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DSF e-Alert – The Importance of Handwriting Instruction

Sign up for the AUSPELD/DSF e-alert parent newsletter

With the increasing use of technology in today’s society, the question arises as to whether we still need to teach handwriting to children.  Research has indicated that there are benefits from handwriting instruction that go beyond learning to write (Dinehart, 2015).  Firstly, there is a strong link between developing motor skills and developing cognitive skills. When children learn to draw letters by hand, their later recognition for those letters is better.  As a result, children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. Learning to form letters activates the neural pathways associated with successful reading, thus handwriting forms an important component of early literacy instruction.

Other research has shown that note-taking with a pen, rather than a laptop, gives students a better grasp of the subject.  While individuals who rely on word processing using a laptop or other device tend to take notes verbatim, those working with pen and paper rephrase and summarise information as they take notes. The process of note-taking with pen and paper encourages deeper processing of the information.

Dr Virginia Berninger, a prominent researcher in the area, promotes teaching children to be ‘hybrid writers’.  This means instruction in print first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and composing. Touch-typing should ideally be introduced in upper primary according to Dr Berninger.

It is recommended that handwriting instruction is addressed in the following ways:

  • Initially, the sequence of introduction of letter forms should follow the structured synthetic phonics (SSP) program utilised in the classroom. For example, the first eight letter-sound relationships taught in the Letters and Sounds program are s, a, t, p, i, n, m and d. Once every letter of the alphabet has been taught, appropriate letter formation should be reinforced by practising similarly shaped letters together (eg. a, c and d).
  • Handwriting instruction should be part of daily phonics instruction. Integrate handwriting instruction with instruction in letter sounds. Encourage children to say the letter name and sound as they write the letter. An effective way to do this is to follow the procedure outlined in the Letters and Sounds program: 1. Hear the sound (auditory recognition) and say the sound (articulation/pronunciation); 2. See the sound (visual recognition) and say the sound (articulation); 3. Say the sound (articulation) and write the sound (formation).
  • Children should learn a highly consistent way to form a given letter every time they write it. For example, teach children to write the letter b by starting at the top with a vertical stroke, then making the loop to the right without lifting the pencil, rather than having children form the vertical line and the loop in separate strokes.
  • Teachers should accompany handwriting instruction with a letter formation prompt for each letter. These verbal prompts support the specific shapes used in letter formation and act as memory cues. For example, when learning the letter s, move your finger slowly along the snake from its mouth while saying the letter formation prompt: “Round the snake’s head, slide down his back and round his tail.” (Phase Two, Letters and Sounds).
  • Begin by focusing on the learning of the motor pattern rather than perfect legibility or size.
  • Ensure that reversible letters such as b and d are taught separately as children appear less likely to confuse visually similar letters if they have learned one letter of a confusable pair well prior to introduction of the other letter of the pair. Evidence-based SSP programs follow a pre-planned sequence or introduction which separates the teaching of letters which are easily confused due to similarities in formation or articulation.
  • In addition, it can be helpful to teach children to form confusable letters differently; for example, b starts at the top whereas d starts with the loop.
  • Use written arrow cues to help children remember how to form letters and to prevent children from inadvertently practising incorrect letter formation repeatedly.
  • Speed should not be emphasised until children can form letters legibly and from memory.

Handwriting problems often arise from a difficulty in automatically remembering and mastering the sequence movements required in writing letters or numbers.  If left unaddressed, these difficulties can affect a student’s ability to express themselves in writing.  Ongoing difficulties with automatic letter formation often lead to avoidance of writing and therefore reduced practice, which leads to further difficulties.  Explicit handwriting instruction in the early years is therefore key to preventing later difficulties.

Berninger, V., Abbott, R.D., Jones, J., Wolf, B.J., Gould, L., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Apel, K. (2006) Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling. Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), 61–92.Dinehart, L. H. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 97–118.Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics (2007). UK Primary National Strategy, Department for Education and Skills. Available from:


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2019 Literacy, Language and Learning Conference – Registrations Now Open!

The biennial Literacy, Language and Learning Conference is set to take place from the 4-6th of April, 2019.

