Clearly, the instruments that children hold in their hands are important. We tend to think of the pencil as being the starting point, but the first stages may need no implement at all. As Shirley Bracegirdle, head of Camp Hill Nursery in Nuneaton, explains, the aim in pre-school is simply to encourage children to make marks, and to help them realise that these marks can have meaning.
She encourages children to use "a finger on a misted window, fingers in wet sand, or in wallpaper paste spread on a table top. I remember some children dropping their dinner and making marks in the gravy. We had to tell them not to do it, but the teacher inside me screamed 'Don't stop them! The need to write is on them!' "
She uses conventional tools as well. "Pencils, crayons, charcoal, chalk, felt-tip pens, whatever - the most important thing is helping them to feel it's a worthwhile thing to do. And budgets are tight in this sector, so anything I buy has to serve many purposes."
But the pencil is the basic learning tool. It's attractive because as it moves across the paper it provides just the right sort of resistance to promote confidence and control.
The step up to a pen is an important one. Once the stark choice was between nibbed pens and ball-points, but teachers quickly took against ball-points for learners, partly because early models had to be held almost at right angles to the paper, thus encouraging a faulty grip, and partly because the easy movement meant a loss of fine control. Consequently, many teachers have fought a long battle to retain ink pens.
The arrival in the late Seventies of the more movement-resistant porous plastic tip made a huge difference. for many primaries this kind of pen is now basic equipment, or they at least use them for an intermediate stage between pencil and ink.
What are the best pens and pencils for learning to write? The TES asked Susan Lees, head of Abbey First School, Nuneaton, and two of her staff - Carol Clarke, reception teacher, and Pat Steward, Year 3 teacher, - to consider a selection from the leading educational suppliers. They were joined by handwriting specialist Veronica Moore.
Value for money was an important issue. Budgets are tight and, in common with many schools, Abbey has tried various cheap pencils. But they have turned out to be poor quality, sub-standard leads and wood which will not allow easy sharpening. "In the end we've ended up spending more," said Susan Lees.
All the teachers fell on Staedtler's yellow-and-black Noris pencils, with approval based on familiarity. "This is the one!" said Susan Lees. "They're tried and tested."
They were also impressed by Berol's Eagle pencils made from recycled materials - simply labelled Recycled Pencil - and by the denim-coloured Jeans Pencil, made from waste denim fragments. This feels like an ordinary wooden pencil but looks like blue-flecked denim throughout. It even gets a frayed fringe when you sharpen the lead point. They liked the quality, the built-in eraser - and the recycling.
There is an assumption that young children need a larger diameter pencil and perhaps one which is triangular in section rather than circular or hexagonal. As well as its very thick Kiddi Black Elefant pencil, Staedtler has a plain yellow Handwriting Pencil, a little wider in diameter than standard, but with a standard lead. "It's a good idea, and better for reception," said Carol Clarke.
Berol's Hand Hugger range has triangular pencils and pens too.
The teachers felt the pencils would help young learners and older children with special needs. They also liked the triangular Writestart pencils from LDA, approving particularly of the Slimline version. All agreed these pencils offered a range of possibilities for individual children. The children at Abbey confirmed the need for variety. The two I consulted had very definite - and different - preferences. Eight-year-old Shaun Raynor, for example, liked the Hand Hugger - "it's very comfortable" - while Amy McKeown, also eight, preferred the Staedtler Noris pencil: "This one writes neatly."
Individual needs can be met by adding shaped plastic pencil grips such as the ones from LDA. Carol Clarke uses them in Abbey First's Reception.
"We put them on to help individual children who seem to be having lots of problems." They come in a variety of textures and shapes.
PENsThe clear favourite among the pens was Berol's familiar plastic-tipped Handwriting Pen which has been around since 1980.
They were not so familiar with the same company's My First Pen which is similar but has a slightly thicker and more robust tip, but they certainly approved of it.
The teachers were careful to differentiate between products which they personally admired and those which they felt suitable for children. They all liked Staedtler's Handwriting Pen for its appearance and writing quality - "but I wouldn't give it to children," said Veronica Moore. They all felt that its thinner barrel was less suitable, and that it perhaps made too fine a line.
I found this difference imperceptible, and I suspect that Berol is reaping the reward of having a long-standing, economical and reliable product which has become standard. The Berol pen looks very basic - a simple cylinder with a push-on cap and no pocket clip - but it is cheap, writes well and has lots of ink.
Staedtler's Handwriting Pen is more expensive than Berol's - and looks it. Platignum also sells a Handwriter pen, and the teachers felt it not to be as good as Berol's. Again, this judgment might have been based on familiarity with the Berol. Any school thinking of investing in plastic-tipped handwriting pens would do well to trial extensively. Reputable suppliers should provide samples and talk to schools about their requirements.
