Many ancient peoples thought that writing was a form of magic. By the 1980s some of that magic was missing because the balance between discipline and diversity in handwriting had slipped. A century that started with too much emphasis on the discipline of copperplate was in danger of ending with so much illusory freedom that the only writing implement to produce a legible output was the computer.
Now, in the 1990s, things seem to be different: the need to teach handwriting is acknowledged and it is recognised that the word processor complements rather than replaces the pen.
The change in mood was reflected in the enthusiastic response of the teachers on the Cheshire Writing Research Group when we suggested that they produce materials on handwriting. These have now been published by the education authority in a booklet, The Dance of The Pen, which we have edited, along with our colleague Sally Potter.
The booklet includes specific guidance for teachers and examples which emphasise the need to pay proper attention to children's overall development as writers and hand writers.
The materials call for a consistent approach to the teaching of handwriting in every school. Children will develop a mature handwriting style only if they have been well taught. Some handwriting styles are better than others.
Handwriting is a craft which is part of the art of writing and which helps to ensure that children's words and responses are valued. Teachers do not have to choose between competence and creativity in handwriting; they reinforce each other.
All schools need a policy for handwriting to serve as a reference point for staff, governors and parents. Consistency in approach is crucial, not least because the Office for Standards in Education will expect it, and the booklet offers ways of coping in the classroom. For example, older primary children might benefit from whole class handwriting lessons, with the teacher demonstrating proper letter formations and ligatures. Whatever the age of the pupils, "a little and often" is the best way to ensure sufficient practice.
The book suggests ways of involving parents and producing guidance to help them support their children. We point to the dangers of overemphasising the appearance of writing at the expense of its content.
There need be no conflict between a view of children as emergent writers and as emergent handwriters. In its sections on early writing development, the booklet's suggestions build upon the knowledge that children already have of how the handwriting system works.
Whatever handwriting style is taught, it should be based upon the natural movement of the hand. The pen or pencil should be in a comfortable grip, allowing an easy rhythmic movement to develop as children become confident in the formation of letters and words.
The booklet also includes detailed guidance on posture and pencil hold for both right-handed and left-handed children.
Very young children should be taught a model which they can use for the rest of their lives, a model which evolves into a mature cursive style which is both legible and capable of being written at speed. When such an approach is used and the flowing hand "feeds the pattern", the words are seen as units and this helps with spelling.
Charles Cripps' view that spelling and handwriting should be taught together is supported and illustrated. When common letter strings are practised for handwriting then children are effectively learning how to spell.
The new English national curriculum Order requires handwriting to "be joined and legible" at level 3. Children will find this difficult to achieve unless they have been taught letter shapes which lead naturally into "joining" from the beginning, so that they do not have to adapt or even "unlearn" previously acquired letter forms.
We hope that our document, drawn from experience, will not be seen just as a response to the new national curriculum requirements.
The Dance of the Pen, Pounds 10.99 from the Cheshire Unit for Pupil Assessment, Tarvin Meadow Professional Centre, Meadow Close, Tarvin, Cheshire CH3 8LY.
Paul Ansell is Cheshire's county primary assessment co-ordinator and Gaynor Kitchener is the county's assessment co-ordinator for English.