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Case study: continuous cursive

Children at Oldfield primary start to learn to write as soon as they arrive at school, but not by picking up a pencil or trying to form letters.

Instead we work on patterning, which means getting their body used to making the fine motor movements they'll need later on. Our reception class uses shaving foam on the desks or chalk in the playground to practise writing zig-zags or curved shapes, usually with big arm movements. As their motor skills become finer, they can reduce the size of the shapes. The children see handwriting lessons as fun.

In Year 1 we teach the letters in groups, starting with straight ones (i, l, t and u), then the tunnel letters (h,m,n,b,p). By the end of Year 1, they will have been introduced to the formation of all the letters in the alphabet. We teach a form of fully cursive writing, in which all the letters will join up. Our dyslexic children find it easier. They can remember words as a single movement, instead of a broken series of separate movements. That helps with their writing and their spelling.

We have dedicated handwriting lessons but the children also practise writing when they work on their spellings. And we reinforce the work on patterning by encouraging children to put a border around all the work they do, made of letter patterns such as continuous "n"s or "v"s.

We teach the children that each letter starts and ends on the line, and that all letters have an entry stroke and an exit stroke. We get children to work with combinations of letters that form words, and, naturally, they start to join the letters. We don't tell them to, but they do it anyway. By the end of Year 2 most of the class will be writing continuous cursive.

Once the children are working well in pencil, we encourage them to experiment with a range of pens to find the one that suits them best.

Favourites include the Berol handwriting pen, the Lamy fountain pen, and the Yoropen, which is oddly-shaped but has finger grips to ensure a correct hold. That seems to suit some of the left-handers. There's also a Stabilo pen that comes in left and right-hand versions.

We use traditional handwriting paper, with tramlines indicating where the main body of the letter should go and how far ascenders and descenders should extend. We have the paper in four sizes, again to allow children to start big, then gradually reduce the size of their writing when they're ready. Some children, especially left-handers, find it difficult to write on a flat desk, so we have writing slopes to put on the desk.

It was our previous head who introduced continuous cursive writing, initially to help dyslexic children. We soon found that what worked for them worked just as well for the others, including those with motor difficulties, and it's evolved from there. Developing neat handwriting can give dyslexic children a real lift, especially when they see their work on the wall.

Bad habits are difficult to lose, so we prefer children to arrive with no experience of trying to write at nursery. I have two children who learned to write here at Oldfield, who are now at secondary school and going through the process of individualising their writing. It bears little resemblance to what they learned here, but they still have the basics right, such as the correct grip. If you can teach children a good technique, it will stay with them for life.

0 Bonnie Walters is a learning support assistant for Year 6 at Oldfield primary school, Berkshire. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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