Josephine Gardiner looks at why the teaching of writing skills could benefit from some French flair
Most people will be familiar with the following scenario. An official is taking down your details, perhaps for a mortgage, a credit agreement or market research. You watch in exasperated patience as he or she laboriously fills in the form with agonising slowness, using cumbersome, rounded, childish lettering. These scribes may be bright and conscientious, but it is impossible not to wonder how they ever managed to write more than a few lines in examinations, and how much further they would have got in life if they could write fluently and quickly.
In this country, handwriting is a long way down most teachers' list of priorities, a mere mechanical skill trailing in the wake of reading, comprehension and creative writing. The national curriculum places it last in the English order. In France, by contrast, handwriting, particularly flowing joined-up handwriting, is considered fundamental, a physical skill that, once mastered, unlocks the mind.
The difference struck English infant school teacher Fiona Thomas so forcibly that she decided to experiment with the French method on her own pupils at Herne infants school in Herne Bay, Kent, using a research grant provided by the Teacher Training Agency. "The results have delighted and amazed teachers at my school," she says. "It is as though, having automated the hand, children's minds are liberated to release their ideas more efficiently and creatively on paper."
Two years ago, Fiona Thomas became more aware of concern in her own school about writing policy, and of national dissatisfaction at secondary level about the lack of speed and legibility in examination papers. She had also been inspired by reading some thank-you letters written by six and seven-year-old French children.
"How, I wondered, had such beautiful writing been achieved?" Visits to schools in northern France revealed a shared commitment to the importance of "Le Graphisme" (loosely translatable as the graphic act or mastery of the pen), and a national style of lettering unchanged for decades.
Teaching handwriting in France is a long process which begins when most (98 per cent) start school at the age of three, and continues until they are eight or nine. Fiona Thomas found several key differences between the English and French approaches. First, writing in general takes precedence over reading in France because writing is considered more demanding.
The French teachers Ms Thomas interviewed were able to quote several handwriting researchers, the result of training, but the English teachers questioned were unable to identify any, apart from two who mentioned Rosemary Sassoon, a handwriting expert who underlined the lack of proper teaching of joined-up writing in 1983.
The lack of a nationally agreed style of handwriting was seen as a problem by the English teachers. Handwriting is barely touched on in many training courses, although the new national curriculum for teacher training gives it explicit mention.
While there is no nationally accepted or decreed way of teaching infants handwriting, the "ball-and-stick" print script (see left) is still the predominant method taught here, Ms Thomas says. She found that special-needs teachers felt that the script - a rounded, upright style of lower-case printing without ligatures (tails) - could be contributing to motor-control problems.
They spoke of helping nine-year-olds who had never managed the transition to joined writing because each "ball-and-stick" letter is formed separately and does not allow for any natural progression into joined writing. This point was echoed by a teacher in France who said: "It's not a good idea to let young children do too much printing. It causes 'segmentation' which makes the muscles stiffen up rather than letting a nice flowing rhythm develop."
Fiona Thomas goes further and asks whether there is any overwhelming reason why children should learn to print before joining the letters. The persistent influence of the ball-and-stick method can still be seen in adults' writing in this country.
She says that "in the rush to hurry young children into independent writing from the reception class on, we are actually denying them the handwriting skills needed to liberate their creative expression".
There are, of course, foreseeable objections to a concentration on handwriting - the most obvious being the potentially inhibiting effect of a rigid emphasis on neatness and uniformity. French adults' handwriting certainly tends to be less variable than English. Also, the increasing use of computers in education will gradually make handwriting less relevant in terms of style and speed. But Ms Thomas says that her colleagues have been so impressed by the results that none of them wants to move to schools that use conventional methods.
Her findings were broadly supported by Dr Sheila Henderson, chair of the Handwriting Interest Group. She said there are signs of rebellion against the ball-and-stick method, although a fully-looped cursive Continental style could also be very complex and slow down children. "The important thing is that children should be taught early on that letters should join up."
The Handwriting Interest group publishes a journal. Contact Dr Sheila Henderson, Psychology and Special Needs, London University Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London WC1. Fiona Thomas's work was one of the Teacher Training Agency's teacher research projects. Contact the TTA (O171-925 3700) for details.