Joined-up letters, at a stroke

How they teach... handwriting; In our monthly series, Diana Hinds visits three schools where children learn the art of writing

Otford County Primary School

Otford, Kent

For the children of , learning the correct way to form their letters begins before they join the reception class. At meetings for pre-school parents, Otford explains its approach to handwriting and gives out sheets on letter formation - partly to discourage children from writing capitals.

"Capital letters are a problem because they don't flow," says Rowena Linn, the headteacher. "We are trying to get handwriting flowing from the start, and children who have learnt capitals almost have to unlearn them and begin again."

Even before Otford children first join their letters - usually at about six - they are preparing for joined-up, or "cursive", script by practising each letter with its curved exit stroke, or "flick-up".

Until three years ago, this school, like many others, taught its infant children "ball and stick" printing, and then switched to a very different kind of letter formation when they got to seven or eight and started proper joined-up writing.

But "ball and stick" printing is fast disappearing from primary schools. The national curriculum says that children should be beginning to join letters by seven, and more and more schools are finding, like Otford, that encouraging a more flowing letter formation makes the transition to joined-up writing much easier and less abrupt.

With advice from Rosemary Sassoon, a handwriting specialist, Otford School devised a new handwriting policy and has never looked back. Its youngest children now practise writing their letters for 15 minutes every day, beginning the letter in the right place and ending with the exit stroke. Six-year-olds are taught to join letters; seven-year-olds use a fountain or cartridge pen, and by 10 or 11 they are encouraged to develop a style of their own. All the children use lined paper, or line guides, and a careful eye is kept on their posture, pencil grip and the position of their paper.

Already the school is getting better results in national curriculum handwriting tests, Mrs Linn says, and she is also beginning to detect an improvement in writing content. "The whole point is to help the children to communicate easily in writing. We want them to be able to write beautifully, and legibly, at speed. As their handwriting becomes more confident, they are freed from worrying about how to write and can concentrate more on what they want to say."

Putney High School for Girls

South-west London

Junior Department

Encouraging early joined-up writing has long been the approach favoured by the junior department of Putney High, an independent school. But when Gwen Dornan, a former primary teacher, became the school's part-time handwriting teacher six years ago, she introduced italic handwriting for the first time. Not, she insists, a funny sort of italic demanding a special pen but a "simple, modern hand", based on the italic tradition and suited to writing at speed.

From when they join the school at four, the girls are taught that their writing should be slightly sloped forwards, for right-handers, and that their o's should always be oval. Left-handers - whose status has been enhanced by Mrs Dornan's special left-handers' club - may not be able to slope their writing forwards, but are encouraged at least not to slope backwards - "because people don't so much like the look of that," she says.

They all begin in the reception class by practising forming letters, which are grouped in families according to the movement of the hand: for example, c a d g q o e, and i l t v y j. A handwriting session, of about 20 minutes a week, may involve drawing letters in sand, or repeated pattern work, such as joining c's or o's; and this is then reinforced by the class teacher. By the end of the reception year, some girls will be starting to join their letters. Formal practice continues, linked to spelling patterns, and by the end of the following year, almost all of them will be doing joined-up writing virtually all the time.

A few, Mrs Dornan admits, never master the italic style, and persist with their circular o's or backward slope. But she still prefers to have a handwriting model they all follow, and believes this one allows sufficient room for individuality.

"Having this italic model makes it easier to create a good, consistent style - and consistency is important because good handwriting has a series of patterns within it. I'm trying to get the girls to aim high and to have an attractiveness to their writing, although attractiveness is not my priority. I want them to start secondary school able to write legibly and quickly. Handwriting should be like walking - something you do without having to think about it."

Stonesfield County Primary School

Stonesfield, near Witney, Oxfordshire

Here children do not begin to join their letters until the teacher is satisfied that they have fulfilled three criteria in reading and writing.

They need, first, to be writing and spelling some words confidently (such as "and", "went", "the", "sister"). Second, they should be forming letters correctly, finishing with the exit stroke or flick. And third, in their reading they need to be tackling simple texts easily, and more difficult ones with support, demonstrating that they can picture words in their head.

Some children may meet these requirements as early as their second term in school; others may not be ready until they are rising seven. But when their teacher feels the time is right, a small group of about six to nine, drawn from across the infant classes, will undergo an intensive bout of joined-up writing.

For three weeks, for half an hour every morning after playtime, this group has the undivided attention of a class teacher as they work through the alphabet and practise joining.

Joining letters is linked to word-building - for instance, they may start with "at" and then add different consonants in front - to help them transfer their joined-up to their own independent writing. They begin on plain paper, because staff feel lines can be off-putting, but move on to lined later. Examples of joined-up writing around the classroom, including in some of their reading books, act as encouragement.

At the end of three weeks, the joining principle is pretty much in place; at the end of three months, with weekly practice, it is firmly established.

"I think our approach works because we are teaching the children who are ready to learn that skill, so they take to it quickly," says Julia Fletcher, deputy head. "It can be a bit tedious for the children at first, and sometimes they say their wrists hurt, but they find it exciting because they see it as very grown-up. When it is less successful with a child, it is because they haven't fully met our three criteria when they start."

Until three years ago, Stonesfield children did not begin to join until seven or eight. But Mrs Fletcher found some were going on to secondary school and reverting to print, because they were not sufficiently comfortable or quick with a joined hand. "It felt like a waste of what we had been teaching them. We hope now that by introducing children to joining earlier, it will become properly established as the way they always write."

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