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Everyone's handwriting is unique - a reflection of individual mood and personality. But if you met up with the children who shared your primary classroom, you'd probably find that one of the few things you still had in common would be the way you loop your "g"s and cross your "t"s. There's plenty of debate about the best way to teach handwriting, and about the style of writing that should be taught. Italic or round-hand? Slanting or straight? In some countries there's no choice, teachers have to follow a prescribed national style. In the UK the decision rests with individual schools. But when most work can be word-processed, and with voice-recognition technology capable of turning speech into text, does handwriting really matter any longer?

A brief history...

Most present-day styles of handwriting have their roots in Italian styles of the 16th century, popularised in England in 1570 by the publication of the first "writing manual". At that time, reading and writing were separate skills and only lawyers, doctors, businessmen, clergymen and clerks were taught to write. For the next 200 years different styles of handwriting were learned by different social groups. The legal profession, for example, adopted an elaborate style, while the world of commerce used a simpler, clearer hand. Early Victorians used a copperplate style with thick and thin strokes, but later in the 19th century, the less fussy "Vere Foster civil service" hand, named after the 19th-century Irishman who invented it, became the most frequently taught model in schools. It remained popular into the 20th century, though it had to compete with a revival in italics and a movement towards "print-script" - simplified letters that reflected the growing use of typewriters. But its eventual successor was the semi-cursive, or "joined-up" style known as "round hand", developed in the 1930s. Most schools now teach a derivative of this.

Laying it on the line?

Some countries, such as France and the US, have traditionally encouraged national styles of handwriting, though guidelines have been relaxed recently. It guarantees children an element of continuity. The UK, on the other hand, has a long tradition of handwriting diversity, and the only government guidance is that the style taught should be "easy to join later". This has encouraged a proliferation of handwriting schemes, meaning big business for educational publishers.

Schools can face some bewildering choices. Italic styles carry an air of sophistication, but aren't suited to fast writing. A fully cursive style, in which all letters are joined, is usually quicker, but can look over-elaborate with loopy "g"s and "y"s. Currently, the most commonly taught style is semi-cursive, but choices remain between round or oval letters, straight or slanting - and that's before considering individual letter options such as round or pointed "w"s.

"There's no definitive evidence that one way is better than another, but it's important to have some consistency within a school," says Professor Sheila Henderson, chairman of the Handwriting Interest Group. This might extend to all teachers using the same style when they write on the board, or produce displays and notices. "If different teachers are saying and doing different things, children may become muddled."

Or going with the flow?

A school style can be helpful, but enforcing it in a draconian way is not.

Some children will tend towards an individual style from the start, and most experts say this is acceptable, as long as it is comfortable, legible and potentially fast. "Variety is good," says Patricia Lovett, scribe and calligraphy expert. "Some children have a natural flow that lends itself to a rounded or italic hand."

Even those who start out with a rigid model will, in time, develop their own idiosyncrasies. "Handwriting is one way of expressing our personality," says Dr Rhona Stainthorp of the school of psychology and human development at London's Institute of Education. "It's important to allow children to experiment and be individual." And those teenage girls who swap their dots for hearts or smiley faces? "It may be necessary to point out that some embellishments are not appropriate to every situation," concedes Dr Stainthorp.

So what's so complicated?

Everyone agrees that letter formation, spacing and direction are the fundamental principles children must learn. But opinions vary as to the best way of teaching these skills. Some favour a visual approach, with children learning to copy by close attention to detail. Others lean towards cognitive methods, explaining handwriting as a code, or a series of conventions, which needs to be memorised. And some stress a kinaesthetic approach, with an emphasis on developing motor skills and practising patterns of movement. Almost all teachers, knowingly or unknowingly, will draw on all three strategies.

Not surprisingly, many teachers are daunted by the technicalities of teaching handwriting. A preliminary study of primary schools carried out by a team from the school of psychology and human development at the Institute of Education found only around one primary teacher in three had received instruction in teaching handwriting during initial teacher training. And while handwriting is now covered by the national literacy strategy (initially it was overlooked), there is still nothing like the wealth of material linked to reading.

