Put it in writing

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Michael Thorn reviews materials that develop primary writing and reading skills

PENPALS FOR HANDWRITING. Foundation 1 Teacher's Book with CD pound;24.99. Foundation 2 Practice Books 1 amp; 2 pound;9.95 each (pack of 10). Foundation 2 - Year 4 Big Books pound;29.95 each (1 per year). Foundation 2 - Year 56 Teacher's Books pound;19.95 each (1 per year). Years 1-4 Practice Book. pound;4.75 each (1 per year). Year 56 OHTs pound;54.95. Cambridge University Press Tel: 01223 326050

A recent scrutiny of writing at my school showed that, particularly in lower KS2, regular handwriting practice was being squeezed by the demands of a crowded timetable. Few teachers would take issue with the opening sentence of the "Penpals rationale", included in each of the teacher's books: "Even in this technological computer-literate age, good handwriting remains fundamental to our children's educational achievement."

What many teachers have a problem with, however, is the over-fussy, over-prescriptive nature of some handwriting schemes. While being highly systematic about the progressive introduction of letter-joins, Penpals takes a refreshingly relaxed view of style development. This is not a scheme that will create a school of handwriting clones. As Rosemary Sassoon says in the Year 56 teacher's book, with reference to the typefaces used in the scheme: "It matters little if the slant or proportions of a child's writing differ slightly from any model. We are not teaching children to be forgers."

The materials for most year groups consist of a laminated big book that can be traced over and written on with dry-wipe pens, a teacher's book and pupil practice books. At Year 56 (these two year groups are treated as a whole) the big book is replaced by a ring-binder of OHP laminates. The foundation stage has two separate teacher's books, the first accompanied by an audio CD, the second by a big book and two sets of consumable pupil practice books. The desirability of linking preparation for handwriting to music, art and movement, and not rushing too quickly into formal worksheet-based handwriting practice is well-addressed by the Penpals scheme. "In this respect," says Sue Palmer, one of the scheme's consultants, "the practical suggestions in Penpals: Foundation 2 are the best materials I have ever come across."

The teacher's books each include: an overview of the scheme; a useful "Information for parents" sheet; detailed lesson plans with ideas for kinaesthetic warm-up; how to use the relevant big book and practice book pages; common errors to look out for; and suggestions for reinforcement or home practice.

As with any well-resourced whole-school scheme the cost of introducing it across the board would be substantial. At pound;4.75 each, a class set of pupil practice books represents the most significant expense. It is the teacher's books and big books that really drive the scheme, so that it would be just about viable to acquire Penpals for less than pound;50 per year-group, introducing the practice books as and when the budget allows.

Alternatively, the scheme could be fully implemented in a couple of year groups at a time, on a rolling programme. At any rate, this is a resource that any school floundering in a handwriting free-for-all-zone would be well advised to consider.

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