Veronica Moore has always taken on children who have arrived from their first schools writing in pencil. "Within a fortnight we get them on to the Berol Handwriting Pen. Then after a term or so we get them on to fountain pens. We don't sell them ourselves any more but we always say buy a good one, a Parker for example, and we specify a medium nib - left-handed where appropriate. This might cost about Pounds 4."
She had a look at Platignum's classroom cartridge pen which is sold exclusively to the education market. It looks quite unlike an ordinary fountain pen, having a long "tail" like a traditional dip pen. "We tried these years ago," she commented. "They were really excellent."
Platignum also supplies a standard junior cartridge pen which is better and no more expensive (at educational prices) than a cheap product from the high street.
Some handwriting teachers regret the passing of sloping desks, and advocate using a portable sloping surface. The Write Angle in the LDA catalogue has non-slip feet. and costs Pounds 27.95. A simpler, but effective writing slope is marketed by handwriting consultant Prue Wallis Myers at Pounds 8. She has a price list of publications and handwriting aids, and also offers consultancy (see box left).
Basic triangular grip Pounds 2.95 for 10, Pounds 25 per 100. There are four other grips in various shapes and textures. Most expensive is the Deluxe Grip, soft and comfortable, at Pounds 4.95 for 10, Pounds 45 per 100. Sampler pack with two of each grip, Pounds 6. Writestart Pencils Pounds 7.20 per 12 dozen (gross). Writestart Slimline Pencils Pounds 27 per 12 dozen. LDA - Living and Learning Ltd, Abbeygate House, East Road, Cambridge CB1 1DB. Tel: 01223 357788; fax 01223 460557.
Handwriting Pen Pounds 2.99 per dozen. Pounds 10.45 per tub of 42. My First Pen Pounds 3.15 per dozen. Pounds 11 per tub of 42.
Hand Huggers triangular pencils Pounds 4.24 per dozen. Pounds 18.99 tub of 60.
Hand Hugger writing pens (like the Handwriting Pen, but triangular in section) Pounds 4.50 per dozen. Pounds 12.50 tub of 36. Other Hand Hugger products include colouring pencils and pens.
Eagle Recycled pencils (made from recycled school dinner trays mixed with sawdust). Twelve dozen Pounds 9.95. Eagle Jeans pencils (recycled blue denim). Tub of 48 Pounds 6.95. Berol's range includes standard wood pencils, and an enormous range of other pens, pencils, crayons and markers.
Berol Ltd, Oldmedow Road, King's Lynn, Norfolk PE30 4JR. Tel: 01553 761221; fax 01553 766534.
Staedtler is the biggest UK pencil manufacturer - it sells more than 79 million a year in this country. Its familiar yell-ow-and-black Noris pencil sells to education at about 80p per dozen. The plain yellow Noris Handwriting pencil is Pounds 1.45 a dozen.
The Kiddi Black Elefant - very thick lead, chunky wood - is Pounds 4.80 a dozen.The Staedtler Handwriting Pen sells to education at about Pounds 3 for 10. Staedtler UK, Pontyclun, Mid Glamorgan CF72 8YJ. Tel: 01443 237421; fax 01443 237440.
Junior Cartridge pen Pounds 1.29 each. Handwriter 14p each. School Cartridge Pen about 45p (but see suppliers' catalogues). Cartridges about 5p each. Platignum, 20 Greenfield, Royston, Herts. Tel: 01763 244133; fax 01763 247742.
Crayola is the biggest player in the wax crayon business. Older children use them in art, but in pre-school they are used for "pre-writing". For this purpose, children need a choice of sizes and colours, and the Crayola range is enormous. Typical prices to education - a pack of 288 assorted crayons, Pounds 6.50, 144 giant crayons, Pounds 8.22.
From Binney and Smith (Europe) Ltd. Ampthill Road, Bedford MK42 9RS.
Tel: 01234 360201; fax 01234 342110.
Consultancy and in-service training
Prue Wallis Myers, 2 Richmond Court, Richmond Road, Bowdon, Altrincham WA14 2TZ. Tel: 0161 928 1926.
Dr Jean Alston, who also has a price list of publications and writing aids, 7 Harrington Drive, Gawsworth, Macclesfield SK11 9RD. Tel: 01625 428113.
INSET is also available from Berol. "Focus on Handwriting" costs Pounds 275 for a full day, Pounds 99 for a twilight session. Phone or write to Berol.
The Handwriting Interest Group runs courses and publishes materials. Membership is open to individuals or schools. Contact: Felicitie Barnes, 6 Fyfield Road, Ongar, Essex CM5 0AH.