The relationship between gender and handwriting performance

Gender and handwriting
Debra McCarney, Lynne Peters, Sarah Jackson, Marie
Thomas, Amanda Kirby
Background to the study
Internal and external factors potentially
affecting development of writing skills in
primary aged children
◦ Motor development
◦ Literacy / language development
◦ Gender stereotypes and differences
Motor development
“Several authors have suggested that
difficulty in the mastery of the mechanical
aspects of handwriting may interfere with
higher order processes required for the
composition of text” (Rosenblum, Weiss &
Parush, 2003)
Fluency in handwriting – “the single best
predictor of length and quality of written
composition” (Medwell & Wray, 2008)
Literacy and language development
Conflicting research on early ability -
Stromquist (2007) – little difference in
literacy ability between boys and girls of
kindergarten age
Boys have weaker early literacy skills
when they enter school and this persists
or increases during primary years (Below
et al, 2010)
Gender stereotypes…
“The boys commented that in general they had tried to
make their writing smaller and neater. The girls, in
contrast, said almost unanimously that they had made
their handwriting larger, and half of them said they had
made it less tidy, or more scruffy.” Hartley, 1991
“... children discover early, aided by the influence of
peers, that one book is a ‘girl book’ and another a ‘boy
book’ ” Merisuo-Storm, 2006
Francis and Skelton (2005) call for “a deconstruction of
masculinity and femininity so that girls and boys do not
see aspects of learning as gendered”
Children’s stereotypes about writing
from a Yahoo online discussion forum - 2008
(female response) “Well I know this guy in one of my
classes and he writes like a girl. If his name wasn't on his
paper you'd think it was a girls paper lol.
I guess it just depends on that persons personality.
People often tell me I write neat which sucks because
whenever we do a project or expirement my whole table
tells me to do the writing part.”
(male response) “I got really neat and pretty and cursive
writing, but if I used that kind of writing in school, some
people might call me gay and stuff, so I used my messy
writing instead, by using that way, it's better for
Educational Impacts
“teachers tend to give higher marks for
neatly written papers than those for messy
ones. It thus appears that poor penmanship
may influence perceptions about children’s
competence as writers.” (Graham et al,
 Concerns over the quality of boys’ writing at
Key Stage 2 (aged 7 to11) DfES, 2003
◦ Projects to improve boys’ writing performance
often neglect the contribution of handwriting
Aims of the study
To investigate potential gender differences
◦ speed
◦ readability of handwriting
- And the relationship of these with reading
and spelling skills
284 mainstream children 8 -10 years from
17 schools
All had IQ above 70 on KBIT
◦ Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test
128 boys age (mean 9.1 years, SD 0.58)
156 girls age (mean 9.2 years, SD 0.57)
No significant difference in age between
Standardised reading and spelling
assessments (WIAT-II)
◦ word reading
◦ pseudo-word reading
◦ spelling
4 handwriting tasks completed
◦ Copy a short paragraph from a stimulus card
 (Reading Age of 6-7 years)
Handwriting Assessment
ComPET (Computerised Penmanship Evaluation
Used with digitiser pen
Recorded various aspects of the process of handwriting
This study looked at:
• Overall duration (time taken)
• Pen pressure through the nib
Assessment of Readability
Paragraph copy sample assessed for ‘readability’
◦ 3 independent raters using set of criteria (IRR 0.79)
◦ 4-point scale:
 Very Good, Good, Poor, Very Poor
Assessed according to following criteria:
Word / letter legibility
Sizing consistency
Spacing between letters and words
Site of words on page – deviation from baseline
Overall size
Slant (if used) – even / uneven
Handwriting samples
Sample A - Very Good
Sample B - Poor
Handwriting Readability Groups
Children put into 4 groups according to the
readability of their paragraph copy task
◦ Very Poor (n=27)
◦ Poor (n=78)
◦ Good (n=127)
◦ Very Good (n=50)
Sig group effect for age (p<0.001), readability
tended to increase with age
BUT some youngest chn in Very Good group and
some oldest chn in Very Poor group
Results – Comparing Girls to Boys in
the Group as a whole
No sig. difference between genders on word
reading, pseudo-word reading or spelling
When looking at the Paragraph Copy task
◦ Girls (M=72.16, sd=20.6) were significantly faster than
boys (M=81.38, sd=24.92) (p<0.001)
◦ Girls (M=3.05, sd=0.7) were rated as significantly more
readable than boys (M=2.3, sd=0.88) (p<0.001)
◦ Boys (M=582.19, sd=147.28) applied significantly less pen
pressure (p<0.001) than girls (M=644.98, sd=149.19)
Results – Looking at 5 age bands
Age Bands: <8.5 yrs, 8.5 to <9 yrs, 9 to <9.5, 9.5
to <10 yrs, 10 to 10.5 yrs
Girls rated sig. higher than boys for readability
in the Paragraph Copy Task in the 4 older age
• <9 yr (p< 0.001), <9.5 yr (p<0.001), <10 yr (p=0.006), < 10.5 yr
Boys scored sig. higher than girls for non-word
reading in the oldest band (p=0.04)
Mean Readability Paragraph Copy Task
Paragraph Task Readability Groups
Higher proportion of boys
in the Very Poor group
Higher proportion of girls
in the Very Good group
Word Reading – WIAT II scores
F(3,280)=12.29, p<0.001
Significant differences
between the Readability
groups in terms of their
standardised Word Reading
Boys sig. higher scores in
Good group (p=0.021) and
Very Good group (p=0.008)
Pseudo Word Reading – WIAT II scores
F(3,280)=11.02, p<0.001
Significant differences
between the Readability
groups in terms of their
standardised Pseudo Word
Reading scores.
Boys sig. higher scores in
Good group (p=0.001) and
Very Good group (p=0.045)
Spelling – WIAT II scores
F(3,280)=12.69, p<0.001
Significant differences
between the Readability
groups in terms of their
standardised Spelling scores.
Boys outperformed girls in
the groups with more
readable handwriting –
differences significant in the
Good group (p=0.007)
Boy are significantly more likely to have
writing difficulties than girls at this age.
 Children with handwriting difficulties are
more likely to have more general literacy
difficulties in the areas of reading and
 Gender stereotypes may act as a disincentive
for boys to improve their handwriting and
impact on their overall literacy development.
Points for further consideration
How ‘boy friendly’ are pre-writing and writing
Is there a need to realign expectations of
teachers regarding untidy handwriting in boys and
neat handwriting in girls?
Is the contribution of handwriting to overall
literacy still being overlooked?
◦ England’s response to Lord Bew’s recommendations
for Key Stage 2: introduce test of spelling, grammar,
punctuation and vocabulary – no mention of
◦ Could this even be a justification for different norms
based on gender for writing assessments?
Gender and handwriting performance
Debra McCarney
For further information please contact:
Email: dyscoverycentre @
Tel: 01633 432330

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