Will there be an epidemic of back problems (and terrible pen hold) in the future?

We don’t do ‘lining up’ (I think we should) in our school, nor do we have any kind of policy on deportment. Most primary teachers, however, instinctively remind children to sit up straight when they are listening to the teacher or during assemblies for example. However, there is one ubiquitous practice that seems to undermine all attempts to get children to develop the healthy habit of good posture and that is carpet time. If you are a secondary teacher reading this (good! I like to bridge that gap) then let me explain carpet time.

  1. It’s usually at the start of a lesson and children come and sit in a fixed place in front of the teacher on the carpet for the input
  2. Said children will grab a mini whiteboard and whiteboard pen
  3. For the starter and at frequent intervals during the input, the children will be required to demonstrate their learning on mini whiteboard (AfL) and there will also likely be an Ofsted-approved attempt to use this information to send a small group of children off early for ‘independent learning’ to overtly show differentiation in terms of different activities etc
  4. For the very youngest children, often the entire lesson will consist of being on the carpet, especially if the lesson is phonics or early writing skills
  5. In some schools, children will be intermittently slurping a carton of milk while being expected to use a whiteboard

Teachers use this method because (of):

  • School policy
  • Having children closer to you means it’s easier for behaviour management purposes (you can see everyone)
  • Ofsted/SLT requirements to overtly demonstrate frequent use of AfL and tick off teacher standards related to meeting the ‘individual needs of the child’

When I have a look for scientific papers on posture and back problems in children, there seems to be plenty looking at factors such as obesity, habits at home such as watching TV or the use of large backpacks at school, but I can’t find much in the way of studies of early primary age children that specifically reference carpet time or mini whiteboard use. I am concerned that sitting hunched over a mini whiteboard is not good for posture as well as being not good for learning. Why is this?

  1. Being hunched like this puts a terrible strain on the neck (if you try sitting on the floor and writing in a big notebook on your lap, you’ll quickly feel it)
  2. Looking directly down and then looking up constantly is somewhat disorientating
  3. Using a mini-whiteboard and being expected to lift it up to show the teacher constantly means that children get used to using an enormous ‘font size’ to ‘prove’ themselves; this is not good for those children who should really be spending all writing time focusing on fine control of letter size (those with lack of coordination or fine motor skills, for example)
  4. Little children are eager to please and the more competitive will be tempted to rush in order to be the first to show the teacher, thus encouraging sloppy handwriting (boys are more vulnerable here) and sloppy posture
  5. Whiteboard pens are very chunky and, in my opinion, are a massive factor in causing children to regress from correct pencil hold to ‘caveman’ grip. A whole year in reception doing this is going to play a massive part in determining pencil hold going forward
whiteboard
Note the size of the letters in relation to the hands and also that classic (if slightly obscured) overly curled pencil hold with the side of the hand resting on the board to provide stability. Note also the overall posture.

What is the solution though? Many teachers, including myself, recoil at the idea of doing away with carpet time and this is partly to do with behaviour management concerns. I believe that use of SLANT from an early age and deploying the TA to make sure that all children are facing the teacher would help, but it would mean of course that we would not be complying with the requirement to ensure that TAs are with a group or specific children aiding their ‘learning’ during input. My morning TA (I have no TA in the afternoon) is required to take one child (one-to-one) away from the main Maths and English input and give him interventions in number bonds and phonics (yes, for the more logical reader among you, this means both catching up and falling behind at the same time) so cannot be used in this way. This will be the case in many primary schools where TAs are expected to give interventions during carpet-input time.

Dare I say it, but I fully realise why the Victorians had all the children facing the front, writing on angled desks and with the youngest children right at the front of the class. Of course, back then deportment was a ‘thing’ that won you prizes (and many private schools continued with this until recently), plus they didn’t have the luxury of disposable white board pens or whiteboards. How did those teachers meet the individual needs of the child though? They didn’t. They expected everyone to learn as much as everyone else, including being able to write beautifully. It is also interesting when you consider that Victorian classrooms would’ve contained an enormous variation in ages of children, presumably the youngest would’ve been expected to ’emulate’ quite a bit of the time.

