Saturday, 23 February 2013

Handwriting is nothing to do with literacy – changing gear (Slow Writing Part 3)

When I was a child, I wrote like a child. I wrote with colourful crayons and big pencils. When I became a man, I put away childish writing implements and used fountain pens and tippex. I smudged my way into adulthood.

Tasked with the challenge of coordinating and improving writing in my school, I found what  direction to take difficult. What do I focus on? I can’t possible focus on everything at once, can I? As my previous blogs have highlighted, I am focusing on one aspect of literacy a year. This year it is writing. But, where do I start with writing? Do I go straight to spelling? Do I go for grammar? Do I go for comma splices (my personal Kryptonite)? Handwriting was at the bottom of my list. It usually is, if I am honest.

Why did my teachers make me write 's's like this?
As a teacher, I have always held the principle (correctly or incorrectly) that handwriting isn’t a problem if I can decipher it. The fact that the writing looks like it was produced during a very dangerous earthquake was never an issue, if I could make sense of 95% of the words. I might make a casual reference to the student presenting his or her work better, but my targets have always been about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing. I am always keen to highlight a misuse of an apostrophe or comma, but handwriting hadn’t even registered on my radar. For parents, handwriting is always an issue, as too is spelling. I think they have it right. I haven’t been objective enough. With my ‘subjective’ glasses, I have always concentrated on the finer details or grammar, construction, accuracy and techniques.  But I think parents have it right. They are the outsiders on the writing process, like a possible employer.  However, an employer will not pick you up after a night out, and they will certainly not give you a hug if you have had a bad day.  What are the initial things that an outsider will judge a piece of writing? Spelling and hand writing. When an outsider has formed opinions about spelling and handwriting, they will then focus on the grammar. Therefore, first impressions do matter.

Obviously, writing is a complex thing. It isn’t a tick list. It isn’t so easy to reduce everything down to a few bullet-points. Handwriting  is only one thing in a range of things that make the whole product. Previously, I have explained about ‘Slow Writing’ and focusing on the choices that writers make. Where does handwriting fit in with this ‘choices’ idea? It doesn’t, does it? Well, I think it is a choice.  I think it is a choice that we have to help students some more with.  There is a big chasm between the support for handwriting in primary schools and the support in secondary schools. It is almost as if we assume that they can write clearly from Year 7 onwards. However, that isn’t the case. What the students get is constant nagging and badgering to write clearly. Some improve. Some don’t.  Adding to the problem is the lack of one teacher having an overview of a student’s writing. At primary school, the teacher has an overview of a student’s output from every lesson. At secondary school, there isn’t one teacher overseeing a student’s work. This lack of personalised learning in secondary schools is a problem.  We know what a student’s writing is like in our lesson, but we don’t know if that is consistent for them, or if they can do better; or if they can or can't be bothered. I do think students can and do make a choice between writing neatly and writing scruffily.   


As an English teacher, I am seen as the demigod that can miraculously fix any students writing, but like other subject areas I have a curriculum to teach.  This year, however, I have taken some very drastic steps to improve things. It started off with me receiving a piece of work. The work was sloppily presented. The handwriting looked like it had been written by four different people and there were bits crossed out. I simply told the student that they had to redo it and improve it. They did. And, the funny thing is, they have made their presentation of work much better in lessons from that moment onwards.  It was one of those ‘is that all I have to do’ moments. Too many times in the past I have settled for having the work in and not bothering about how it is presented. Their mark will reflect that, I always thought.  Now, I have given the message to students that presentation matters. I have raised its status in a very simple way. But, it is these messages that are encoded in our teaching and lessons that could be the cause of the damage. It isn’t necessarily the fact that there are more teachers, but it is more a question of the messages we give. Do we really spell out how complex, time-consuming and difficult writing is? 


Do we start lessons by saying writing is difficult? Do we start lessons by saying grammar rules can be tricky? Do we start lessons by saying how silly the English spelling system is? We don’t. We often, and I am guilty of this, say: ‘You have five minutes to write things down. Just get it down’.  What messages are we giving to students about writing and the work we want? At the moment, there are a lot of teachers saying ‘remember to check SPaG’ to students, which is a bit of an afterthought to the work – write well from the start and you will not have to spend too much time checking your work. What are we saying beforehand about writing? What messages are we giving through our thoughts, actions and deeds in lessons?

I once came across a student teacher who wrote everything on a PowerPoint slide, including the date. The student was clearly worried (they had no reason to worry - very clever student) about their writing on the board, but the problem was that they were not modelling to the students what handwriting looks like on the board. The message being given in that lesson was that ‘handwriting’ is so old fashioned.  I write on the board. Sometimes it is scruffy; other times it is neat. I model handwriting. I use ICT too, but I do write on the board and that is important for students to see. To see the writing process, warts and all. I want them to see me make mistakes. I want them to see that if I rush things they can’t always read it. I want them to see what real writing is. If we rely too much on ICT, we neglect showing students what writing looks like. The leaps in technology have created some areas where students rarely see the teacher write. How many teachers go from one lesson to another without writing? Some? Most? All?  If we want writing to improve, we must show what writing looks and feels like. It isn’t a disembodied experience that just happens. It is an experience that takes time, thought and some choices.

