handwriting during shared writing in any subject. Feedback is given if the standard is not met and monitored until it improves.

It is expected that the quality of pupils’ handwriting and presentation is high. Teachers also monitor the progress of their pupils and if pupils’ handwriting is not improving, the teacher intervenes.

Induction and policy

These expectations are clearly written into the school’s teaching learning and assessment policy and they are explicitly shared with new members of staff as part of the induction process.