Creating or locating ‘hooks’ for teaching writing in the early years

Last week I had the privilege of working with NSW DoE Instructional Leaders at the EAfS Conference in Sydney. This posting builds on one of those sessions. Those of you who were in the session where I demonstrated how you cannot hang a coat on a wall unless there is a hook on the wall, may remember my message . . .

. . .  you may think you are teaching something, but if a child doesn’t have a ‘hook’ to hang the new learning on, he/she will not ‘be able to capture the new learning’.

Good intentions are not enough – we also need the ‘hooks’. 

According to Vygotsky, children, have at any given time, at least two levels of development – an actual level (what he can already do on his own) and a potential level (what he can do with support from a more experienced other).

What children already know – and what they can already do – provide the hooks for new learning.

Also remember – what children can do today in a social context (with support from others) they will be able to do in the future on their own. Learning is therefore INTERPERSONAL before it is INTRAPERSONAL (internalised).


When teachers teach reading they select texts to support teaching strategies and students’  needs.

For example, they carefully select the best texts to read TO children. Read Aloud as a teaching strategy provides children with access to texts that are currently beyond their own reading ability. Exposing them to the IDEAL form (Vygotsky) of reading.

Read Aloud texts are chosen to provide opportunities for exposure to complex written text structures, vocabulary and stories or information that will delight and/or inform. Read Alouds can be much more challenging than books that children read for themselves because the teacher is doing the decoding.


According to Vygostsky (1994), the ideal form ‘acts as a model for that which should be achieved at the end of the developmental period’ (p. 347). The ideal form is ‘final in the sense that it represents what the child is supposed to attain at the end of his development’ (Vygotsky, 1994, pp. 347-348). –  Mackenzie & Veresov, 2013.

[Mackenzie, N.M., & Veresov, N. (2013). How drawing can support writing acquisition: text construction in early writing from a Vygotskian perspective. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(4), 22-29. ]

For reading WITH children (Shared Book), teachers choose texts with written language that children can read with the teacher. Good quality Big Books are perfect for this, although other texts can be used with a document reader, or by enlarging text on a screen. Children get to interact with the IDEAL form of reading with support from the teacher.

Finally the teacher carefully selects texts for children to read BY themselves following on from instruction (Guided Reading). These texts must be able to be read with 90% accuracy or better (ie. less than 1 error in every 10 words read).

The message here of course is that TEXTS for the teaching of reading are there for the choosingBUT –  that is not necessarily the case for the teaching of writing.


To provide the IDEAL for children when it comes to writing, the teacher can select and utilise Mentor texts (and use these to demonstrate how the writer has created the text,  although this is tricky when you were not the author) OR teachers can create their own texts.

However, in both instances the teacher is showing the children the END products of WRITING or text creation but not the IDEAL form of writing as it is being created.

Children’s hypotheses about text creation are formed through encounters with environmental print and interactions with texts and text creation processes with adults and other children in their lives (Clay, 1998)

[Clay, M. M. (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.]

The process of IDEAL TEXT CREATION needs to be modelled – and THINKING ALOUD during the text creation process can provide these opportunities.

For example, the teacher is modelling text creation and says:

“I was going to use the word ‘small’ but I don’t think that ‘small’ will really tell how very small the diamond was . . . so instead . . . I think I will use ‘tiny’ or ‘minute’ – mmmmm – yes . . .  I think ‘minute’ is the best word to use because the stone was almost like a grain of sand.”  

Likewise, Co-construction (see for example the Interactive Writing process in the previous post in this Blog) can provide opportunities for the teacher to demonstrate now texts in their IDEAL form are created (keeping these simple is advised). You get to take the learning into a social context during co-construction – and you as the teacher have the role of the more knowledgeable other.

When children write their own personal texts they are producing these texts in the REAL form (Vygotsky) until you or a more knowledgeable peer interact with them to help shift their learning. This may be done through:

Questioning – to help a child articulate and clarify something he/she has just done;

e.g. T: I noticed you changed the way your described the monster from ‘big’ to  ‘enormous and hairy’ can you tell me why you did that? What difference does it make?

