Help with handwriting

Introduction

What is meant by writing? Two things actually. The first is the manual skill required to form the letters and words on paper using a hand held writing implement. This is more correctly termed handwriting. The second is the process of producing a piece of text and relates to the content of the writing itself but not the mechanism of how it is physically produced. It is very important that these two aspects are not confused.

This article focuses on handwriting (a fine motor skill) rather than producing written work (an intellectual skill).

Drawing improves fine motor skills

Historical traditions and government imposed school curricula result in children being forced to write at school long before most of them have developed the fine motor skills required for writing. This explains why so many children experience difficulty in learning to write at school but this fact is rarely picked up on by teachers. Instead of allowing children to participate in activities that do not involve writing, teachers put extra pressure on children to try to make them write before they are able to do so.

The actual process of producing elegant handwriting is not an intellectual exercise, it is an artistic exercise and is therefore independent of a child's intellectual ability. Before a child is able to produce elegant handwriting, they must first be a competent artist. Children become competent by constant practice.

The state school system in Britain and many other countries does not take sufficient advantage of the enthusiasm that young children have for drawing. There is no reason why drawing should not represent the total work on paper by younger children - even up to the age of seven or eight. They have no real need to write prose, but if they are happy to draw pictures and are provided with regular opportunities to draw, then it will improve their fine motor skills making it easier for them to produce elegant handwriting in the future. Parents should not get too concerned that initially focusing effort on drawing rather than writing will be detrimental to their child's literacy. Many children are able to competently use computer keyboards before they have developed the fine motor skills for writing.

Learning to write

Children will eventually want to learn how to write their names and include short messages and captions on drawings. Contrary to popular belief, a child does not need to know how to read complete sentences in order to be able to write individual words. Most children will want to learn to write simply because they find it fun. This means that children who have been told that they have reading difficulties can learn to write in exactly the same way as children who are deemed to be good at reading.

If you are teaching your own children to write then the first task you should undertake is to improve your own handwriting. Select a round, flowing, and legible script and practise it until you can form the letters consistently, with minimal variation. When your children are ready to learn to write, start by writing the letters out in lines, leaving a space below for your children to copy them. Create lines of the same letters, lines of letter pairs, and lines of complete words. Do this for lower case, upper case, and mixed case text. If your children spend an hour a day on these exercises then they will be able to copy your handwriting with precision after about three to four weeks.

Children should be taught cursive writing from the outset. There is no good reason why children should initially be taught to write in non-joined-up lower-case letters (sometimes called printing, or ball and stick writing). It does not look attractive, and makes it more difficult to learn cursive writing in the future than if it were taught in the first place. It was common practice in Britain during the 1960s to 1980s to initially teach children to write in non-joined-up letters, and delay teaching cursive writing until the child had mastered writing in non-joined-up letters. This practice was criticised during the late 1980s because the transition from non-joined-up to cursive writing was painful and caused a lot of distress. Many children taught to write in non-joined-up letters never managed to master cursive writing and continue to write using non-joined-up letters as adults. Almost all British primary schools nowadays have reverted to teaching cursive writing from the outset and no longer teach children to write in non-joined-up letters. There is also a theory that joined up writing corresponds better with joined up thinking.

Encourage your children to experiment writing with a variety of different writing implements and let them use whichever they find the most comfortable, or consider the easiest to produce elegant handwriting with. Schools have a tendency to insist that all children write with the same implement (usually a cedarwood pencil in foundation and KS1, and either a fountain pen or a fibre-tipped Berol pen in KS2) regardless of whether individual children find them comfortable to use or easy to achieve elegant handwriting with. Teachers have even been known to refuse to allow children to write with a pen until they have mastered writing with a pencil, or have entered KS2. The choice of writing implement can make a dramatic impact on the quality of handwriting, and the implement preferred by one child may not be favoured by another child. There is nothing wrong with allowing your children to write with a biro if it happens to be their preferred writing implement.

Many parents are very nervous of teaching their children to write, but it is not difficult to teach them. Your children will find learning to write more enjoyable in the comfort of their own home with the one-to-one attention of a parent than in the impersonal atmosphere of a classroom. It makes absolutely no difference to them that a school teacher has a teaching qualification and their parents do not.

Writing exercises

Once your children have learnt the basics of writing they can improve and develop their handwriting skill through practice. This is best accomplished by copying out poems and texts. Copying lines of text out of books is often viewed as a somewhat inferior activity nowadays but its value depends on the quality of the subject material being copied and the care put into the handwriting. It also has an additional benefit of being a good way of acquiring a knowledge of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

The aim is to make the finished work as beautiful as possible. If your children wish, they can first write it out in pencil then go over it in ink. A finished page can be illustrated with a decorated border and text written in ink of different colours. Writing should never be treated as a utilitarian exercise. Once your children master a basic script they can experiment with calligraphy and writing in different styles such as italic, Gothic, etc. They will find that some writing implements work better for particular styles than others. Let them experiment and find what works best for them.

An emphasis should be placed on quality rather than quantity of handwritten work. Schools have a passion for making children produce large quantities of written work. Much of it is used for just one lesson or assignment and is never looked at again. The pressures of having to complete classwork within a short space of time has a detrimental affect on handwriting where children often compromise on quality in order to complete their work by the end of the lesson period. Instead of producing large volumes of low grade handwritten work, produce smaller volumes of higher quality work of which everyone is very proud.

Practical writing

Once your children are able to write complete sentences, then the focus shifts to what they will write and when they will write it.

It is wrong to force children to write things when they don't want to. Most people have bitter memories of writing assignments at school and the punishments for failing to write a certain number of words or lines, or complete their work by a certain time, or to use neat handwriting with an uncomfortable pen whilst under time pressure. Almost no system could be better designed to alienate children from handwriting. Writing is a form of self-expression just as much as speaking is, so no pressure needs be placed upon children to actually do it.

Parents must devote the time and effort to read and appreciate the work that their children show them. The important thing is that children write because they want to write. Providing they continue, their technique will inevitably improve.

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