Perfect…Says Who?

“ k can be quite a tricky letter,” I explained in one of my feedback videos. “Let’s have a look at how you’re forming it now, then I’ll show you three ways I’ve found other people like and that work well when you want to join up.”

As you can see (and as is often the case with many letters I look at) 6-year-old Ella had developed her own representation of ‘k’ as she had perceived it. 

Here are the alternatives I modelled for her in a demonstration video so she could follow HOW they were formed. She experimented with them and decided she liked the top one best so that is the one we stuck with and practised. 

In last week’s blog – Perfect 🙂 I said I’d come back to think more specifically about individual letter formations and who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ and ‘without fault’ * when it comes to handwriting. I think this is where some of the confusion and frustration around handwriting judgement arises. 

Here’s some background to the issue:

On a very simple level, when a child forms a particular letter, they create a neural pathway in the brain. That pathway is strengthened through repetition and eventually the brain automates the process, freeing up working memory for new thinking.

I get children to imagine crossing a field of tall grass. 

To begin with it’s hard work treading down the grass but, after crossing a few times, it gets easier. Eventually (after crossing many times) a clear, definite pathway forms. They now barely notice it as they’re strolling along, and their thoughts are free to turn to other things like what they fancy eating or what game they’re going to play with their friend when they get to the other side of the field. 

This is what it’s like with handwriting (or developing any other skill or habitual thinking for that matter). Repetition leads to automation. The unconscious mind takes over.

To replace an automated formation the new version must be practised to the point where the new pathway is strong enough to supersede the existing one. This takes time of course and is the reason children revert to ‘old habits’ like reversals or spelling mistakes no matter how often they are ‘reminded’. They simply haven’t had the opportunity to practise enough. Little and often is key to success. 

(It’s also the reason I STILL revert to typing in an old password when my thoughts are elsewhere as I log in!)

Now here are the issues relating to ‘perfect’ handwriting:

The thing is, very specific teaching is effective…

Very clear, specific formation of individual letters (and then ways to join them) supports reinforcement of the pathways. 

I teach this way. I give choices where appropriate and explain (very simply) what’s happening in the brain; once we’re agreed though, we stick to it and I help children notice tiny details between formations and positioning. 

Today for example, I’ll be helping this 9-year-old notice the difference between his y and mine…

I guess this could be seen as imposing my judgement of ‘perfect’ handwriting; the fact is, letters need to be clearly identifiable so they can be read.

He’d chosen between these ‘y’s:

Once a decision is made I structure the process of repetition. Practice then allows the pathways through the field to become clear (automated) so that – in time – the writer is free to run around and play with their thoughts and words… expressing themselves without worrying about judgement of their handwriting or whether someone will be able to read it.

I talk about this to children often. I help remove stress and anxiety.

Ultimately part-cursive has been shown to be the most time-efficient script; I explain that we learn all the useful joins so that later on they will unconsciously decide which letters they do and don’t join when writing at speed. 

I also remind them that once they’ve established a fluent, cursive script they feel good about they can have fun evolving their style and experimenting with alternative formations … adding little touches of personality! They’ll end up with different styles for different audiences and purposes.

For me, ‘perfect’ handwriting, that is ‘complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault’ * is that which:

  • makes the writer FEEL GOOD 
  • is legible (to themselves and others)
  • is useful and used

To this end I think it’s the job of Primary schools to give time and focus to developing a fluent, automated cursive script and that Secondary schools should then take up the baton and support the evolution of personal style and practical application. My goals are applicable to both settings.

I agree schools should have a consistent approach. That doesn’t mean following a scheme blindly. It’s okay to offer alternative formations. Nor does it mean forcing all teachers to write in the school’s adopted script. Although this is helpful for demonstrating and many teachers choose to develop it, there are other ways to model formations to children (using the Better Handwritten videos for example). Teachers simply need to explain that they were taught and automated a different style when they were younger. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad about their handwriting. If they don’t feel good about it they can change it but if they’re happy with it they shouldn’t feel judged or criticised.

They DO need to understand how to teach handwriting well.

And they need to be aware of the powerful impact their interest or disinterest has on students.

One of my daughter’s friends came to stay last year; as we were chatting it became apparent that (aged 19) he had NEVER received a handwritten letter. Birthday and Christmas cards – yes – but never a letter.

We became pen-pals! Sometimes he’s expressed worry that I’ll judge his handwriting negatively (because of my work)… his formations and joins are not as I teach but he’s not a child learning and I can tell you, I think his writing is perfect:

  • He feels good about it
  • It’s legible
  • He’s using it and enjoying the fun and connection letter writing brings.

AND it makes me smile every time I see it on an envelope on my doormat 🙂

What makes handwriting perfect to you?

For more information on developing handwriting or the teaching of handwriting get in touch with Nicky at:


Twitter: @nicky_parr

Cambridge Dictionary Definition of ‘perfect’

Why do some students struggle to copy from the board?

You know some children struggle to copy neatly and accurately from the board, but why?

Well aside from their fine motor control there are a number of contributing factors, one of which is the vestibular system.

Things to be aware of:

The vestibular system gives us our sense of balance, co-ordination and movement. The vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear and are activated every time we move or change our head position. 

