Rebecca Reynolds is an independent early years literacy consultant.
Whilst visiting a school recently I was struck by a little girl next to me who had been asked to attempt to write a cursive ‘b’ after a phonics lesson. The teacher explained that whilst in the phonics lesson the letter was shown in print but when we write we used cursive and demonstrated this on the small A frame board. The group were given their lined handwriting books to attempt their own cursive formation. However, try as she might she couldn’t replicate accurately. There was nothing in front of her to guide her. She worked hard but was practising the wrong motor planning. There was a disconnect between her skill level and the resources provided to support her. It made me wonder how often the type of disconnect occurs in children’s literacy learning, particularly in the vital reception year when so many dots need to be joined in order to make sense of things that adults take for granted.
I think that as adults, we forget how difficult the motor planning required to form a letter actually is. It takes up huge amounts of brain space to process “ start on the line, up, loop over (anti-clockwise), down straight, touch the line, back up the same line halfway, round (clockwise) and join it on.” Holding the image of a letter in your head, moving from the carpet to a table, opening a book, finding a pencil, adjusting your fingers to a correct pencil grip and remembering the motor sequence, without a reminder to copy, is TOO MUCH information to process. Even close copying for many will be much too difficult.
So, all that said, where is a good place to start? I have been lucky enough to have worked in a school where Write Dance was introduced. A fabulous musical introduction to gross motor movements which develop muscle tone and motor planning sequences paving the way towards fluid movements in handwriting, particularly cursive writing. It takes you through curves, arcs, waves, loops horizontal straight lines, vertical straight lines, circles and my particular favourite lazy eights. The lazy eights promote strong cross lateral movements by crossing the midline of the body and requires good hand/eye tracking which is essential to good handwriting. Each musical segment is between 1-3 minutes long, so not a big time commitment in the busy reception day. It also builds a story as you go through the book which develops the child’s imagination. I took this gem with me to my next school and championed its use there. It is still going strong 10 years later! Its value cannot be underestimated.
This video illustrates the range of materials that can be used with Write Dance. You will notice how much fun it is for the children. With Write Dance a regular part of the week, we solve the disconnect between the teacher’s demonstration on the board and the child replicating this accurately. The children are given an oral description of the motor planning required with references made to actions already practised, eg “up in an arc, just like in the Write Dance volcano, loop over like the clouds of smoke, straight down like the robots do, then round like in lazy eights”. The child is given a chance to practice these gross motor movements in the air using their ‘magic finger’; several repetitions help the muscle memory. Then the same thing is demonstrated on an A3 or A4 piece of paper. The child is encouraged to trace and follow a printed version with their magic finger whilst the adult checks for correct formation. Once the correct motor sequence is becoming easier, the child can move onto using crayons or coloured pencils, rainbow writing, whilst the adult encourages the child to repeat the motor sequence instructions out loud whilst carrying out the correct actions. ‘This is your brain telling your hand what to do!’ If fine motor control is developed enough, then allow the child to trace and follow a smaller version, whilst talking himself through the actions. Therefore, accuracy and success are guaranteed with varying levels of support.
Hopefully, the disconnect between watching and doing is now closing, although is very unlikely to be embedded for a while yet. The process of oral description, rehearsal, motor sequence practice, tracing, close copying and memory will take time to establish before independence is reached. However, as soon as it is, more brain space is freed up to tackle the more interesting and complex issue of, ‘what do I want to write?’
If you would like to find out more about Rebecca’s work, please visit her website or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ragnhild Oussoren, (2001), Write Dance, London: Sage.