Plenty of practice is the key to clear, fluent writing, says Suzanne Tiburtius
The national literacy strategy suggests most children should be completing their work in legible, joined handwriting by the end of Year 4. For the vast majority of children this is not an unreasonable expectation.
Most children acquire the movement skills they need to write with ease, but a few find handwriting an uphill struggle.
Among this group will be children with overt physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, as well as children with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and Asperger syndrome. Children with emotional and behavioural problems are rarely good writers, since they find it hard to engage with tasks that demand sustained concentration.
These children need the same teaching as their classmates: an approach that teaches handwriting through movement, by demonstration, explanation and lots of hands-on practice - not by copying.
Those with difficulty are likely to need more time for practice at each stage before they move on. They will also benefit from praise and encouragement.
Remember that difficulty with handwriting will not only influence academic attainment but may affect self esteem and emotional well-being.
In order to ensure all pupils are taught consistently and correctly it is essential to have an effective school policy. This means all staff, including newly qualified teachers (who may have seen little mention of handwriting during their training) and teaching assistants should have a coherent approach to teaching handwriting.
The decision to develop or review the present school policy for handwriting will raise awareness and create an ideal opportunity to ensure that children with difficulties are catered for.
READY TO WRITE
Some children come into reception ready to learn to write. In pre-school activities they will have developed the postural control, perceptual ability, hand-eye co-ordination, and finger strength and dexterity needed for handwriting.
Others may be less mature or less well prepared to learn how to form letters at this stage. These children need plenty of opportunity to use their hands and fingers, to model with modelling clay, thread beads, draw, paint, play with sand, cut with scissors, scribble, trace letters and use pencils and crayons. It would be a mistake to try to teach letter formation to a child who is obviously not yet ready.
CORRECT LETTER FORMATION
The first essential when beginning to teach handwriting is the correct formation of letters. Without this, it will not be possible for children to write in a smooth sequence from left to right, and later to join letters.
It is a mistake to allow children to make up their own ways of forming letters, even if the letters look as they should. The more often a letter is written using the wrong movement, the more firmly it will be established in the movement memory and the more difficult it will be to correct later.
Since handwriting is a movement skill, the letters of the alphabet should be taught in groups, teaching those letters with similar movement pathways together. This cuts down the teaching load and enables the basic hand movements to be practised until they become automatic. For example, the letters c, a, d, g, q, and o should be taught in sequence as they all begin with the rounded c shape.
A good explanation of this approach can be found in the national literacy strategy booklet Developing Early Writing (Ref. DfES 00552001 pages 148-163), available from the DfES (call 0845 6022260 or go to www.dfes.gov.uk). This publication contains a wealth of sensible handwriting advice.
Research on handwriting does not offer clear guidelines as to when schools should begin to teach the joining of letters. However, before doing so it is advisable to assess all pupils to ensure they are consistently forming letters correctly.
The joins from and to all the letters will need to be taught and practised, and the children should be encouraged to put the new skill into practice gradually until they are using joined writing as a matter of course.
Failure to use the joined writing they have learned will mean pupils will not get enough practice to ensure their writing is fluent and becomes an automatic skill. Teaching joining too late or simply accepting that some pupils continue printing after they are able to join are the most common reasons for children reverting to print script, with a consequent loss of speed and fluency when they enter secondary school.
When pupils begin secondary school they will be expected to write legibly, sometimes at length and reasonably quickly.
Unfortunately, some pupils, and this may include very bright children, will be unable to do this, and may find that illegible or slow handwriting hampers their progress throughout secondary school if they are not given prompt help. This should take place early in Year 7, where their difficulties can be assessed and a structured teaching programme provided.
These pupils should not be asked to write or copy at great length or at speed. If possible, an adult might scribe part of the written task, at least initially.
For a few pupils the task of learning to write well enough to succeed in school may prove impossible, and a laptop computer may be needed. However, a laptop is not a panacea, and needs careful management if it is to help.
Arrangements need to be made for keeping it safe and printing work. The pupil will also need keyboard skills - one-finger hunt-and-peck is not adequate.
It is a mistake to write adverse comments on the work of pupils who consistently write badly, as this probably means they are unable to write any differently.
Children with handwriting difficulties need prompt, effective help and encouragement rather than criticism. A young person who leaves school without the ability to communicate legibly in writing is under a considerable social and practical disadvantage.
Handwriting: a teacher's guide, by Jane Taylor (David Fulton)
Handwriting: the way to teach it, by Rosemary Sassoon (Paul Chapman)
Handwriting in the Secondary School: not a secondary skill and Which Handwriting Scheme? (a review of available publications) are published by the Handwriting Interest Group
Suzanne Tiburtius is the information officer for the National Handwriting Association (formerly the Handwriting Interest Group) www.nha-handwriting.org.uk