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

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.

“Part of the training of an occupational therapist means we know how to break things down into developmental steps. That, essentially, is the difference with the programme,” says Tania Ferrandino, an occupational therapist and Handwriting Without Tears tutor from Maryland, in the US.

She has visited Dublin several times to conduct workshops and is back this month to lead several around the country. “It is based on developmental theories as well as multisensory theories.” Although aimed at children of all abilities, the multifaceted approach means that it works particularly well for children with special needs, who may struggle with more conventional teaching methods, and a number of Irish schools are using it in resource teaching.

Noelle MacDonagh, deputy principal at St Brigid’s National School in Castleknock, Dublin, first came across it when she was looking for resources for an autistic child. Visiting the Sensational Kids shop in Kildare, she found a Handwriting Without Tears book and thought it would be great for her whole class.

She attended a workshop and briefed other teachers in the school, who were able to adopt the approach using a Handwriting Without Tears kit that was bought with support from the parent-teacher association.

Four years on, the junior infants teacher at St Brigid's, Anne Collins, is delighted to be teaching writing this way. Both she and the children find it fun – and, she says, "Children will learn when they're having fun."

The programme starts with capital letters, on the basis that children are more familiar with these from their everyday environment – on signs such as “exit”, “push” and “pull”. Before they do any writing, the children make a letter with wooden sticks and curves and learn a song about it. They have individual small blackboards on which they draw it, first with a damp sponge and then with chalk. The good thing about about this, particularly for children who find it hard, is that there is no record of failure, says Collins. “If something is done wrong, then you rub it out. It is not until the child is happy and knows how to do it that they write with a pencil.”

The pencils they use are half the size of ordinary pencils, which stops the children from holding them way up the shaft. “One of the problems we had in the past was pencil grip,” she says. “It is very good for that.” With four or five sessions a week, she expects to have covered capital letters with her junior infants by Christmas and will start on lower case after that.

Last year's class, now senior infants, are all writing well, Collins says, even if there are always one or two who find it difficult.

Handwriting Without Tears workshops are running in Dublin on Saturday; in Sligo on October 21st; in Galway on October 23rd; and in Cork on October 25th. The cost is €235, which includes teaching materials;, 045-520900. See also