From next Thursday, I will be teaching in year 2 for the first time in seven years. Yesterday, I visited my classroom, doing the usual odd jobs that I suspect are as much about psychological acclimatisation as logistical preparation. My partner kindly offered to help, and I asked her to stick in some bits of writing that my new class had attempted on move up day.
“Uh, Chris?” she said as she began leafing through the few sentences each of them had written about themselves.
“What?” I replied.
“Why have they each written several sentences when most of them clearly can’t form letters properly?”
The children had written three or four sentences about themselves following a template that I had modeled. In about 90% of the pieces of writing, letters had been missed out. The handwriting was often borderline indecipherable. Letters were formed in a variety of ways.
“They’re only six years old,” I said. “They’ve got a long way to go yet. Don’t worry.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” my partner said. “This is a one off task. Of course. How could they possibly think about whole sentences while they’re still having to think about what way to move a pencil to form a letter ‘h’? You won’t be getting them to write sentences until they’re fluent in forming letters, right?”
I explained that, based on the national curriculum requirements and the planning that had been done by previous year 2 teachers in my school, my first lesson would involve the children attempting to write a story. An entire story. Then, I would spend around fifteen lessons teaching them about conjunctions, basic punctuation and how a plot should progress. All the while, we’d be learning a story that they would use to create their final piece of narrative writing, against which I would judge progress. I also said that – as someone with little key stage one experience – I didn’t want to veer significantly from what previous teachers had done, and – besides – I had to consider the writing moderation that would take place at the end of the year. My partner looked at me for a second – giving me a moment to confess that this was just a wind up – before realising that I was being serious.
“Bear with me: You’ve had students arrive from central Europe before, haven’t you?” my partner asked. “What’s their handwriting like when they arrive?”
“Much better than most of the kids I teach,” I replied sheepishly. My partner, you see, is originally from Slovakia. Her entire educational experience, from age 6 to age 23, was spent in Považská Bystrica and Bratislava, so she sees the English primary education system from an outsider’s perspective. (She’s been a maths teacher for seven years, so she is already reconciled to the eccentricities of secondary education in this country.)
“Do you want to know why our handwriting is so good?” she continued. Tempted though I was to tease her that it was a bit gauche of her to group several central European nations under the same possessive pronoun, I kept quiet. “We practise,” she said. “First we learn how to draw lines and circles and squares and loops. Then, we all practice writing letters fluently. And once we all can do that, then we begin writing words and sentences.”
“Isn’t that a bit…dull?” I asked.
“At my school, we learned handwriting for about an hour a day, but it was split into two or three chunks. We never saw it as boring. At that stage, the rest of learning Slovak focused on reading, especially being read to aloud. We loved that. I think it’s still the same. The children arrive at school having experienced very different things. Ensuring that all children can grip a pen and write letters fluently levels the playing field so that we can all progress together. By age ten, we are all writing stories and essays and speeches. Don’t you find that here the least advantaged children are left behind when you teach writing this way? Perhaps we are more sensitive to that as a country with a communistic history.”
And then she said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:
“Forcing them to write stories before they can fluently form letters just seems a bit… cruel.”
I’m not arrogant enough to call for an overhaul of how we teach early writing on the basis of one conversation. Nevertheless, when I first taught year 2 as an HLTA early in my career, I admit to being astonished to find myself teaching five-part story structure and effective description to six-year-olds, children who mostly hadn’t grasped fluent letter formation. My teaching experience has almost entirely been in upper key stage two. It would be unwise for me to suggest that I have anything like the knowledge required to advocate the Slovak approach to handwriting – though it is much closer aligned to the mastery principles that I would advocate in other areas of the curriculum. I will however dare to ask the following questions in the hope that those with more experience can dispel my fears about the coming year:
- Considering what we perhaps can conclude from a model of working memory, why do we expect children who can’t form letters fluently to be able to focus on things like spelling and sentence construction?
2. Might it be the case that the children who have learned how to form letters quickly – perhaps at home, through natural gifts or through just being a bit older – learn plenty from the teaching of sentences and story structure while those that haven’t learn little as they concentrate on making the letter ‘p’ look right? Might this inadvertently exacerbate disadvantage?
3. Is early writing taught this way for sound reasons? Is it a case of inertia? (i.e. we teach this way because this is how we’ve always done it.) Or is it just an inelegant attempt to match our teaching to the national curriculum statements?
As I have said, I am not an expert in early writing. Please let me know where I’m going wrong or what I should read to dispel the doubts that I have. In the meantime, I will continue to have concerns about my own teaching of writing, ones that I will attempt to ameliorate through daily handwriting practice. If children wish to express their early thoughts on stories in a written (or spoken) form, then I am all for it. However, guiding a class step-by-step through a written narrative seems to me like time poorly spent at this stage in their development. Thanks for reading.