‘Yes, but it’s more important that we focus on their reading skills’
‘Yes, but is this their own writing?’
‘You should be concentrating on improving the quality of their writing, not how it looks.’
I’ve heard many versions of the above over the last few years whenever the subject of good handwriting crops up. For the record, I am all about the high expectations in terms of presentation and handwriting in particular; I’ve found children’s ability to read, write and spell MASSIVELY improve when they are taught and then made to practise the basics until their previously scrappy handwriting is transformed. It’s hard work and much of that hard work involves me digging deep, bracing myself and remaining steadfast in the face of moaning, face pulling and theatrical slumping downs on the chair; I don’t care what your excuse is, be it some kind of problem at home, that your mum thinks you might have ADHD or the fact that you’re tired and hungry – let’s have some pride here about what we put in our books. Of course, once the handwriting starts to change, the compliments come and the child (usually a male) then feels pretty chuffed about their handwriting (and themselves). It’s all worth it when a child eventually receives this amazing ego boost and you can say to them, “Who did this? Look at your work a month ago and compare it to now; you did this and I am very proud of you.”
OK, OK, it’s not the be all and end all. But why, when a young lad has finally cracked the handwriting thing and all those letters, having been through some kind of penmanship Sandhurst, are now lined up and in ship-shape condition, ready for deployment to the working wall, is this feat of concentration so easily dismissed? I think I might know what the real reason is:
There is something that skulks about behind this sweeping aside of excellent handwriting and I think it is a similar sentiment to that of not wanting to ‘force’ children to behave in a certain way when walking through school corridors. Oh I do hope I am wrong on this, but it seems that teaching and then having children practise their handwriting to the point of gliding automacity smacks of coercion and control, and just as the usual suspects cry ‘child-hater!’ whenever a bold school leader enforces a rule about silent, orderly transition to classrooms (which simultaneously improves the start of lessons as well as destroys opportunities for corridor bullying), so these same people would dispense their histrionic wails all over twitter because ‘Whole Child’ and ‘individual needs’ and ‘not ready’. These people make you feel guilty for caring, for wanting all children to achieve and you end up feeling bad and apologising for actually teaching.
Then there is this business of quality and presentation of writing being, allegedly, mutually exclusive; this is always backed up with the one example of some high-flying child, usually the offspring of an educator, having the worst handwriting in the world yet going on to receive a PhD in poetry. Again, the implication is that in teaching the basics, right from the start (avoiding the bad habits setting in), something more important has been neglected (like ‘creativity’). What could be more important than basic letter formation and matching those letter forms to the sounds in one’s head? It’s basically free reading/phonics practice and it’s something that 100% of children can access, unlike ‘creativity’ (which is only accessible to advantaged children who have more words, phrases and facts in their heads to choose from). The fact that this subject involves tiny little children makes the whole situation even more emotional, but if you look at expectations from just 50 years ago, you’ll see what young children are capable of.
The last thing I’m going to say on this is that I’ve always been a bit confused as to why, because of school handwriting policies, so many children are not allowed to properly join up. This business of forbidding loops, so the g and the y for example are never joined – why? A loop tidies everything up and makes the writing flow, surely? Examine the handwriting policies of primary schools up and down the land and you will find weird rules as to particular letters that are ‘not allowed’ to be joined, even though most older generations were taught to join pretty much everything. My own children were taught this half-print-half-join handwriting and it just looks pants, plus it slows them down dramatically. Could someone explain why, when I advise them to join properly, it’s like I’ve just told them to commit some kind of crime?
So, I stick to my guns. Luckily, the new national curriculum has got my back and I’m pretty sure there is plenty of evidence to show that good handwriting is massively helpful to children.
Who’s with me?