Author: Gwen Dornan, Specialist Handwriting Teacher
We are all aware that handwriting is the neglected one of the 3 Rs. A major problem faced by handwriting teachers is to convince the children, and sometimes their parents, that handwriting is still a necessary skill and not an anachronism. The argument that much schoolwork is now written on computers is often quoted but observation of the notebooks and exercise books of most school age children reveal that a great deal is still hand-written. The upper junior and secondary age pupil who is unable to pick up a pen and write quickly and legibly on paper is still at a considerable disadvantage. Time is wasted writing slowly; there is frustration when the text cannot be easily read and a loss of confidence is commonly the result.
Fitting regular, effective teaching into the timetable of Literacy Hours is difficult as the writing activities so often take place when the teacher’s attention is directed to other groups. There is therefore little opportunity to observe the children’s movements as they write; to note the uncomfortable pencil grip used by one child or to correct the unconventional stroke order in the making of a letter that may make the process of joining very difficult. Habits leading to discomfort and poor writing are so easily established and may never be eradicated or can be changed only with a deal of unnecessary effort and stress.
Entering a handwriting competition is not going to solve all these problems but it can provide a focus on the skill of handwriting and spark a few weeks of concentrated effort throughout the school that can raise the whole level of competence. SATIPS and the Parker Pen Company, now owned by Sanford UK, have organised a national competition for many years for school children up to 14 years old and staff. Pens are awarded as individual prizes to the winners of each year group plus an overall prize for the best entry in each section; a cash prize of £1000 is given to the school with the best set of entries and £500 to the runner-up. There is a parallel set of individual prizes for children with special needs. A great deal of organisation goes into the preparation of a prize day for all the individual winners including a group from the winning school, last year held at the Natural History Museum in London. Prizes are presented by a celebrity and other goodies such as tee shirts, enlarged copies of the winners’ entries, photographs etc ensure an exciting day for the participants.
Alternately, the World Handwriting Achievement Contest (WHAC) accepts entries in five age groups, under 8, 9–11, 13–19, and 2 adult categories, and offers a first and second prize in each age group. There is $1 charge per entry. Both competitions publish their set texts in the New Year and require entries to be submitted in February (WHAC) or March (Parker).
It would be possible for the recognised skilled writers in the school to enter a competition and they might win some prizes, even the very useful £1000 for the school, but there would have been little impact on the handwriting of the main body of the school. For maximum effect the entry needs to be seen to be as a whole school effort with every child taking part. Teachers finding it difficult to fit in as many handwriting sessions as they would like into their timetable may make a special effort for a few weeks and the concentration of effort necessary for all the children to write out the set poem or passage to the best of their ability can often lead to real improvement
Possible activities that might be helpful as preparation:
- Discussing with a class the letters in the poem that are likely to be written badly and practising the words that contain these letters. This gives focus to making sure that the fs are a good shape, the ss and ks not too big, that letters are made in the most efficient way etc.
- Looking at the way the capital letters are used in the poem and observing their relative height, formation etc. There are often some strange shapes in use that are not always noticed in everyday work.
- Asking a class to write out the whole or part of the poem and then noting any possible improvements. Older children may be able to do this for themselves if they are given a check list for reference so that they look to see if they are sloping their writing uniformly, if the letters are the correct size, if the spacing is even, if the letters are formed correctly etc. This analysis will have to be made by the teacher for younger writers and opportunity given to all for work on some aspects that can be improved.
- Allowing the children to experiment with different ways of laying out the text on the page so that it is shown off to its advantage. Children can appreciate the importance of the white space in a design.
- Writing for rhythm. Choosing a line of the poem and writing it a few times so that it runs smoothly and fluently.
- Creating a calm, quiet atmosphere for the children to make their final copies after the preliminary analysis and practice is complete.
- Allowing the children an opportunity to repeat their final copy. Most adults if asked to write a passage in their ‘best’ handwriting would make several drafts before the final version and children may like to do the same.
Teachers may find some of these suggestions possible with their own classes and will have their own ideas about suitable preparation. Finally, a selection can be made from all the contributions to form the school’s entry for the competition and the chosen writers duly praised. The children will be interested in any possible prizes that may have been won but the gain from the competition from the handwriting teachers’ point of view will have already been achieved. An added bonus may be the possession of some pieces of work written at a higher standard than usual. These can be useful negotiating tools when discussing handwriting with individual students and result in a higher level of everyday writing.
There have been changes to the competitions mentioned in the article:
The National Schools’ Handwriting Competition is now organised by SATIPS
Address: National Schools’ Handwriting Competition Administrator, SATIPS, Cherry Trees, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3ST.
Tel/Fax: 01371 856823
Details for the World Handwriting Contest: www.handwritingrepair.info/WHAC