I was in a twitter conversation recently about handwriting and thought I would do a little blogette about it.
Have you ever seen those video clips of elderly Chinese people doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong together in public parks? Isn’t it wonderful! I taught a Tai Chi extra-curricular club at my old school and it was amazing to see children who would normally struggle to concentrate learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you need to learn by rote) even require you to control where you are looking. Along the way, the children would make mistakes and struggle, but they would only master the sequences through overcoming their own internal rebellion and pushing through; I was there to teach, encourage and provide the very still and quiet space to practice, but ultimately they made that journey alone. I see handwriting lessons in a similar way – as a sort of ‘Tai Chi’ of children’s academic education where the outcomes are about so much more than neat, swift handwriting. I will return to this theme later in the post, after I have gone through the usual points in favour of teaching cursive handwriting, and daily handwriting lessons in general.
Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they may see it as restricting children’s right to express their individuality and a pointless exercise that has no effect on ‘the learning’ because we are supposed to be focusing on the content of the writing and not on the vanity of how it looks. The fact that handwriting is not measured or reported on per se, is also another reason why it has fallen by the wayside as other priorities take over. When I joined the profession, I found it a bit odd that there seemed to be an institutional disregard for something that was, to me, so fundamentally important, so liberating, an entitlement of all children surely? Like many aspects of primary education, to also say that you approve of something also risks a great clamouring of parents and teachers of children with various SEN who then extrapolate that you are discriminating against their child who cannot fully participate in whatever aspect of primary education you are advocating, as if we should get rid of those aspects of education lest someone feel left out. If we did that, we’d end up with no education at all and besides, if there’s one lesson that is pretty much 100% inclusive, it is the humble handwriting lesson…..
For 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on a small aspect of handwriting that is taught and then practised for a decent length of time under the ideal conditions of silence or very soothing music. Ideally, this practice is a peaceful, daily ritual that pays attention to only one aspect of handwriting that has been taught, rather than being obfuscated by additional cognitive demands such as being expected to create some kind of poem, or thinking about a spelling rule at the same time. All of that can come later on. For a moment, all of the children in the class are equals, united by this one purpose and experiencing the same struggle to synchronise their minds and bodies. Quite often, it is the ones who struggle in other lessons who experience the most success and praise and their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone and are expected to work as hard as everyone else, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is also really important because children do like to fit in and be like their peers, even from a very young age. This is also why I am not too fussed about calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, the ‘individuals’ are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as incredibly embarrassed and frustrated. If you want proof, try visiting year 7s in a secondary school and see how they cover up their books when you go into their English lessons to look at their writing.
The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s menu of potentially frenetic and ever-changing activity, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. Unfortunately, just like old fashioned penmanship, the importance and joy of rituals in our lives has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children in particular benefit from and like most an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences for the efficiency and comfort of daily rituals and habits. Many of you might retort that you like to make your lives more interesting by frequently taking on, for example, new hobbies, but you forget that there are parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground you and connect you to your family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they simply haven’t got the capacity or willpower to provide that kind of upbringing for their children. The daily handwriting lesson could, potentially, be the one part of the day all children experience a peaceful ritual. This is particularly so for those children with SEN who frequently miss the ritual of assemblies or daily silent reading practice to attend groups with teachers and TAs for catch up/gap filling lessons.
Creating the peaceful space for daily handwriting lessons is very difficult. Even when you set it all up, there are so many ways the zen-like focus can be shattered into a million pieces. All it takes is for someone to come in to ask what so-and-so is having for lunch, or for a child to just call out that their pencil has spontaneously exploded under the pressure of forming the perfect fancy f. Sometimes it is the teacher who continuously shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, inadvertently destroying the one moment when a child has the opportunity to really learn to focus.
I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on handwriting and so far not talk about the writing itself! Cursive is ideal*. Why? It’s continuous and I’ve literally seen spelling problems melt away over time when children are required to attend to this style of handwriting in a more focused way. Handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks cause children to think about which letter they’re allowed to join or not, rather than the spelling, the choice of word or the coherence of the sentence. This is a simple case of cognitive overload and we’re supposed to be avoiding that, not enforcing it! Further, compulsory breaks stop children from ever reaching the kind of handwriting speed that indicates fluency and allows them to fully participate in more demanding writing sessions. This is odd because many say that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, attending to cursive handwriting slows children down. This is the most bizarre excuse ever because we all know that children are slow at everything at first and just because they’re slow at something, doesn’t mean that we give up and let them do whatever they like instead – if they’re slow, it’s because they need more (focused) practice, not less.
The other aspect of handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks in words is that unjoined tails of letters and part of other letters that are not joined add such variety to the look of many words that children do not see the patterns and rules of spellings. The absence of a lead-in also adds further variety in terms of which words are flying in the air as opposed to sat on the line. This kind of handwriting is also more likely to be messy. Now, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality, but the fact is that children need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Primary teachers who are with a group of children all through the week get used to the quirks of certain children’s handwriting whereas we need to remember that the variety of teachers who will teach the children at secondary school do not have hours and hours to get used to deciphering children’s ‘unique’ (ie, sloppy and messy) handwriting. I’m probably on my own here, but I really do think that neat, fast and fully joined handwriting is an entitlement of all children and that primary schools need to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn, to automaticity, cursive handwriting, even though it doesn’t feature in progress measures.
Back to Tai Chi. The improvement in synchronicity of mind and body is not only amazing to experience, but it is also character forming, peaceful and generates happiness for both teacher and pupil (and onlookers!). The daily handwriting lesson is so similar in this way and I think we need to remember that before we relegate it to the starter, plenary or one-off weekly lesson.
Who’s with me?