Per the national curriculum, students must master fast, joined handwriting by the end of Year 6. The most common style taught in England is the modern cursive, which can be semi-connected or fully joined.
Education in England is overseen by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education (DfE). Local government authorities are responsible for implementing the department’s policies at state-funded schools, which serve 93% of all students, while private schools enjoy some flexibility in curriculum and structure. Schooling up to 16 years is compulsory in England, and state-funded education system is divided into Key Stages — Early Years Foundation Stage (3–4 years old), Primary comprising Key Stages 1 (5–6 years old) and Stage 2 (7–10 years old), Secondary comprising Key Stages 3 (11–13 years old) and 4 (14–15 years old), and finally Key Stage 5 (16–17 years old).
The National Curriculum in England (NCE), published by the DfE, sets out what must be taught in all subjects in local-authority-maintained schools. The latest version of the curriculum was published in 2014. While it doesn’t specify particular models for handwriting teaching, the NCE stipulates that students start with uppercase unjoined styles in preschool, and by the end of Year 6 (10–11 years old), master fast, joined handwriting.
Since no handwriting model is prescribed by the NCE, schools are allowed to choose what they prefer from a range of schemes produced by educational publishers. These schemes usually come with associated typeface families that allow educators to customise their own teaching materials.
The most common approach follows a progression of related letterforms that increase in difficulty as students gain experience in writing. It starts with simplified print letters, then a short exit stroke is added to form a precursive style, and finally letter are either partially or fully connected. Letters of each of the progressive stages share most of their formal qualities. The opposite approach, teaching two formally dissimilar models — first print (or manuscript) and then cursive — was common in England during the second half of the 20th century, but has now fallen into disuse.
As a member of the United Kingdom, while England shares some similarities in handwriting teaching with Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, education in the UK is decentralised giving each member country control over their own curriculum and pedagogical methods.
Global impact of English handwriting styles
England has been the incubator for several prominent handwriting styles that still influence teaching around the world. One of the earliest examples would be English roundhand, which was used in business and education in the 19th century.
In the early 20th century, simplified block letters called “print script” were introduced as the first stage of handwriting instruction in classrooms by the London County Council. By the 1970s, teaching them before cursive writing began receiving heavy criticism in the country. In 1976, for instance, Nicolette Gray (1911–1997) argued that the possible advantages of learning print script did not justify relearning a new model at age seven or eight, or the poor handwriting that resulted from it. In 1997, it was discarded as a standalone model to teach to children in England, though its use in that way continues elsewhere in the world.
From left to right: Edward Johnston’s skeletal forms, Sample of two stages of the progressive model from Miss C. A. Wells, Marion Richardson’s alphabet model, and an exercise page from New Nelson Handwriting.
Yet another key development was of modern cursive styles. They draw from the ideas of the Italic Handwriting Revival movement of the early 20th century, and the work of its proponents. Alfred Fairbank (1895–1982) proposed modern italic writing, based on chancery models, as a new approach to teaching handwriting with the aim of simplification and faster writing speed. Marion Richardson (1892–1946) emphasised motor development exercises involving repetition of elementary shapes alongside the teaching of the first letterforms. In recent times, it has been one of the most popular approaches to handwriting teaching in England. Of the twenty-three methods described in the National Handwriting Association’s 2013 guide to writing methods for teaching, thirteen were modern cursive styles. Important among these are Nelson Handwriting, Tom Gourdie Modern Hand, Jarman Handwriting, Marion Richardson and Sassoon-Williams model.
In the mid-1990s, the NCE discussed the benefits of teaching joined letters from the earliest teaching stages, and arguments for this approach gathered further steam in the late 2000s as a result of neurological studies about writing, such as those by Virginia W. Berninger, and support by associations focused on educational psychology and the treatment of dyslexia. The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) presented continuous cursive style as its recommended style for teaching children. In continuous cursive writing, student form each letter without lifting their pencil and consequently form words in a single movement. Even under protest from educators who believed that semi-joined, modern cursive was less demanding for children, many English schools began to adopt continuous cursive writing from Key Stage 1 using the BDA’s recommendation as justification, which led to the emergence of several teaching schemes supported by extensive typographic systems that cater to teaching this style.
Samples of handwriting activity sheets from Twinkl. (Twinkl handwriting taster resource pack, 2023).