Developing a signature style
Who needs good handwriting in our keyboard-tapping world? Everyone, according to research that proves writing by hand engages the brain. Programmes such as Handwriting Without Tears could help
Junior infants at St Brigid’s NS Castleknock, in Dublin, try the Handwriting Without Tears programme. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The thousands of letters in the archive of the actor Vivien Leigh, which the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, acquired this year, are unlikely to be matched among the mementos of today’s film stars.
Communication is now instant and disposable. Who wants to keep hastily composed tweets, social-media postings and emails for posterity?
Generating text by technology not only removes the personal dimension that comes with a handwritten letter but also means writing is a skill that adults find increasingly redundant and may no longer see as important for their children.
But research shows that writing by hand engages the brain and is a vital component of literacy. Equally, handwritten testing throughout the school system is unlikely to change any time soon, so learning to write quickly and clearly is an important means to an end. It can be argued that what children write is far more important than how they write, but that hardly applies if they can’t write clearly enough to be read.
Áine Dillon, the principal of Scoil Bhríde national school in Dongahmede, Dublin, thinks it is a pity that there is less emphasis on the importance of good handwriting.
“I see Irish parents coming in applying for places for their children and some of the writing is absolutely dreadful, whereas you’ll see parents from eastern Europe, in particular, with very good handwriting.
“We are kind of a careless society in Ireland,” she says, mentioning language mistakes in signs of all sorts, even official ones. Just as attitudes to handwriting have changed, so has the way it is taught.
“In the past children were asked to laboriously copy letters in their best handwriting,” says Bernadette Dwyer, a lecturer in literacy education at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra. “We would now advocate a multisensory approach to the teaching of letters.” That means teachers should use methods that encompass the visual, such as drawing attention to a particular letter in a book; auditory, by making the letter sound; kinaesthetic, which could be skywriting the letter with your hand; and tactile, letting the children handle sandpaper letters or create them out of play dough.
Handwriting is a complex skill that requires the child to integrate postural control, visual and motor abilities, says Kate Lamb, an occupational therapy manager at the Lucena Clinic in Dublin. These physical demands, combined with the attention, memory, cognitive and language demands, are often overwhelming for children.
The clinic has run workshops to suggest intervention for specific difficulties, and to give examples of the handwriting programmes available. These include Write from the Start: The Teodorescu Perceptuo-Motor Programme, which costs €47.50 at Eason for two workbooks and a teacher’s handbook. But research shows that, with any intervention, practice is key.
Handwriting Without Tears
One multisensory handwriting curriculum that is gaining popularity in the US has also been adopted by some schools in Ireland. Handwriting Without Tears was first developed by Jan Olsen, an occupational therapist, 30 years ago because her six-year-old son was struggling with handwriting.