The conference provides a unique opportunity for educators and practitioners to hear about current research and evidence-based approaches to teaching and intervention in the field of language and literacy acquisition. DSF, with the support of AUSPELD, has put together an incredible line-up of keynote speakers who will share their expert knowledge in the areas of reading acquisition, oral and written language development, numeracy skills, effective learning strategies and behaviour management.

The Conference will also provide delegates with a choice of more than 60 breakout sessions over three-days. The variety of topics covered by session speakers will ensure that this is an incredibly valuable and informative event for teachers, educational psychologists, speech pathologists and other allied professionals.

Visit the conference website to register today!

A ‘Call for Papers’ is currently open to people who are interested in speaking at the Conference. Expressions of Interest from potential session speakers will be accepted until the 14th of September and full abstracts will need to be submitted by the 28th of October. Please download the Call for Papers flyer for further information about applying to become a session speaker at the 2019 Literacy, Language and Learning Conference.

We look forward to seeing you there!



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International Expert in ICT and Inclusion Carol Allen to visit Australia in August 2018

All students struggling with literacy should be supported appropriately with both evidence-based intervention as well as effective accommodations. Accommodations ensure that students have access to the curriculum and can participate in the classroom. Carol Allen has exceptional knowledge in the area of ICT and its effective use to support students experiencing literacy difficulties. She will be sharing this knowledge in a series of interactive and valuable workshops across Australia in August.

Please contact your state SPELD for more information via the website links provided below.


Workshop for Parents – Tuesday August 7. For more information, go to

Workshop for Teachers – Wednesday August 8. For more information, go to


Workshop for Teachers – Friday August 10. For more information, go to


Workshop for Teachers – Monday August 13. For more information, go to


Workshop for Parents – Wednesday August 15. For more information, go to

Workshop for Teachers – Thursday August 16. For more information, go to


Workshop for Teachers – Saturday August 18. For more information, go to

Download a PDF flyer

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Identifying Dyslexia in the Early Years

Parents and teachers often report feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information currently available, and widely circulated, on the topic of dyslexia. Views on everything from the causative factors, the most effective interventions, the reported advantages, and even whether or not dyslexia exists, are widespread and frequently contradictory.

One area that promotes quite passionate commentary, and clearly divergent views, relates to the age at which a Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in reading (commonly known as dyslexia) can be diagnosed. An analysis of this commentary suggests that a popular misconception associated with the identification of dyslexia (and other SLDs) is that they cannot be diagnosed until eight years of age. This ‘myth’ has prevailed in the wider community despite the circulation of extensive information explaining why this belief is incorrect.

Children can be diagnosed with dyslexia well before they turn eight if they have struggled with the acquisition of skills in reading (and spelling) for an extended period of time despite the provision of high quality instruction and appropriate intensive intervention. This will be explained in greater detail a little later in this article.

Another ‘myth’ associated with the diagnosis of dyslexia is that it can be identified through a simple screening process or via the completion of a checklist. This is simply not the case. In the event that the screening or checklist is reviewed remotely (i.e. by someone who is not assessing the child face-to-face) then the results of such an ‘assessment’ should be discounted.

The definition of dyslexia recognised by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), AUSPELD, the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) and DSF suggests that dyslexia is:

  • Neurobiological,
  • Characterised by poor reading accuracy and/or fluency,
  • Often associated with phonological (and/or orthographic) processing difficulties,
  • Unexpected in relation to the amount of effective instruction and intervention provided, and
  • A contributing factor to low levels of vocabulary and general knowledge, as well as poor reading comprehension.

This definition is also in line with the diagnostic criteria for a specific learning disorder (in reading) outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5) (see table below).

As is evident from this definition, Dyslexia is viewed as a persistent and enduring difficulty acquiring and developing reading and spelling skills. Consequently, it can only be diagnosed once a child has been provided with reading instruction of sufficient quality and duration, that the fact that they are struggling to read accurately and fluently is viewed as surprising.


How is Dyslexia diagnosed?

Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs) occur in the areas of reading (dyslexia), written expression (dysgraphia) and mathematics (dyscalculia). They are considered to be one of a number of developmental disorders and are diagnosed through:

  • A review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational and family history,
  • The results of standardised testing across a number of domains including academic achievement (e.g. reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension / spelling / written expression, etc.); cognitive processing and cognitive ability; and,
  • An evaluation of how well the student has responded to a minimum of six months’ intervention targeted at his/her area of weakness.