In this instance the ‘hook’ comes from some problem solving by the child – the teacher is capitalising on this – helping him to articulate what he has done – to help him to internalise the process.

Demonstrating – to help provide the extra information needed to solve a problem;

e.g. T: What is the word you are trying to write?

S: ‘sting’

T: “you know the word ‘stop’ – write it here – you know the word ‘going’ – write it here – know use ‘stop’ and ‘going’ to work out how to spell ‘sting’ .

Following the process the teacher says “So you used two words you already knew to get to a new word you needed – a great strategy to remember”.

In this second instance the teacher has helped the child use something she already knows to problem solve something she needs. More importantly the teacher has demonstrated how she can use words she knows to get to words she needs.

Remember: Writing requires attention to print in a way that reading does not.

Writing has been shown to build almost every kind of inner control of literacy learning that is needed to be a successful reader (Clay, 1998, p. 130).

Hopefully this posting has been useful – watch for another new posting very soon.

Putting the power into Interactive writing

Interactive Writing is one of the most powerful teaching strategies for teaching children how to: Compose; Record; Edit; and publish.

But it can also provide the opportunity to teach concepts about print, sentence structure, spelling strategies, punctuation, and even handwriting – all in 10-15 minutes per day.

The goal of Interactive writing is to “teach children the writing skills, strategies, and conventions they need to become competent as independent writers” (McCarrier, Pinnell & Fountas, 2000).

Research findings to support Interactive Writing:

Students in the Interactive Writing Group outperformed students in the control group on Ideas, Organisation, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Spelling , Capitalisation, Punctuation, and Handwriting.

(Roth & Guinee, 2011)

LESS is MORE!  One sentence a day is enough! The power comes from the teaching you do within the one sentence each day.

Remember students give ideas – but the teacher shapes the sentence. Ideally the text is started on Monday and finished on Friday – although the example I am going to share was continued into a second week. I am going to share the process for one week in a year 1 class.


Black – Words written by the teacher

Blue – Words written by children

Red – High Frequency words taught to the children during the lesson (using the small white boards) and added to the word wall.

Gold – Words used for spelling instruction – phonology, morphology or analogy

Underlined – Words discussed in terms of meaning – what other words could we have used?

Title: Our class pets


Our class has a new fish tank and six small gold fish.


  • The children were very excited about the arrival of the fish and fish tank. Many of the children had no experience of pets. The opportunity for discussion and to use this as an Interactive writing topic was obvious. Miss S decided to start with a simple sentence and allow the children to spend time observing the fish, talking about the fish, looking at the many books she borrowed from the library that had gold fish facts, information about caring for gold fish and also fiction about fish. Finding Nemo was featured.
  • Monday’s sentence was composed and repeated several times before Miss S wrote ‘Our class’ on their interactive board and introduced ‘has’ as a high frequency word – the children discussed that the letter ‘S” made a “ZZZ” sound like it does at the end of ‘was”. Children practised ‘has’ on their whiteboards – Prompted by Miss S – ‘write, say, check your neighbour’s, erase’ – this was repeated and then Miss S added ‘has’ to the ‘word wall’.
  • The sentence was read again from the start and then a child added ‘a’. Miss S quickly wrote ‘new’ and the class re-read the sentence and remembered that the next word was ‘fish’. A child volunteered to write ‘fish’ – ‘fish’ was discussed as a word with 3 sounds – but 4 letters – other examples of words ending with ‘sh’ were volunteered and some quick oral rhyming showed children could transfer their knowledge of fish to ‘wish’ and ‘dish’.
  • Miss S wrote ‘tank’ and then a volunteer wrote ‘and six’. After reading the sentence together Miss S added ‘small’. Children were asked to provide other words for small: ‘tiny, little, teeny weeny’, were volunteered.
  • Children heard the sounds in the word ‘gold’ – writing on their whiteboards and then removed the ‘g’ and writing other words that rhymed with ‘old’ – fold, told, sold, bold.
  • Miss S asked all children to watch her as she wrote the letter ‘h’ and then they all practiced – starting at the top – they checked each other’s ‘h’ – Miss S helped a couple of students with the formation of the ‘h’ and checked that everyone was forming the letter correctly. Children erased the letter between each attempt.
  • ‘Fish’ was added by a volunteer and then the whole class read the sentence twice together before going to their desks to draw, talk and write.*

