Step in the write direction

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Martin Harvey looks at how improving children's handwriting can motivate them to learn.

When people see beautiful handwriting their reactions are fascinating. Some stare, slightly open mouthed, gently nudging fellow observers, whispering in admiration. More than once I have been asked if I copy out children's writing myself before it is displayed.

A group of visiting teachers from Macedonia thought a piece of work had been done on a word processor, using a font they had not seen before. I assured them it was produced by child's hand.

"But look at the 'e's. They are all identical," exclaimed one of the teachers incredulously. "And each letter 's' is exactly the same!" Handwriting has not been made obsolete by wordprocessing. The two methods exist side-by-side.

My own programme of daily lessons lasts less than six weeks. At the end, letters are well formed, joined and of the correct size. Each lesson only lasts between 15 and 20 minutes. Little and often is the key. I use a blackboard as a magnified line guide, ruling lines, which represent the narrow and broad bands on an A4 line-guide. I demonstrate what I want the children to practise - a single upper- or lower-case letter, straight lines of different lengths or a pair of joined letters. I write slowly, speaking continually so they receive both oral and visual messages; instructing them where to begin in relation to the line guide; exactly where to move the pen or pencil, with constant reminders about the size of small, tall and tail letters.

The constant bombardment of appropriate language is vital. Each short practice should last no more than two minutes and, while the children are writing, the teachr should be moving constantly, assessing where help is required, offering individual advice and praise in full ear-shot of the rest of the class to re-inforce teaching points and good practice. I visit each child during a lesson so they feel fully supported. When necessary, I make further demonstrations in children's practice books - something I rarely do in other subject areas, but with handwriting it is a legitimate and effective tactic.

There are many important jigsaw pieces to fit in place, such as writing tools and body posture, but within a school, uniformity in approach and expectation are important so teachers build on previous good working habits.

If taught effectively, handwriting is where children see the biggest change and fastest improvement in their work. It is progress they are able to see, feel and enjoy. So my first priority, with a new class, is to establish good handwriting.

One pupil, Jagtar, started the term apathetic and poorly motivated. It was about 8.40am and a wet start to the day had brought him into the classroom with a group of other early arrivals.

"Can I finish off the writing we started yesterday?" he asked.

" Of course you can, Jagtar - if you want to," I replied.

He beamed at me, grasping his pen in readiness.

"I don't recognise my writing. It's miles better than it used to be," he said.

When handwriting is taught well, children's self-esteem and motivation levels rise, helping improve their attitude to other subjects. It also encourages pride, concentration, and perseverance. Good handwriting gives a favourable impression. We must teach children that it is respected and that it really matters.

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