On the teaching of handwriting

I’m writing this both as a parent and as a follow up to a previous post concerning roleplay in schools. You may ask what is the relationship between handwriting and roleplay? Well, I suppose I’m asking a wider question – what are schools really for?

When my son was in Reception, my wife and I were concerned about his letter formation. We told the teacher about it. She assured us it would be alright – he’s a boy after all – he just needed some time. She gave us some photocopied sheets of letters to practice at home .

When my son was in Year 1 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told the teacher about it. She told us that it was early days and he just needed some work on his hand strength and motor control.

When my son was in Year 2 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told his teachers. They told us there was still time. The important thing was getting him to write in sentences for his SATs. He was assessed at level 2B in writing, despite being level 3 in everything else. His handwriting had held him back apparently.

When my son was in Year 3, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She implied that we hadn’t done enough as parents and we should be supporting him more at home. We too were concerned about his handwriting, but now we learnt that it was our fault, we gave him writing exercises and paid for piano lessons to build up his hand strength some more.

When my son was in Year 4, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She put him in a small group so that during times when the rest of the class were doing something he was already good at (like reading, or maths), he could practice his handwriting. By the end of of Year 4 we were less concerned about his handwriting.

When my son was in Year 5, the teacher told us that our son was the best writer in the year group, but he did sometimes forget his capital letters and full stops. She didn’t mention his handwriting.

As parents we made the mistaken assumption that during his first years at school he would be taught handwriting.

As a teacher I know it is easy to assume that things like handwriting will just sort themselves out.

As a child educated in the 70s, I went to a school that, whilst it hadn’t completely sold itself out to ‘discovery learning’, it didn’t teach things like pencil grip or handwriting. My handwriting is pretty dire as a consequence.

In following up that post I mentioned on roleplay, my question is what are schools for? Should they ensure that children are brilliant at handwriting? Or should they make up for the lack of open-ended play that takes place in the modern home by focusing more on roleplay? Do I sound too much like Michael Gove if I suggest that schools should focus on academic skills such as handwriting, reading, mathematics, to the detriment of play?

In fact, I don’t think this is what has happened in the case of my son. I don’t think it was a war between play and academia. I think the school focused heavily on their needs to have my son perform well in various assessments – maths, reading or writing, and unfortunately handwriting is an insignificant part of the writing assessment.

On the necessity of roleplay

I’m not averse to a bit of roleplay. I like to be able to drip bits of it into lessons from time to time.

For example: the suspension of belief that the plastic food is actually a grocery shop and we are actually shopkeepers so I can give children a chance to practice their number bonds.

Or one of my favourites, when I set the classroom up like a conference room and we all pretend we’re attending the annual dragon hunter’s conference – I model the report of my most recent dragon hunt and of course the children all join in, motivated to both write a lot and also include various features of report writing.

However, I like to think that this forms the motivational 20% of my teaching. The rest of my time is spent in what might be deemed more traditional methods. But I don’t want to go on about that, because I’ve already done so here.

What has struck me recently is the amount of times I’m seeing and hearing off roleplay in primary school teaching, like it’s the next big thing. Mantle of the Expert has been around for a while, but I’m seeing it being used more and more to achieve the double-pronged Holy Grail of engagement and enjoyment. At conferences, respected speakers show videos of the outcomes of using ‘drama’ with children – demonstrating how children suspend their belief, get engaged and make great progress.

I’m wondering if one of the reasons for this is the lack of roleplay that goes on in the home. With the amount and quality of TV around, what child has the time to play shops, or dragon hunters in their home? And if they do have time, they may not have the inclination, for their own roleplay cannot be as well acted as whatever they see on the flat screen. Probably in 3D.

So this is where school comes in. With less roleplay going on in homes, schools pick up the slack, providing the made-up worlds in a safe place for children to play in. Great. But is this really what schools should be for? What if all the children came into my school desperate to learn more English and maths? Would they really be bothered with roleplay. Might they not turn round to me and say: “look, teacher, there’s only 5 hours in a school day, teach me something. I can do this roleplay stuff at home.”