*Please note that Draw, talk, write and share is not part of Interactive Writing. It is a Personal (Independent) Writing strategy where children create their own texts – starting usually with a drawing. Te may choose to draw and write about the same topic/experience as Interactive Writing but this is not always the case. It just so happens that in this classroom Miss S chooses to have the children follow Interactive Writing with personal writing time – and she uses the Draw, Talk, Write, Share Process.


We have to feed our gold fish a tiny bit of food every day.


  • Miss S asked for a volunteer to point and read Monday’s sentence – and then to point as the class read along. Discussion about what to write today led to Miss S settling on the sentence above. The sentence was repeated 3 times to assist students to remember the sentence for the day’s lesson.
  • ‘We’ was written by a volunteer and then Miss S showed the children the word ‘have’ and asked them to write it on their small whiteboards. They discussed how this word was a helpful word to know – and that you could hear the first 3 sounds but not the ‘e’ – you need to ‘remember the ‘e’ said a child. Miss S added ‘have’ to their word wall.
  • ‘Feed’ was discussed in terms of the ‘ee’ and other ways of writing that sound were discussed briefly with Miss S providing some quick examples – ‘ea’ in ‘read’, ‘e’ in ‘me’ and ‘we’, ‘y’ at the end of ‘baby’.
  • Miss S led the children to read from the start of the sentence – she added ‘our’ and volunteers wrote ‘gold’, ‘fish’ and ‘a’.
  • ‘Tiny’ was written by Miss S and reference made to ‘tiny’ being another word for ‘small’.
  • ‘Bit’ was written on the children’s white boards after Miss S prompted that it had 3 sounds and 3 letters. They then discussed how ‘it’ was in ‘bit’ and wrote some other words that rhymed with ‘it’ on their boards (fit, sit, hit) while a volunteer added ‘bit to their sentence’.
  • After a quick re-read from the start of the sentence Miss S write ‘of’ on the board and asked children to copy ‘of’ – they then discussed the sound that the ‘f’ made in this word. Another child volunteered that ‘off’ had two ‘f’s. A volunteer added ‘of’ and Miss S added ‘food every day’.
  • Miss S asked all children to watch as she wrote the letter ‘f’ and then all children wrote ‘f’ on their white board – with emphasis on starting at the top.
  • Both Monday’s and Tuesday’s sentences were read – with a student pointing to the words. Miss S demonstrated how to read the sentences fluently and the students read again with her – before going to their desks to draw, talk and write.*See comment above


The fish tank needs to be cleaned every week.


  • After reading the previous sentences a short sentence was composed and the first 3 words written quickly by a volunteer student – who discussed how he could copy tank from Monday’s sentence.
  • Miss S linked ‘needs’ to ‘feed’ and a volunteer added ‘needs’ to the sentence.
  • ‘to’ and ‘be’ were quickly added and the sentence read again by the class in order to remember what came next.
  • Miss S wrote the word ‘clean’ on the board and then added ‘ed’. She explained that ‘clean’ was the ‘base word’ and ‘ed’ was the suffix. She also linked back to Monday’s sentence and their discussion of different ways of writing the ‘e’ sound – one of which was ‘ea’.
  • Miss S wrote ‘every’ – and a child spontaneously mentioned that the letter ‘y’ on the end of every made and ‘e’ sound.
  • A volunteer wrote ‘week’ and there was another quick conversation about the ‘e’ sound.
  • The 3 sentences were read fluently before the children went to their desks to draw, talk and write.


