I worked as a teacher and leader in further and higher education for 40 years. On retirement, I was drawn into the world of primary learning and education.
When my grandsons started school, he came home in his first term and told me: "I am a bit scared of phonics." This was a child who loved being read to several times a day – his wish to "get this reading thing right" led him to engage with courage and determination.
And yet phonics challenged him. I think the cause of frustration centred around the fact that phonics only help you read certain words – the rules didn't apply to many of the words he wanted to read. Personally, I do see the advantages of phonics and although I don’t think it should be the only approach, I can see its attraction.
It's the approach to writing that really winds me up.
Hard to understand
The national curriculum for key stage 1 states that on two occasions "understanding that letters on the page represent the sounds in spoken words should underpin pupils' reading and spelling of all words". It seems to me that consistency in the shape of these letters on the page will assist not only reading and spelling, but also duplicating them when writing.
Examine the writing in any children’s books, adult books, newspapers, websites – and indeed the Ofsted publications on writing at KS1 – and you will find consistency: some slight variation in fonts and size, but pretty consistent.
This is great, but it's also why I find it so hard to understand why children "should be taught to write with a joined-up style as soon as they can form letters securely with the correct orientation".
This joined-up writing requires a high level of fine motor skills that most children in these early stages find incredibly challenging and distracting from the main tasks of reading, writing and spelling. They do not see joined-up writing reflected in any written prose they are presented with unless it is purely contrived by teachers told to teach joined-up writing. Thanks to the dominance of technology, most of us rarely write extensively with a pen or pencil.
When did you develop your joined-up writing? It used to be in early teenage when developing your ‘grown-up identity’, not between the ages of 4 and 6. I doubt that practicing your signature is such a preoccupation for today’s teenagers when social media seems more relevant.
Do today’s children really need to develop joined-up writing? When do you see or use it today? I received a text from HM Passport Office today telling me to sign my new passport when it arrives. This will be the first piece of joined-up writing I'll have done in a long time. Perhaps we could require children to develop a signature as part of citizenship?
The distal joint of the first finger on my right hand is swollen and distorted from 60 years of using a pen for joined-up writing. This is unlikely to be a complaint for future generations.
Reducing the content of the National Curriculum is always a contentious challenge but surely joined-up writing could be given a miss?
Sue Crowley is a former teacher and former chair at the Institute of Learning