In the diagnosis of dyslexia, it is important to establish that the student has received intervention designed to improve skills in reading (accuracy and fluency), for a minimum of six months. The inclusion of a well-designed structured, synthetic phonics program (such as Sounds~Write, MiniLit, MacqLit or Reading Mastery) would generally be expected.

In most cases the assessment will be carried out by a psychologist, with knowledge and experience in education. The written report should provide information outlining the likely functional impact for the student in the classroom and also offer clear recommendations for both intervention and accommodations.


At what age can a diagnosis of Dyslexia be made?

Many schools screen children prior to year one (aged four, five and/or six) to identify the students at risk of ongoing language, learning and literacy difficulties. Early screening, conducted by the classroom teacher or a speech pathologist, is of enormous value but its purpose is not to identify students with dyslexia. Its purpose is to identify students in need of early intervention and support and to ensure that steps are taken to put this in place as quickly as possible. At this stage the emphasis is often on building the foundation skills necessary for successful literacy learning.

Once structured reading instruction commences – usually in Foundation / year one – there may be some students who continue to struggle despite the early support provided. These students will require explicit, intensive instruction to avoid falling further behind their peers. With this level of intervention, most students will make excellent progress but in some cases a more individualised response will be necessary.

A comprehensive assessment may be of value to assist in determining the profile and needs of the student. It may also be of importance to determine whether the student has a language impairment (speech pathologist) or learning disorder (psychologist) and, more importantly, to identify and recommend appropriate instructional and resourcing strategies.

In the event that a child is assessed for a possible Reading Disorder (Dyslexia), consideration is given to the quality and consistency of early reading instruction, in addition to the nature and duration of any intervention specifically targeting the development of reading skills. How well the student has responded to at least six months of intensive (either small group or one-on-one) intervention in reading is of central importance in the diagnostic process (see Criteria A below). Given that at least six months of intensive, targeted intervention needs to have been provided, it is unlikely that dyslexia can confidently be diagnosed until mid/late year one (assuming all diagnostic criteria are met).

Diagnosis using the DSM-5


Ongoing difficulties in the school-age years learning and using at least one academic skill (e.g. reading accuracy/fluency; spelling accuracy; written expression competence and fluency; mastering number facts). These difficulties have persisted and failed to improve as expected, despite the provision of targeted intervention for at least six months. This intervention should be recognised as evidence-based and delivered by an experienced and qualified person.


The difficulties experienced by the student will be assessed using standardised achievement tests* and found to be at a level significantly lower than most students of the same age. Sometimes students are identified with a learning disability even though they are performing within the average range. This is only the case when it can be shown that the student is achieving at this level due to unusually high levels of effort and ongoing support.


The difficulties experienced by the student usually become apparent in the early years of schooling. The exception to this is where problems occur in upper-primary or secondary school once the demands on student performance increase significantly. For example – when students have to read extended pieces of complex text or write at a more sophisticated level under timed conditions.


Specific learning disabilities will not be diagnosed if there is a more plausible explanation for the difficulties being experienced by the student. For example – if the student has: an intellectual disability; a sensory impairment; a history of chronic absenteeism; inadequate proficiency in the language of instruction; a psychosocial condition; or, not received appropriate instruction and/or intervention

*Standardised achievement tests are tests that have been developed by experts and trialled with large numbers of students to check their validity. They are only delivered by practitioners who have been trained to use the tests and score and interpret the results achieved.

All four criteria must be met for a diagnosis to be made and the level of severity is determined as being mild, moderate or severe.


Final Comments:

It is certainly possible to identify a student at risk of literacy learning difficulties from as early as four or five years of age and it is important to do so. Early identification provides schools and allied health professionals with an opportunity to intervene early and prevent, in most cases, long term difficulties. It is, however, not possible to confidently diagnose dyslexia until sometime after the student has been provided with both systematic reading instruction and appropriate intervention. This could be as early as year one but is dependent on the criteria related to Specific Learning Disorder diagnosis being met. It is always important to screen and intervene first – and assess and diagnose second.