Today when we came into class we found that one of our gold fish had jumped out of the tank. and It was dead on the floor.


  • The lesson started as always with reading the previous sentences and discussing what was to be added today. The children had been buzzing with the drama of the dead fish so the topic was obvious and the sentence composed quite quickly. These children are familiar with the routines of Interactive Writing and were keen to volunteer to write the words that are in blue.
  • Miss S used ‘come’ to show the children how to write ‘came’ – this was done by all using their small white boards – starting with ‘come’ they all erased the ‘o’ and replaced it with and ‘a’ – went back to ‘come and then changed the ‘c’ to  ‘s’ to make ‘some’ and then the ‘o’ to an ‘a’ to make ‘same’. A volunteer added ‘came’ to the sentence (Miss S added ‘came’ to the word wall later in the day).
  • The next 10 words were written quite quickly by Miss S or volunteers as Miss S was keen to get to ‘had’. She asked the children to write ‘has’ on their white boards – helping a few children who had forgotten that the ‘zzz’ sound was made by the letter ‘s’. They then erased the ‘s’ and replaced it with a ‘d’ and practiced writing ‘had’. (Miss S added ‘had’ to the word wall later in the day).
  • ‘Jump’ was written on their boards and then the ‘ed’ was added – a short discussion about how ‘jump’ was the base word and ‘ed’ the suffix. They removed the ‘ed’ and practiced adding ‘s’ and ‘ing’ – using the terms ‘base word’ and ‘suffix’.
  • As Miss S has noticed a few children writing ‘s’ from the bottom up, there was some time given to revising the formation of the letter ‘s’ on the small white boards.
  • The remaining 10 words were written quite quickly although there was some discussion about ‘was’ and ‘has’ initiated by a student – she was interested in the fact that the letter ‘a’ made an ‘o’ sound in ‘was’ but an ‘a’ sound in ‘has’ – but both had an ‘s’ making a ‘zzzz’ sound. “Good noticing‘ said Miss S.
  • The 4 sentences were read fluently and there was discussion that today’s sentence was a very long sentence. One child said it could be two sentences so Miss S asked this child to show them how it could be two sentences. The student indicated that a full stop could go after ‘tank’. The children then decided that you could start the new sentence with ‘The fish’ or ‘It’. They opted for ‘It’ and Miss S made the necessary changes.
  • They then read the entire text again before the children went to their desks to draw, talk and write *See comment above.


We buried the dead fish in the school garden.


  • After the usual start to the lesson the talk moved quickly to how they had buried the dead fish and Friday’s sentence was composed.
  • The first 8 words were written by volunteers or Miss S without too much discussion
  • When they came to ‘garden’ Miss S asked the children to clap the syllables and to then have a go at writing the word on their white boards. Many of the children were able to work out this word although some left out the ‘e’ until they clapped the word again and Miss S emphasised the ‘en’.
  • Miss S revised the formation of the letters ‘h’, ‘f’ and ‘s’ and the children wrote each of these letters on their white boards. Because the lesson had moved so quickly they also practised the new high frequency words they had learned this week – ‘of, has, had and came’ on their little white boards.
  • The week’s text was read fluently before the children went to their desks to draw, talk and write *See comment above.

The next week the children decided to build on the previous week’s text. I have included it here with the words identified in terms of the key but without the detailed process. I think you will be able to work it out.


Last week one of our fish jumped out of the tank so we had to put a cover on the tank.


Miss S got us a new fish because one of our fish died.


Our new fish is black and has pretty fins and tail.


The black fish was being chased by the other gold fish so Miss S bought the new fish a friend. and nNow we have seven fish.


The principal came to visit our class today and we showed her how we feed the fish and clean the tank.

