Challenging popular conceptions about the teaching of handwriting, spelling and reading for dyslexic pupils
Naomi is almost five years old, and during most of her fourth year she attended a local school part-time. When her family moved house recently, Naomi started full-time education at a new school. She is a bright child who loves school and has been writing in a fully cursive script for about a year. Naomi’s mum was, therefore, understandably concerned when she learned that at the new school they “…don’t join up any letters until the children are in Year 2”. Of course, Naomi’s worried mum discussed this with the school and Naomi is to be allowed to continue with her cursive handwriting style.
I’ve heard teachers say that we should allow children to find their own writing style, that they should be allowed to experiment, not only with writing tools such as crayons, pencils, chalk, felt-tips and so on, but also with pencil grips and letter shapes. However, in my view, while it is acceptable to try those things when children are relaxing at home, school is a learning environment and good habits should start early.
Naomi finds literacy easy; she is pleased with and proud of her achievements. Imagine for a moment, though, that she didn’t find it easy. Suppose, moreover, that she was a child with dyslexia and that the new school was her first school. She would then use a “ball-and-stick” writing style during Reception and Year 1, and would only begin to use a joined-up style of handwriting in Year 2. For me, though, the rationale behind the teaching of writing styles twice over is seriously flawed; it is strange for a child who finds literacy easy, confusing and unhelpful for a child with dyslexia and, indeed, unnecessary for both.
Having worked with children with dyslexia for many years, I have come to the firm conclusion that we only need to teach a handwriting technique once, and I believe that it should be a fully cursive style. Furthermore, I believe that handwriting should be taught specifically and carefully, and should be linked to the teaching of spelling and reading. Children with dyslexia will experience difficulty with one or more of these three elements of literacy, so, if they are linked closely when they are taught, each component will support the others. It has been well documented that multi-sensory teaching and learning is usually the best method for developing the skills of young learners, particularly those with dyslexia. Since reading, spelling and handwriting place demands on all our senses, it seems logical to have each element of literacy support the others in a multi-sensory manner.
So why a fully cursive style from day one? Well, the obvious immediate answer is that you only have to teach one style. Cut out the “ball-and-stick” and you have less to teach. This would be much more time-efficient for a busy teacher and far less confusing for a child with literacy difficulties or dyslexia.
What is unfortunate for teachers who find that they have children with dyslexia in their classes is that, although the literacy strategy advocates “joined up” writing, it does not provide specific guidelines on how this should be taught. This is regrettable because, firstly, there is currently no consistency in the teaching of a handwriting style and, secondly, because a cursive hand is so easy to teach to all children.
Children with dyslexia often experience spatial, co-ordination, visual memory and/or directional difficulties. All these things come into play when we begin to put pencil to paper. Let’s think about the ball-and-stick method first. Where do you put your pencil to begin the letter “d”, for example? At the top of the ball, adding the stick after. What about a “b”? At the top of the stick, adding the ball after. Now think about the letter “e”. Not so clear, is it? And if you ask three teachers about the letter “f”, I will almost guarantee that you will receive three different answers. All this is quite catastrophic for the child with severe, even moderate, dyslexia. And, what’s more, if letters don’t join, how will s/he know where one word ends and another begins.
Let’s make life easier. Here’s a simple rule: Every letter begins and ends on the line. It’s simple because you can still teach letters individually if you want to. Then, when you begin to teach spelling by using phoneme/grapheme links (writing down the sounds in a word), the letters will automatically “hold hands” or join up. Let’s take a simple example. Think about the word “at”. It has two letters and two sounds. You can teach your child the short sound (a) and the written form of the sound like this:
Remember that s/he should start with her/his pencil on the line and finish on the line. Every letter has a way in and a way out. To make it multi-sensory, s/he should say the sound as s/he writes the letter and practise it many times until it is automatic. You can teach the sound (t), and its written form, with a way in and a way out as s/he says the sound:
Now when s/he wants to write the sounds that s/he hears in the word “at” her/his letters will automatically join up.
This works equally well for digraphs, blends, rimes and so on. The word “at”, for example, is a rime in lots of words such as the word “spat”. Your child can learn to write the individual letters “s” and “p” first, beginning and ending each on the line. S/he can later learn the sound (sp). When written, the letters will automatically join as s/he has previously learned the motor pattern of the individual letters. S/he can then spell the whole word “spat” by adding the written form of the sound (at).
As many children with Dyslexia exhibit weak short-term memory, we cannot assume that learning has taken place long-term. Regular and repeated review of sounds and their written form is therefore vital.
You can see here how we are linking handwriting and spelling. To say and hear a sound and simultaneously write it correctly, your child is spelling, even if it is just one sound and one letter. Incidentally, by seeing that letter and saying the sound again, s/he is also reading! And this, in my view, is why a cursive hand should be taught from day one: so that it can be linked to spelling, in particular, and also to reading, and thus enhance literacy learning.
You will, perhaps, have thought of a few letter exceptions for the “start and finish on the line” rule, namely the top joiners, “o”, “r”, “v” and “w”. These four will obviously need some individual attention, but they should still join.
To a child with dyslexia, literacy needs to have logical rules, make sense and, above all, be easy to remember. It should be so easy, in fact, that it becomes automatic, and this is something that can be particularly elusive for children with dyslexia.
Gina Brooks is from Dyslexikit:
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 43: November/December 2009.