For more information:

Understanding Learning Difficulties: A Guide for Parents shares information about dyslexia and other learning difficulties and can be accessed online for free.

Understanding Learning Difficulties: A Practical Guide provide principals, teachers, school psychologists and speech pathologists with a greater awareness and understanding of the significant impact learning disabilities can have on students, and to outline the most effective remediation and accommodation strategies available to them in the classroom. The guide is available to teachers through Scootle.


This article was written by:

Mandy Nayton
AUSPELD President, Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation WA CEO / Educational and Developmental Psychologist

Gemma Boyle
Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation WA Senior Psychologist

Note: this article was taken from The DSF Bulletin – Volume 53 (Winter 2017).

A printable version of this article can be downloaded here.

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Why we support the Year 1 Phonics Check

Read AUSPELD’s submission supporting the national Year 1 Phonics check recently sent to all State and Territory Education Ministers…

Last week, state and territory education ministers met to discuss the proposed Phonics Check – a 5-7 minute “Check” of student progress. AUSPELD (The Australian Federation of SPELD Associations) supports the implementation of the Phonics Check in Australia because of its potential to identify students at risk of literacy failure. The reasons for this support are outlined in a letter sent to the Ministers prior to the meeting. Please read – AUSPELD Letter to Ministers – Support of the Year 1 Phonics Check


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The Guide is Online!

VERY exciting news! The new AUSPELD website Understanding Learning Difficulties: A Guide for Parents is now on-line at! The website contains a wealth of information for families, educators, allied health professionals and others about how best to support students with learning difficulties. The information can be accessed easily using the inbuilt text-to-speech function available across all pages of the website. The strategies and programs recommended are practical and evidence-based. There are great videos across the website (and more will be added over time). We hope you find the website useful and informative.

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Language, Literacy & Learning Conference – registrations now open!

Registrations for the inaugural Language, Literacy & Learning Conference are now open!

Literacy, Language and Learning Conference logo
Registrations now open!

The Language, Literacy and Learning Conference will provide a wealth of information on the factors influencing the successful acquisition of skills in both language and literacy. This event has been made possible through the collaboration of AUSPELD, DSF Literacy Services and the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

Date: 30th March – 1st April 2017
Time: 8.45am – 4.00pm
Location: Perth Conference & Exhibition Centre

Please visit the conference website to find out more or to register to attend. Discounted registration fees are available to those who register early. In addition, all members of state SPELD organisations and IDA are entitled to an additional discount.


Register today!

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AUSPELD President Awarded Order of Australia Medal

Mandy ResizedAUSPELD is extremely proud to announce that AUSPELD President Mandy Nayton was awarded an Order of Australia medal on June 13th for her service to education and to those with learning disabilities. Mandy has spent much of her career investigating and introducing strategies designed to improve children’s literacy and is currently the chief executive officer of the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation in Western Australia, as well as the president of AUSPELD. The Medal of the Order of Australia is awarded for exceptional service in a given field. This acknowledgment of Mandy’s dedication to the area of literacy and learning difficulties is richly deserved and a significant marker of the importance of AUSPELD’s essential national role in the advocacy and support of children and adults with learning difficulties.

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Two New Guides from AUSPELD: Understanding Learning Difficulties

Understanding Learning Difficulties: A practical guide

A comprehensive, evidence-based reference of strategies to assist students with learning difficulties.

This booklet, in conjunction with the enclosed CD, is designed to provide principals, teachers and school psychologists throughout Australia, with a greater awareness and understanding of the significant impact learning disabilities can have on students, and to outline the most effective remediation and accommodation strategies available to them in the classroom.
The CD contains a copy of the Guide plus a wide range of effective resources and strategies, all of which can be saved and printed for use throughout the school.

To purchase a copy of the guide please visit our resources information page.

Understanding Learning Difficulties: A guide for parents

Many parents or carers notice that their child is struggling at school but are unsure about the steps they should take. This Guide is designed to answer some of these questions. It has been developed to provide parents and carers with current information about the nature of learning disabilities and to offer practical guidance on the most appropriate identification and support.

To purchase a copy of the guide please visit our resources information page.