Joined-up writing The national literacy strategy suggests most children should be using "legible, joined handwriting" by the end of Year 4. But the approach in the early years varies. Some schools say print script (separate letters) is easier for young children. But a growing number teach joined-up writing from the start, arguing that there is little point learning a skill only to unlearn it later on.

Dr Rosemary Sassoon, author of Handwriting: the way to teach it, says the debate about when and how to join is less important than the teaching of letter formation. "If children start and end letters in the correct places, with appropriate exit strokes, joining simply becomes a matter of moving from the end of one letter to the start of the next without lifting the pen."

But why should children be encouraged to join up, other than to stop their writing looking childish? Most experts insist a joined-up style is faster, although the research is far from conclusive; many children achieve impressive speeds while joining few if any of their letters.

Get a grip Learning to hold a pen is the first step towards learning to write. The conventional grip is the "dynamic tripod": the pen held between the pad of the thumb and index finger, and rested on the middle finger. But most children learn how to hold crayons before starting school, so may arrive with an unorthodox grip. This may not hinder them in the early stages, but there's a chance it will cause problems later on: 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys of school leaving age complain of suffering pain when writing quickly. "A conventional hold gives control and comfort," says Patricia Lovett. "If primary teachers want to see the problems caused by incorrect grips, they should go into an A-level exam room and look at the number of candidates flexing their arms and shaking their hands."

The dynamic tripod was designed for ink pens: today it's less straightforward. A ball-point, for example, works best at a different angle to a rollerball or a fibre-tip. Should children choose a grip to suit their pen, or a pen to suit their grip? And it's important to remember that the grip is just one part of the handwriting posture - the positions of the head, arm and wrist are also important.

A write way to spell?

Some experts argue that teaching spelling and handwriting together has a positive effect, as children find it easier to remember spellings if they can remember the movement of the hand in forming the word; hence the reason most people, when asked to spell a difficult word, prefer to write it down.

Janet Townend, head of training at the Dyslexia Institute, says this kind of multi-sensory approach is particularly helpful for dyslexic children. "Fluency of writing helps with fluency of spelling," she says.

"If children can see words on the page, feel them in their mouth and experience the movement of writing as well, that helps enormously with spelling." Other groups of children who find handwriting difficult, including those with developmental co-ordination disorder (often referred to as dyspraxia) or Asperger syndrome, or ADHD, may also benefit from a multi-sensory approach. But the important thing is to find ways to help individuals, which means watching how children write, as they write, not just looking at finished work.

Left out in the cold Left-handers make up around 15 per cent of the population, and learning to write presents them with particular challenges. At one time, many schools forced left-handed children to become right-handed, to avoid smudging as their hands moved across the page. Smudge-free pens have solved that problem and there are now pens designed specifically for left-handers. But they still face other difficulties. They may be short of elbow room if seated next to a right-hander, causing them to slant the paper or adopt a twisted posture to get a better view of what they're writing. And the left to right direction of English writing tends to be most comfortable for right-handed people. At least left-handers in the UK do not have to conform to a national model, and an understanding teacher who makes appropriate allowances will be able to prevent most potential problems.

Faster! Faster!

Is handwriting an art form, or merely a tool? Most experts agree that, historically, schools have put too much emphasis on the ability to write neatly, and too little on speed. "It needs to be legible," says Professor Henderson, "but beyond that there's rarely any need for something that looks beautiful."

One possible approach is to encourage children to develop a "fast-hand" for note-taking, and a "best-hand" for more formal writing. But perhaps most important is developing a hand that is legible and fast enough to meet the demands of the classroom - and the exam room. A 1998 study, The Role of Handwriting in Raising Achievement, carried out by a research team at Lord Williams's school in Thame, Oxfordshire, found a clear link between handwriting speed and exam success. For example, girls who didn't join their letters performed a grade worse in English GCSE than those deemed to have similar academic ability, but with a more fluent writing style.

How fast?