Interactive Writing is a simple but powerful strategy involving writing and reading and allowing for explicit instruction within the context of co-constructed, meaningful text.  There are places you can go to read more – see below:

Further Reading

Mackenzie, N. M. (2015). Interactive Writing: a powerful teaching strategy. Practical Literacy: The Early & Primary Years, 20(3), 36. *

McCarrier, A., Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2000). Interactive writing: How language and literacy come together, K-2. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Nicolazzo, M., & Mackenzie, N. M. (2018). Teaching writing strategies. In N. M. Mackenzie & J. Scull (Eds.), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8 (pp. 189-212). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Roth, K., & Dabrowski, J. (2014). Extending interactive writing into grades 2-5. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 33-44.*

Roth, K., & Guinee, K. (2011). Ten minutes a day: the impact of interactive writing instruction on first graders’ independent writing. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 11(3), 331-361.*

*Contact me if you are unable to access any of these articles.

Children’s names: important first words to study


Being able to write their name is a source of pride for all young children. It is this special word that helps children understand that words hold meaning. It is this special word that also helps them to understand the difference between pictures and words. In the drawing below, Ruby, only 2 years and 10 months, shows that she knows the difference between her self-portrait and her name in the top right hand corner. While there are no discernible letters yet, the zig zags show that she knows how we represent words in English.

Chapter 9.Figure 1


Ruby has demonstrated ‘a notable and quite specific cognitive achievement – the idea that a mark can represent a particular linguistic unit’ (Read, 2009, p.261).

In the following picture we see that Krisha can write her name in upper case letters, while Brooke has combined upper and lower case letters. Krisha and Brooke were both in pre-school when they proudly demonstrated that they could already write their names.


Chapter 9.Figure 6

When children first learn to write their names, it is more a process of copying or drawing letter shapes than spelling the word. As a consequence children sometimes recognise their names based on the first letter on their name (rather than the whole word) – consider the following scenario:

“A new student, Peter, age 5 years, had joined a kindergarten class (in a NSW school) early in the school year and the teacher was introducing Peter to the class. As part of the introduction she wrote Peter’s name on the board. Patrick became upset, and exclaimed that he thought the ‘P’ at the start meant this word represented his name (‘but that’s mine’ said Patrick). Until this time, there had not been any other children in the class with a name beginning with P. The two names went on the board for all kindergarten children to scrutinise. A close comparison of the two names helped the class see that despite a common first letter, the names were different. Following on from this incident, the teacher collected a number of other children from other classes whose names began with ‘P’ and they came to visit. What had started as the introduction of a new student, led to a series of lessons involving the children in close examination of the letters in names and many other words displayed around the classroom” (Mackenzie, 2019, p. 152).

Upper or lower case? Does it matter?

Most children learn to write their names before they start school – and it is usually a parent who teaches them – often in upper case letters. Perhaps the parent instinctively understands that upper case letters are easier to write, or perhaps they are unsure of the script taught in schools.

Interestingly, in some European countries (e.g. Finland) all children are taught upper case letters in preschool (age six) and lower case letters when they begin school at age seven” (Mackenzie, 2019, p. 154).

Adams, in her seminal work on beginning reading, advised that

. . . upper case letters are more discriminable from one another. In addition, whatever letter knowledge a prereader already has is most likely to be about upper case letters. Thus, if working with preschool children (or those who have just started school), upper case letters are probably the better bet . . . On the other hand, the ability to recognize the lowercase letters is more important for reading text. Thus, if working with first graders, it is probably wise to concentrate on them’ (Adams, 1994, p.357).

Consider how confusing it must be for a child who has learned his or her name at home or preschool in upper case letters but when starting school is faced with their name written with a capital letter and lower case letters (Mackenzie, 2018). It could also be disappointing for the parent, who thought they were helping by teaching their child how to write their name before starting school, only to find out that they had taught it incorrectly” (Mackenzie, 2019, p.155). Of course it wasn’t incorrect – it just wasn’t in the form that the school preferred of expected. Perhaps we could be more flexible with our expectations.