EDUCATION/BRITAIN/CLASS
Boys sat in rows. Although not writing here, note that they are all holding their reading book the same way and in the same position. (Be careful with assuming their faces indicate general mood or happiness at school; the Victorian culture in general preferred a more serious look when it came to photographs). Image courtesy of BBC history archives.

There is a very stark contrast in posture when you compare the two pictures in this blog. Of course, we need to be careful with assumptions and any lack of back problems in the past could be attributed to the fact that previous generations were more stoic than us. Perhaps even their eyesight was far better (I’ve observed many reception year children put their book practically right next to their eyes in order to read). However, I think we need to seriously consider who really benefits from carpet time and using a whiteboard and who might actually be suffering.

Who’s with me?

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6 thoughts on “Will there be an epidemic of back problems (and terrible pen hold) in the future?

  1. I encourage a very simple way of teachers considering organisation in their classrooms at any given point in the day (or any subject) and that is asking the question whether it is truly ‘fit for purpose’. I suggest that this dominant carpet time and mini whiteboard scenario is only fit for purpose perhaps for story time (or quick teacher-input for some subjects) and mini whiteboard use is really only fit for purpose for some early magnetic letter or grapheme tile manipulation (meaning before children can form letters) in phonics and some quick-fire ‘show me’ work – a little bit of sound-to-print phonics work and a little bit of mental arithmetic work.

    Other than that, such arrangements are not fit for purpose. When children are brought to me for assessment, they are always very competent at oral segmenting long words (a sound to print spelling sub-skill) but they are not good at sounding out and blending all through the printed word. This indicates to me a dominant phonics practice of sound to print mini whiteboard work (and the use of reading books that are not decodable for the child – that is, multi-cueing guessing strategies) rather than a balance of phonics activities.

    I also draw attention to the research on table arrangements in classrooms. There is research to show that facing forwards rather than group work is more effective for learning (when it is fit for purpose in the subject). Rarely, however, do primary schools face desks forward as appropriate (I’m not advocating desks facing forwards all day or for every subject – in fact, I advocate variety during the school day).

    My observations suggest we have an epidemic of very poor pencil hold for children nowadays with accompanying poor posture. We have moved away even from variations of the tripod grip to what I describe as ‘grotesque’ pencil hold. This includes a generation of young teachers to be honest and I’ve been approached by younger teachers to help them with this when I draw attention to it.

    I write about these issues in two NATE Primary magazines here:

    https://phonicsinternational.com/NATE_TE.pdf

    https://phonicsintervention.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/NATE_TE-PM_Spring-2017_22-26-HEPP-FINAL.pdf

    I’m with you, in fact I think desks facing forwards enables much more efficient classroom management and leads to much better behaviour – more so than sitting on the carpet at the teacher’s feet! I’m sure that it is probably more comfortable, too, for at least some of the children.

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    • Debbie, I have always been well-disposed towards the pupils’ use of fountain pens in y5 and 6. This year, however, I have been convinced that they have had a tremendously beneficial impact on handwriting (possibly less true for left-handers?). I wonder if you would agree with this. I suspect there are a few reasons for to do with the kinds of grip and pressure possible and the sense that they’re ‘magic’ pens along with the actual physical pleasure of writing with them. I never sat a written exam without using fountain pen. I always felt that they were kinder on the hands. Sadly for me, having seen the improvement in my pupils’ writing, some are leaving to go to a secondary school that bans the use of fountain pens altogether!

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  2. I very much agree that children should face the front and use an angled desk. I have seen modern desks that are based on the old desks with space or store inside. The ‘lid’ can be flat or angled so you can sit traditionally facing front working at an angle, or put lids flat and sit in groups. Great but rarely seen this fit for purpose furniture.

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  3. You know I’m with you on this one! When it comes to furniture, I’m trad all the way. I have managed to subvert some of the group desk, carpet culture in KS2 at least. Many of us now, frequently have front-facing desks, children sitting up and ready to listen. I experimented on my class with SLANT, but I decided I tried my own acronym of START. Sit up straight; Turn towards the speaker (if necessary); Attend to the information; Return equipment to the rightful place on the desk; Track the teacher (or pointer/cursor etc.). To be honest, I’m not interested in the use of acronyms as such and you could probably make a good one out of almost any 5-letter word – but it works for them. They like the sequence rather than the general nagging. Thinking of putting it up in the class next year. Oh and using a stick to point with!

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