Education: Joined-up writing isn't just for the big kids any more: Orthodoxy is being abandoned to encourage fluency before neatness, says Diana Hinds

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The Independent Online
A HOST of curved hooks and tails is appearing around the walls of infants' classrooms. In some places you might even see, in careful pencil, the first spidery attempts of five- and six-year- olds to produce joined-up writing.

These are the signs of a quiet revolution in the way handwriting is being taught in schools. Since the Sixties the prevailing orthodoxy has been that five-year-olds should start by printing their letters - the 'ball and stick' approach to handwriting. Children are not usually introduced to joined-up, or cursive, script until the age of eight.

The National Curriculum Council, along with a gathering group of researchers, favours change. Its new proposals for English, being considered by ministers, say children should be joining letters by the age of six to seven. By about eight they should be producing 'increasingly controlled and fluent joined-up writing'. At 11 they should have a mastery of different forms of handwriting for different purposes - print for labelling maps or diagrams, a clear, neat joined-up hand for finished work, and a faster script for notes.

Sylvia Karavis, a primary adviser for English in Oxfordshire, says one of the problems of introducing joined-up handwriting later is that it does not give children enough time to develop a comfortable, fluent hand. 'They would produce beautifully presented work at junior school, but many of them reverted to print at secondary school because they could not do joined-up fast enough.'

Teaching younger children to join up their writing is becoming increasingly popular. 'Teachers are beginning to look at it because of the national curriculum requirements, because of what is now known about the links between good handwriting and good spelling, and also because it makes sense,' says Ms Karavis.

Park Mead County First School at Cranleigh, Surrey, introduced joined- up writing for its youngest children 18 months ago after Linda McWalter, the headteacher, heard enthusiastic reports from other heads. Park Mead children start by copying their first sentences from the teacher in joined- up writing, as well as learning how to form individual letters and practising handwriting patterns to develop hand movement.

'It is definitely beneficial,' says Mrs McWalter. 'By the time they are six most of them are writing quite fluently with a joined hand. It helps their spelling, too.

'We teach spelling and handwriting together and the children practise different letter combinations when they do handwriting practice.'

She thinks the new approach will also improve writing quality. 'Before, they had to relearn handwriting at eight and this was very disruptive. It limited the content of their writing.'

Schemes that teach children to join their letters from the outset are still in their trial stages and do not find favour everywhere. But many primary schools are moving away from the old 'ball and stick' print, and teaching children to form their letters with the flicks or hooks (exit strokes) needed for joined-up writing so that they then move on to cursive script with relative ease.

Rosemary Sassoon, author of two influential books (Handwriting: the Way to Teach It and Handwriting: a New Perspective, Stanley Thornes), is a passionate opponent of print script: 'Straight lines are destructive because they are too abrupt - writing is all to do with the hand, and you have to train the hand to move. Often the children who have the most difficulty with joined-up are the ones who did the best print script at seven - they can't relax their hands, and they worry too much about neatness.'

While neat presentation is important, Dr Sassoon says it must be balanced by learning about how to move the hand. Children should first master the correct movement for individual letters with their 'exit strokes' and then start to join them as soon as possible. Early joined-up writing may not be quite as tidy as print, but it pays greater dividends later on. 'We are battling against the concept of neatness,' she says.

Another vexed question is at what stage children should graduate from pencil to a potentially messy pen. Traditionally, pens have been introduced a year or two after starting joined-up, provided the children have reached a reasonable standard.

But Ms Karavis advocates a more liberal approach: 'Pencil is obviously good for writing, particularly for young children, because you need to get a bite on the paper. But I think children should also have access to all sorts of writing implements from the word go.'

Some schools follow particular handwriting styles and a few still teach italic writing - which suits some people better than others. Dr Sassoon believes it is more important to teach word spacing and height differences between letters, and then leave the development of style to each individual - even if the result is writing that slants backwards. 'Handwriting is yourself on paper. Today's school-leavers need a fast, legible hand, and I would define good handwriting as writing that is consistent and natural for that person - which could be anything from a fat, round hand to an oval, slanting one.'