This is what Ofsted and all their wisdom say of the attainment targets in writing:
Level 3 - Handwriting is joined and legible.
Level 4- Handwriting style is fluent, joined and legible.
Level 5 -Handwriting is joined, clear and fluent and, where appropraite, is adapted to a range of tasks.
Level 6 - Handwriting is neat and legible.


What have I done?
Where do I start to improve handwriting in a school? I started small. I took a group of very able students whose handwriting prevented them from making their meaning clear. I spent one hour with these students writing and writing some more. However, in that hour all the students made some amazing progress, as I was able to be specific about what they could do to improve. These are some of the directions:

·         Reduce the size of lower case letters so that they only take up half a line and capitals take up the whole line.

·         Keep words and letters on the line.

·         Write to the margin.

·         Reduce the space between words.

·          Separate letters in a word.

Now, these are not obviously earth shattering, but an hour of getting students to redo a piece of writing and improving the handwriting made some big improvements. Something I couldn’t easily do in lessons. There is the crux of the problem: time. I had the time to address this issue. These able students were able to make some progress with their writing because the time was invested. Next term, I will ask staff if they have noticed any improvements. One teacher has already noticed an improvement.

I also think that a focus on just handwriting helped them, as it meant that the focus was narrow. Handwriting, if we are honest, is usually like the distant cousin of writing in that we occasionally remember but we never send them a Christmas card. We do neglect handwriting because we are more concerned with them getting the content right and them using the right words in the right order. Feels like spinning plates.
 

As a result of this and some other things, we have now built in some time with Year 7s where they can work on their handwriting and develop some of these aspects. If they are writing clearly in Year 7, then they may have a better chance of writing better in Years 8, 9, 10 and 11. Set the message from the start.

What am I going to do?
I have mentioned previously that technology has influenced the way students write and read. I think handwriting is linked to this complex aspect. Handwriting plays a part in the ‘modern stream of consciousness’  writing that students have adopted. Writing, for most students, flows from their pens. It flows and it flows. In fact, it flows so much that students can write for pages and pages, yet what they write isn’t the best writing they can do.  Like a text or a tweet, the writing just happens and spelling, organisation and grammar aren’t invited to the party. Students write what comes to mind, rather than cogitate things over and plan and refine ideas. They blurt things out. Again, I am asking students to slow things down. This time it is all about handwriting. The demands of a subject doesn’t help, but I am hoping that some of these aspects will help. At the moment, these ideas are a bit ‘pie in the sky’ but we will hopefully see some results from them.

·         Writing speed

I am hoping to work on our understanding of what gear students need to be in to write. 1st gear will be a slow, steady writing speed where care and precision matters. 5th gear will be saved for quick responses to a task. We need to guide students about the gear they need to be in for writing. I am not just teaching them about literacy, I am teaching them about driving. The steeper the incline, the lower the gear needed. The harder the work, the lower writing gear they will need.




 

·         Explore what handwriting tells us about a person:

Sue Palmer in one of her many ‘Getting the buggers to (buy my)’ books has a section on exploring what a person’s handwriting says about them. I think this will make a great little starter into exploring how students write. Hopefully, students will be able to see how they write in a different angle. I have used it before but never with the angle of improving their writing. Furthermore, I might even make a quiz: guess the teacher on their handwriting. The prize: a new pen.

·         Praising students for neat handwriting:

I have made a blog and the primary focus is to showcase the best writing in school. However, it will also be a way for me to praise handwriting. The best handwritten efforts will get extra praise. Sorry, but there is something special about a handwritten piece of work. It shows more care and effort. It looks ummm… personal.

·         Showing students what handwriting looks like:

Long gone are the days of handwritten reports, handwritten letters to parents and handwritten worksheets. I will ask staff to model, where possible, some handwriting on the board. It can be simply writing the date on the board or the writing of key phrases, but this will show students the speed and care that good handwriting takes. Furthermore, I have a few teachers in the school who have beautiful handwriting and I might even get them to do a small master class video, teaching students how they write so beautifully.


I know that for some people these might be frivolous things, but I think for an integrated and effective literacy programme no stone should be unturned. Sometimes the big things like spelling and grammar dominate so much that we neglect some of the basic things we expect from writing.

One last thing before I start my planning for the week. I have taken to heart @LearningSpy’s  ‘slow writing’ idea and I see handwriting as another extension. Furthermore, I am constantly looking for new ways to slow a student’s writing down -  this is really sabotage in education terms. In my experiments, I came up with a new idea. It is based on the enslaved rowers on many boats in Greek history.  Back then you’d have a person drumming to a beat. Each slave had to keep in time to the beat. Today, I play jazz music and students have to write to the beat – no, not really. Instead, I pick one student in the class: a student who normally is the first to finish with their rushed ideas, and handwriting.  That student sets the speed of the writing task. When they have finished, the class has finished. Every so often I will ask them about how much they have written. The whole class know where they are in the journey of the task. It has been great because it slows the fast writer down and it gets all the class to slow down. If Bob has only written half a page, then I am okay with only half a page. It takes the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to a whole new level. I have even found the lead writer to deliberately slow down even more so there friend can keep up.

If you would like to read some of my other blogs about Literacy, then check them out here and here.

Thanks for reading,


Xris32

 

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