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 how even little children could learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you had 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 practise. 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.
Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they think it restricts children’s rights to express their individuality and creativity as well as detracting from ‘the learning’ which should be about the content of the writing rather than 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 management 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, inclusive, liberating, an entitlement of all children, surely?
For a mere 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on their handwriting 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 and there should be no additional cognitive demands such as simultaneously being expected to create some kind of poem, or think about a spelling rule, for 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 receive that all important praise. Their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is 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 keen on the modern wisdom that calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, these individuals are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as ending up incredibly embarrassed and frustrated.
The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s activities, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. However, just like old fashioned penmanship, the tradition and joy of daily rituals has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children benefit from and prefer an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences which is to have parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground us and connect us to our family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they 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 moment.
Creating the 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 inadvertently shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, destroying the child’s opportunity to really learn to focus.
I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on how handwriting helps with character formation and have yet to 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. More modern 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 required in KS3. Many would argue that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, this slows children down. However, 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 modern 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, causing additional cognitive demands for children who are trying to write a story, for example. Again, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality and there are always those teachers and highly successful adults who boast about their messy handwriting (and how it hasn’t held them back) but the fact is that children do need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Maybe I’m 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 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 one-off weekly lesson.
Who’s with me?