Not right

13th January 2006 at 00:00
The way schools treated left- handed people in the past meant many of the 11% with this bias suppressed it. But has the change of attitudes gone far enough, asks Dorothy Lepkowska

They used to be branded as anti-social, mentally defective and even backward. Some teachers believed their behaviour to be deliberately obstinate. As recently as 50 years ago their arms might have been tied behind their back, or they were slapped with a ruler, for refusing to co-operate in class, making them feel ashamed and inadequate.

Yet these were not children with emotional or behaviour problems, and they did not have special needs in the way we understand the term today. They were merely left-handed.

It is only relatively recently that children have been allowed to write with their preferred hand. A change in attitudes came about in the late 1950s when there was a belief that forcing left-handers to write with their right hand could result in stuttering - a stigma considered to be even worse than being left-handed.

However, decades later and with an estimated 11 per cent of the population naturally left-handed, many children may still face difficulties in school.

Lauren Milsom, co-founder of the Left-Handers Club, the largest association of its kind in Europe, has been campaigning for left-handedness to be studied by all students enrolled on teacher-training courses.

"Worryingly," she says, "there is little or no formal training in colleges, and teachers may not understand the difficulties unless they are left-handed themselves.

"From the moment a left-handed child is able to explore his environment he will find that toys, clothing and tools have a right-handed bias, and their early development will be in learning to adapt and find an efficient method of making things work.

"Teachers should treat left-handed children with patience and understanding as they are working against their natural instincts."

Difficulties can occur in virtually every subject. When writing, left-handers often smudge their work or have difficulty with grip while holding pens and pencils.

Schools may be well equipped for practical subjects but rarely think of supplying tools for left-handers. Equipment used in design and technology lessons nearly always has a right-handed bias, so extra care should be taken when pupils use it for the first time.

Even the most modern technology can pose problems. Computer keyboards, for example, have number pads on the right when most left-handers would be able to work more quickly and accurately if they were located on the left.

Research carried out at Reading university of 260 teachers in Manchester, who taught between them more than 6,000 children, found that 83 per cent had checked the handedness of their pupils, while 6 per cent had not.

However, although the majority recognised potential problems with left-handedness, these were not central to their classroom practices. Only 27 per cent ensured that left-handers sat on the left side when seated beside a right-hander, and only 10 per cent of teachers placed a mouse on the left side for left-handed users.

Fewer than a quarter reported having a specific policy for teaching handwriting to left-handed pupils; only 13 per cent said they gave left-handers specific handwriting instruction.

"Teachers should not rely on children to bring problems to their attention," says Ms Milsom. "Left-handed children may be embarrassed by their difficulties, and are often dismissed as just being clumsy."

However, there are areas where left-handers excel, notably in sport and the creative arts.

"This is often said to be due to a heightened sense of spatial awareness and imagination, but also because of the need for adaptability," Ms Milsom adds.

"Naturally any such talents must be cultivated and may provide much needed confidence.

"It is important to stress that left-handedness is not in any way a disability and if teachers are aware of the potential trouble spots, they can be avoided from the outset, enabling the child to become a positive, confident and valued member of the class."

* More information and teaching resources for the left-handed are available from: www.anythingleft-handed.co.uk

HELPING LEFT-HANDERS WRITE

Many of the problems left-handed children have when learning to write can be easily overcome:

* The child should hold the pencil at least 2cm from the tip so they do not obscure their writing

* Younger children should use a soft pencil, which does not stick or tear the paper. Older pupils should experiment with pens that flow smoothly across the page.

* Paper should be placed to the left of the body and tilted clockwise at the top to a maximum of 45 degrees. This will bring the hand to the correct writing position

* Left-handed children should be seated on the left side of a double desk, to avoid their elbows clashing with a right-hander sharing the tabledesk.

* Make sure they can see the board without turning around

* Encourage use of pencil or pen grips, moulded to fit the shape of thumb and fingers.

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