When children copy from the board their heads move up and down frequently. Among other things, the vestibular system influences coordinating eye movement. Some pupils have inaccurate vestibular processing.

Those with poor working memory will have to look up and down more frequently than others. Working memory is the system we have for holding information in mind for a short time while we use it to solve problems or make decisions. 

Things to do:

  • Identify the children in your class who find it more difficult.
  • Ask your class how they find copying from the board. 
  • Listen and note down individuals who say they find it challenging and how they describe the experience.
  • Give them a paragraph to copy from the board and give yourself space to be present and observe for yourself. Make notes. 
  • Experiment with using different colours for sections of text (and background) to help pupils track where they’ve got to. Remember to explain WHY you’ve used colour in this way and ASK them what is helpful and what is not. 
  • Children who have noticeable difficulty can be provided with a paper version to copy from so there is less head movement required.

Over time and with encouragement they can reflect about how much information they are able to hold in working memory for copying. They can also be taught strategies such as:

  • repeating sections aloud to support remembering
  • crossing out information as they go to help keep track
  • reading back frequently to spot omissions (including whole line omissions!)
  • explaining what they’ve copied in their own words to decide if they understand the content. 
  • (asking questions if they don’t)

Developing self-awareness, understanding and practical strategies empowers individuals.

The Tactile System

The tactile system is our sense of touch.

What is the tactile system?

Following on from the previous article on sensory processing , here’s some further insight into the tactile system – our sense of touch. Among many other things it plays an essential role in developing our ability to write by hand.

As you read, you might find it interesting to consider yourself and people you know. Is touch something reassuring and welcome, or an irritant and intrusion?

The tactile system adapts in response to our perception and experiences, which helps us stay safe and develop the skills we need to thrive.

There are actually two parts : the discriminative and the protective.

The Discriminative System

This lets us know what we are touching and where we are touching it. As a result our brains receive important feedback which is key to developing motor skills (including fine motor skills like writing).

Handwriting is a conscious, cognitive task we develop gradually through experience. Tactile recognition helps us hold and adjust to the type of pen we are using and learn to apply appropriate pressure. Accurate visual perception is also necessary to help us control the size, shape and positioning of letters.

Research shows that direct instruction is the most effective way to improve handwriting. Good teaching feeds into the discriminative system.

The Protective System

This helps keep us safe, allowing us to give attention to developing skills like writing that move us forward.

Think about something as simple as a fly landing on your arm. The sensation triggers a reaction to remove the threat of the fly and the germs it might transfer. Instinctively you make a sudden movement to make the fly go away. You will probably then find yourself ducking and swiping as it refuses to leave you alone! This is the protective system working.

It warns us when we are in contact with something negative or potentially dangerous, triggering a fight, flight, fright or freeze response. The whole mind and body is involved in an unconscious reaction. Responses are either reflex and defensive or designed to calm and soothe.

Some people are tactile defensive.

Their protective system reacts strongly to touch sensations. Certain fabrics and garment labels may irritate them. They may also dislike certain foods because of the texture.

Some will flinch in response to a friendly pat, or go rigid and pull back from what is intended as an affectionate hug. This might come across as rejection or being unemotional, and yet it’s actually a symptom of the tactile system doing its job. Understanding, together with careful, gradual exposure can help retrain the brain and reduce negative reactions.

For some great activities to do with children that develop tactile processing have a look at

Sensory Processing

A few minutes a day over 20 months saw this transformation.

Have you ever heard of it?

I first learned about it when my son (aged 2) was identified as having developmental dyspraxia. That was 20 years ago now. Naturally I was keen to learn and understand more so that I could support him in acquiring the many skills he would need; those that we too often take for granted.

Sensory Processing is all about the way we register and perceive sensory information through different channels.

The brain organises sensations received, then responds with movements and behaviours that allow us to learn and interact usefully with people, with tasks and with our environment.

Early on we are taught the general descriptors for our senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) but there are 3 other terms that are less familiar: tactileproprioception and vestibular.

I will develop these more in separate articles (and their importance in enabling us to write by hand) but for now here’s a simple overview:

  • Tactile

This is our sense of touch. Sensations come from receptors in the skin all over our bodies. Tactile input is important to us emotionally (think about a hug) but it is also very specific, giving lots of detailed information about the body which allows us to respond with great precision and dexterity. Writing involves many touch sensations.

  • Proprioception

This refers to the sense of body position. Sensations from muscles and joints give us information about our body parts and how they are moving. This helps us guide our arm and leg movements without constantly having to look at what we are doing. Writing, driving and touch typing are examples of activities which require good proprioception.

  • Vestibular

This is our sense of balance, coordination and movement. Receptors are located in the inner ear and activate every time we move or change our head position. It affects coordinating both sides of the body, and the movement of our eyes. This helps us to control our posture and balance, and know where we are in space. When writing, our vestibular sense helps us copy information from another source to our page.

Interesting isn’t it? The good news is, all that I learned in order to support my son, helped the pupils in my classes too; it gave me the understanding and skills to help hundreds of people improve their handwriting over the years. For that I am extremely grateful.

It now gives me great pleasure to share my experience, skills and passion to support teachers and school staff as well as students and others themselves.

Nicky Parr , Managing Director Better Handwritten Ltd