Consider the visual differences in the representations of the following names:

Names 3

It can be helpful to find out how children have been taught to write their names when they are enrolled in school, before creating name labels for desks or bag hooks. Children will feel more confident if they can recognise their name on the first day of school. Once they know the lower case letters they can be taught ‘another way’ of writing their name. At that stage, having two ways to write their name will make them feel extra special” (Mackenzie, 2019, p. 155). (see below – Alex)

Names as a resource for learning about letters

  1. Give your students a container with the letters of their name when they begin school (In the form they know how to write – all Upper case or Upper case first letter and lower case for the rest). Letters can be plastic, magnetic or cardboard)
  2. Have the children make their name with the letters several times each day.
  3. Count the letters in names and graph – how many names have 3 letters? 4 letters? 5 letters? More?
  4. Break names into syllables
  5. Who has a name with a double letter?
  6. Who has a name that starts with? Ends with? Has the letter _?
  7. Find the common letters in names with your friend.


Of course there are many more activities that can involve children’s names. As children become confident at writing their name in both Upper Case and the standard Capital letter and Lower Case  – give them the letters for both. At the appropriate time add the letters for their second name. The more you work with these letters the more comfortable children will become with the letters of their own names but also those children around them. Always use the letter names when talking about letters in children’s names.

Alex at 6 and half way through Year 1, could confidently write his name in the standard form as well as in upper case. Recently he  asked his mum to show him how to write his name in ‘Running Writing’ – see below. He had a lot of fun learning a third way to write his name.

I hope the contents of this posting is of interest – there are some more activities on page 155 of Mackenzie 2019 – in reference list.

Have fun – and take advantage of children’s fascination with their own name.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

Read, C. (2009). Learning to use alphabetic writing. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, J. Riley, & M. Nystrand (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of writing development (pp. 260-270). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the Alphabet

Apologies for the long break between postings. Life has been a bit crazy over the past 12 months but I am planning to get back into doing postings quite regularly

This Blog posting is informed by the first part of the following book chapter. The chapter will give you a much richer picture of this complex topic. What follows is a taste.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

I will start with a quote from Read:

‘Whatever intricacies of orthography a child must master in school, the most significant cognitive achievement comes at the outset: Mastering the alphabetic principle.’(Read, 2009, pp.262–263)

What do we mean by the Alphabetic Principle? Simply put, it means that oral language can be converted to written language using letters of the alphabet. These letters are also know as graphemes. In the English language we have 26 letters and approximately 44 spoken sounds, but there are more than 120 ways that the letters of the alphabet can be organised and grouped in different combinations/orders to represent those 44 sounds. We do not know what sound a letter is making until it is placed within a word.

For example: Let’s look at the letter ‘c’

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘cat’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘cello’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘musician’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘race’?


In this blog I am talking about the ‘letters of the alphabet‘ – we should always use the letter names when we are talking about letters. To call a letter by a sound that it may make in some words, is akin to calling a dog a woof woof. The animal in question is a dog, and sometimes makes a ‘woof woof‘ sound.

Now let’s move on,

No matter the level of a child’s phonemic awareness, to make use of it, she or he must learn to identify the visual forms of individual letters.’ (Adams, 1990, p.333)

Not being able to distinguish or name the letters of the alphabet has been linked to extreme difficulty in learning letter sound relationships and word recognition.

We know how important phonemic awareness is to early literacy development but children also need to be able to differentiate between and label the 26 letters of the alphabet (in upper and lower case).

TIP: The Alphabet song – is a useful anchor for children when teaching letters.

According to Adams (1994, p. 359) the ability to name and recognise letters is, in general, not established through showing children the letters and then teaching them the names. That’s backwards. Most children are taught the letters only after they know their names. By thoroughly learning the names first, the child has a solid mnemonic ‘peg’, to help [them] recognise, discriminate and use letters in reading and writing.

Clay also advised that,

‘Children must learn what visual information in print is usable and how to use it.’ (Clay, 2001, p.148)

While Lyons suggested that,

The similarities between letters in English require highly developed visual discrimination skills (Lyons, 2003).

