Not Just a Matter of Neatness: Something to Ponder


Don't usually do this but wanted to give it a go today. I picked up this article from the Times Educational Supplement this weekend, via twitter and colleague @yearsixteacher. It is interesting how things come round, and as I read I was reminded of the work of Charles Cripps, who I had the priviledge of seeing talk on the subject of the link between handwriting and spelling hmm hmm years ago.

It is only recently I began thinking again about how handwriting is more than a presentational thing and how as a key skill it has increasingly taken a backseat to initiatives that focus on textual content and processing. Don't get me wrong here, writing as a contextualised process of composition, for audience and purpose and as a representation of voice is still what I want for my students, and I am not backtracking on my multimodal work. However in multimodal work representational modes are what we need to consider and their fitness for purpose. I wouldn't want to send my students on a marathon without having engaged in a regiment of fitness and technical training first, so why would I want to send my students off to write in any format without ensuring they had the experiences, skills, endurance or motivation to do so.

Experiences in the classrrom have often shown how children who do not have a comfortable and fluent handwriting style find prolonged periods of writing uncomfortable. Just like PE if we we do something we are not used to or perform and act incorrectly it hurts. Writer's cramp the precursor of repetitive strain is a possible outcome of incorrect keyboard posture and students who lack familiarity with a keyboard will also find the generation of content slow and tedious.

I recall an interesting activity at Mr Cripps' workshop where he demonstrated how being distracted part way through a word, often leads to difficulty in reconciling the look of what we have written with the word we are trying to spell. I am sure I am not the only person in the world who has found themselves saying a word doesn't look right after we have written it! It seems to occur with more regularity these days as I spend so much time in fromt of the computer too.

In this article the statement "handwriting is a language act and not just a motor act" chimes bells with me. Indeed this term I have revived a practice of starting our class day by combining handwriting practice using Look, Say, Cover Write Check with joining rhyming patterns, eg and.. hand, sand, band, bandage, sandwich for example. I have been drawing on Catchwords and A Hand for Spelling to help with this, intending that as the children improve their letter formation, they should be able to bring increased stamina and pace to writing tasks, and inturn the ability to record what they want to say more acurately and with out losing track of their thoughts.

I have also been thinking about how this process could be used and integrated with literacy sessions to support and contextualise keyboard practice, not as familiarising students with the location of keys alone but as part of a process for developing motor memory and helping to visualise spelling patterns. Some commercial and academic software already includes wordbanks based on learning common spellings as we practice keyboard input, but these could be structured to supplement and support work such as the handwriting and spelling activities outlined above by including rhyming and pattern at there base. Familiarity and consoldiation are dependent on repetitve acts.

Asking children to type up their work on a wordprocessor after the drafting phase has been done by hand still goes on. Just as children drawing letters neatly when asked to publish work for the wall. Could it be we have missed the reason behind this, and that in both contexts the reasons are similar time, pace and stamina, the requirement to run before we can walk, and that we can inherently do what is expected, or wanting to replace one set of skills so desparately with another, that we have forgotten what it was like to learn them ourselves. In the case of ICT based composition there is a danger in assuming that everyone has the tools to enable writing, redrafting and publishing when they desire. Not every child currently has one to one PC access. Some might argue that handwriting is dead, and long live the PC, the PC has certainly been the death nell of my handwriting as the children have commented, but is this because they do not join their writing and so cannot engage with mine because they do not need to engage with their own? Do we want children to draw letters or form them, if we put all of our eggs in over dependence on the computer heaven forbid all children could draw them as comic sans? What happens when the computer is not there, or even more demoralising what happens when the handwriting recognition software does not recognise our input? Would love your comments and thoughts? Ponderous!

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