Where do pencils stand in the modern classroom?

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 30 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEND and mental health. Previously a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia and an Advisory Teacher for children with mental health issues and medical and health needs.

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Technology plays a huge part in our everyday lives, whether at school, at work or at home. Many of us rely greatly on being able to use our mobile phones and devices for a multitude of reasons. But the bottom line is we’re generally communicating with someone. Even young children attending nursery or just starting school are familiar with iPads, tablets and interactive whiteboards. So what of the simple pencil? Is it redundant, or is there still a place in the modern classroom? What does it mean to be able to write and what are the benefits?

"Being able to write is a skill that most individuals in the developed world learn from childhood, and continue to develop through adolescence to adulthood."

First of all, let’s consider what handwriting is. It is literally learning to write by hand, and is something that those of us who are able to probably take for granted and can actually undertake the act without having to think about it. It can be construed as a form of ancient art. There is of course truth in this. Historically, humans communicated by mark making, etchings and sketching pictures on cave walls to convey messages. In this aspect it is not a modern day tool.

Being able to write is a skill that most individuals in the developed world learn from childhood, and continue to develop through adolescence to adulthood. Being able to write requires the acquisition of a number of skills which include visual analysis of letters and words, hand-eye coordination, being able to recognise forms and shapes, memory, posture and fine-motor (small muscle) development of being able to hold a pencil and form letters.

Most schools have access to modern technology, and pupils are becoming increasingly adept and creative at producing their work on computers and mobile devices. However Childsupport.in remind us that “Schools depend on written work to measure what children are learning. Handwriting is a basic tool used in many phases of daily life eg note taking, time-limited assessments and exams, doing work in the classroom and homework”. Therefore, learning the art of letter formation in early childhood will pay off as written examinations continue to be the major form of assessment for formal qualifications.

"If the only option were to produce work electronically, it would be catastrophic if the network system was unavailable."

The development of writing skills is more difficult to acquire than gross-motor skills like walking. We have to be taught how to write. The National Handwriting Association (NHA) describes handwriting as “a complex skill which involves the integration of linguistic, cognitive, perceptual and motor components” (2014). Writing by hand is a functional tool that enables individuals to put ideas down on paper and also aids the development of reading and spelling. Tasks often require us to write clearly and organise information effectively. Writing is a physical way of expressing thoughts and a means of communicating with others. In most incidences it is a more efficient and prolific process than it is to get the same ideas noted on an electronic device. If the only option were to produce work electronically, it would be catastrophic if the network system was unavailable. What also of the pupils who have restricted or no access to electronic equipment when at home? There are also cost implications for schools and families if all students are expected to learn to write on an electronic device. Consider also the cost of the time and money involved for printing pupils’ work. Of course, for individuals with disabilities who may find writing a skill difficult to master, learning to write on an electronic device brings enormous educational benefits and opportunities.

The National Curriculum (2013) has made a number of changes to the teaching of handwriting. These are expected to have been introduced and implemented from September 2014. The statutory requirement for pupils is that they are taught to write clearly, accurately and coherently, adapting their language and style in and for a range of contexts, purposes and audiences.

The National Curriculum further states that:
• Pupils who do not learn to read and write fluently and confidently are, in every sense, disenfranchised (‘Purpose of Study’).
• Writing also depends on fluent, legible and, eventually, speedy handwriting (Programmes of study and attainment targets).

The programmes of study for writing at Key Stages 1 & 2 are:
• Transcription (spelling and handwriting) - spelling quickly and accurately through knowing the relationship between sounds and letters (phonics), and understanding the morphology (word structure) and orthography (spelling structure) of words.
• Composition – involves articulating ideas and structuring them in speech and writing, and depends on fluent, legible and, eventually, speedy handwriting.

The NHA has summarised the programmes of study as thus:

Key stage 1
Year 1
Pupils’ writing during year 1 will generally develop at a slower pace than their reading. This is because they need to encode the sounds they hear in words (spelling skills), develop the physical skill needed for handwriting, and learn how to organise their ideas in writing.
Year 2
In writing, pupils at the beginning of year 2… should be able to form individual letters correctly, so establishing good handwriting habits from the beginning.

Lower key stage 2
Years 3-4
Joined handwriting should be the norm; pupils should be able to use it fast enough to keep pace with what they want to say.

Upper key stage 2
Years 5-6
Pupils should be able to write down their ideas quickly. Their grammar and punctuation should be broadly accurate.

I consulted newly-qualified teacher Mike Roughley and early years teaching veteran Susan Kelly for their opinions on the place of the pencils in the modern classroom. Whilst they accept and recognise the benefits of modern technology, both believe that learning to write is an important life skill for the reason that, especially seeing that many computing devices now have handwriting capabilities, the skill remains an important skill for communication.

How do you feel about handwriting in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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