Some children eventually achieve speeds of up to 40 words a minute, though research carried out for the DfES in 2001 by Penny Allcock found that Year 11 students manage an average of just under 17 words a minute. Exam board guidance indicates that children who write fewer than 12.7 words a minute may be eligible for extra time in exams, while those who average fewer than 10 can request permission to dictate their answers to a scribe.

But experts argue that slower handwriting can affect quality as well as quantity. "It's not just about getting more down on paper," says Dr Stainthorp. "Children who write fluently and easily can concentrate more of their effort on the task in hand." Getting children to write quickly is largely a matter of ironing out technical problems and then practising, perhaps against the clock. But the on-going research at the Institute of Education suggests only around one in five primaries has an active approach to speeding up pupils' writing. A little-known bonus of learning to write quickly is that it may protect you against fraud: forensic handwriting experts claim that quickly produced writing is much more difficult to forge than slowly written script.

Neater! Neater!

In the exam room, speed may be of the essence, but beautiful handwriting has been valued since the middle ages, a tradition that continues. Many primary teachers report parents being particularly anxious for their children to have neat writing. "Sometimes it seems to matter more than whether they are actually learning anything," says one.

But tidy writing can have benefits in the classroom. Because handwriting is essentially a motor skill, those whose other literacy skills are less developed can still produce work which at least looks good. And that may be enough to help them remain positive about school. "Being able to write neatly gives children a buzz," says Dr Stainthorp. "It can boost their self-esteem."

It's helpful if teachers can set a good example when marking exercise books. Admittedly, this may not always be possible: a recent survey by printer manufacturer Lexmark concluded that teachers had the worst handwriting of any professional group, beating doctors into second place.

Giving pens the push?

Over the next few years the spread of affordable, easily portable word-processing systems will mean most of us use paper and pen less frequently. But handwriting is likely to remain a necessary skill: handwritten exams, for example, are far easier to administer and invigilate. And there will always be situations in which putting pen to paper remains the quickest, easiest and cheapest form of communication.

Far from worrying about the future of handwriting, many experts lament instead a failure to teach keyboard skills. "In the US and Australia, schools promote touch-typing at a young age," says Professor Henderson.

"Yet here, hardly any schools do. Perhaps, we still think of typing as a secretarial skill, but anyone using a computer needs good keyboard skills."

In the long-term, the biggest threat to the survival of handwriting - and typing - may be the development of voice-recognition technology, with computers turning speech into text. "You can never be certain about the future. People thought the typewriter would be the end of writing, but it wasn't," says Dr Rosemary Sassoon, "So we have to keep teaching handwriting."

Joined-up thinking Schools need to have a clear policy on handwriting, and to communicate with parents, and even prospective parents. Pushy mums and dads often start children writing at home, which can lead to the formation of bad habits even before a child gets to school. It's also useful to have a strategy for dealing with children arriving from several schools, each teaching a different model. And be aware that children who arrive from a foreign culture may face specific difficulties. Arabic writing, for example, goes from right to left, so children may have to learn a whole new direction in their writing.

A handwriting policy should also address issues such as the type of paper used. How large will each sheet be? Will it be plain, squared, or lined - and will it have sets of lines to help place ascenders and descenders? It's important, too, to have a range of desk sizes, so everyone can be in a comfortable writing position.

And it's not just primaries that need to give consideration to a handwriting policy: many pupils arrive at secondary school struggling to write quickly and neatly. Who will help them improve: the English department? A special needs teacher? Or the whole staff working across the curriculum?

A window on the soul?

Some companies employ graphologists to write character assessments of prospective employees, though most insist this is just a tiny part of the selection procedure. A quick glance at the job adverts in The TES reveals that many schools, particularly independents, still like teachers to submit a handwritten letter of application. "We don't sit down and analyse it," says one head. "But it's part of the overall impression we get of a candidate." There are even self-help books on the market that claim changing your handwriting can be the first step to a more dynamic and successful life. And handwriting can be one of the first indicators, not only of potential learning difficulties, but also of emotional problems.

"Handwriting is an imprint of the self on the page," says Dr Sassoon. "If someone is tense or unhappy, it will show in how they write."

Main text: Steven Hastings Photographs: Corbis Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Child protection

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