Monday, June 01, 2009

Handwriting and spelling

This posting arises out of a couple of things I've seen recently. The first is very nice piece of video from Teachers TV on the way handwriting is taught in France. The second is intended to anticipate the new publication Support for Spelling by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Quality writing is based upon three fundamental supports:

1) Knowledge and understanding of language.

2) The development of good fine-motor skills that result at the very minimum in legibility of handwriting, but where the final result may also be visually pleasurable and even exciting! (Some might argue that that the development of word processors and keyboards are rendering the development of handwriting skills as unnecessary. However, many of us find that making marks on paper is not only useful throughout our daily lives, but also facilitates our creative processes when we are faced with blank sheets of paper.)

3) Accurate spelling: the ability to spell the words we use in our thoughts accurately, enabling us to write those thoughts down as we think them. Poor spelling constrains many pupils by restricting their written vocabulary to just those words they believe they can spell properly. (To quote an old chestnut: many pupils think ‘gigantic’ or ‘enormous’, but end up writing ‘big’!)

The first pillar, knowledge and understanding, is clearly of central importance to the whole of the curriculum, not just writing. In fact, I would argue that the primary curriculum should have language development and tuition as its central core. Initially, the teaching of key concepts should not emerge from a variety of subject-based areas, such as geography, history, literature, science, etc., but from out of a core language curriculum that, from the very start of nursery schooling, is aimed at developing the understanding of the key concepts that underpin all our thinking. For example:
Concept: size (vocabulary: big, large, vast, colossal, enormous, small, little, tiny, etc.)
Concept: clothing (vocabulary: shoe, sandal, sock, stocking, shirt, skirt, blouse, hat, coat, trousers, slacks, etc.);
Concept: shape (vocabulary: square, triangle, rectangle, circle, oval, horizontal, vertical, regular, irregular, etc.);
And so on until the dictionary is exhausted!
This is not to say that within an overarching language development curriculum there would not be work/project areas that might focus upon aspects of specific subjects within which particular concepts are of greatest use.

The second pillar, quality teaching of how to make marks on paper, well illustrated in the excellent short video from Teachers TV, has already been brilliantly thought through in France, where it has been an integral part of the primary school Art curriculum!

The third pillar, the teaching of spelling, has in the English speaking world been woefully inadequate for over a hundred years. The little research evidence that exists broadly suggests that barely 50% of our children learn to read both accurately and fluently, with only about half of these being able to spell reasonably well. The fundamental problem here is that reading and spelling are taught largely as though they are independent subject areas – and with an outstanding lack of success dating back over many generations. About a week ago the latest DCSF publication on this subject, Support for Spelling was made available as part of the National Primary Strategy. This document exemplifies all that has traditionally bedevilled and confused the teaching of spelling for over a hundred years. More on this in the next few days.

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