For example, if I asked you to write down the following letters ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, ‘g’ and ‘q’ (in print form) you would be able to see that they are all represented as ‘circles with sticks’, and being able to differentiate one from the other requires a child to see fine details and differences (e.g. direction, size and position).

Upper case letters and lower case letters also look very different- giving children 52 symbols to learn to write and 54 to recognise (‘a’ and ‘g’):

a b c d e f g h I j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Add the differences between the handwriting scripts taught in schools and scripts used in published texts that children are learning to read, and children have a lot to learn about looking at and writing letters. Consider the following examples:

• Lower case ‘the hand written form of the letter ‘a’ , ‘a’ and upper case ‘A’ are the same letter but look different
• Upper case ‘R’ and lower case ‘r’ look very different, but are the same letter
• Upper case ‘A’ and upper case ‘H’ look similar but are different letters
• The only difference between lower case ‘b’ and ‘d’ is the direction they face
• The only difference between lower case print forms of ‘a, d and q’ is the height and position of the stick.

Children also need to learn the concepts of: word, sentence, writing, reading, first and last, directionality and return sweep, spacing and punctuation. 

Handwriting assists children with letter learning: 

According to research:

The motor actions performed to produce letter shapes by hand promote letter knowledge, spelling, and reading acquisition (Labat, Vallet, Mangnan & Ecalle, 2015)

It is the ‘meaningful coupling between action and perception during handwriting, [which] establishes sensory-motor memory traces’ and facilitates written language acquisition. (Kiefer, Schuler, Mayer, Trumpp,  Hille,  & Sachse,  2015).

In conclusion:

‘. . . the skills of ‘looking at print’ and ‘writing letters correctly’ are important skills for all young learners to develop.

How teachers support children as they grapple with the challenges involved in ‘looking at and producing print’ impacts their ongoing success as readers and writers.’ (Mackenzie, 2019, p. 164)

In my next blog I will talk about how children’s names are a great resource for teaching about letters. This is also discussed in the chapter.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Clay, M. M. (2001). Change over time: In children’s literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kiefer, M., Schuler, S., Mayer, C., Trumpp, N. M., Hille, K., & Sachse, S. (2015). Handwriting or typewriting? The influence of pen-or keyboard-based writing training on reading and writing performance in preschool children11(4), 136-146.

Labat, H., Vallet, G., Magnan, A., & Ecalle, J. (2015). Facilitating effect of multisensory letter encoding on reading and spelling in 5-year-old children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(3), 381-391

Lyons, C. A. (2003). Teaching struggling readers: How to use brain-based research to maximize learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

Read, C. (2009). Learning to use alphabetic writing. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, J. Riley, & M. Nystrand (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of writing development (pp. 260-270). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Handwriting, keyboarding or both?

Handwriting, keyboarding or both?

This blog posting was written for those people who attended the ALEA Riverina Murray Local Council Launch held at the Albury Town Library on Wednesday 18/10/17 although it may be of interest to others.

This is a huge topic and one that I could only briefly touch on in the short time we had together. In the following I hope to re-visit and expand on some of the key messages from the session, starting with a couple of definitions.

Writing refers to the complex process of text creation. Contemporary writing incorporates a variety of traditional, digital, multimodal and visual literacy forms. The written word is still central to most texts.

Transcription usually refers to handwriting/keyboarding and spelling. Sometimes, handwriting, keyboarding and spelling are described as secretarial skills, along with punctuation. Text structure, sentence structure and vocabulary use are referred to as authorial skills. It is important to note that the authorial skills depend upon secretarial skills – therefore we teach secretarial skills to support authorial skills.

Handwriting is a “complex perceptual-motor skill encompassing a blend of visual-motor coordination abilities, motor planning, cognitive, and perceptual skills, as well as tactile and kinaesthetic sensitivities” (Feder & Majnemer, 2007, p. 313) requiring “sustained attention, sensory processing, and the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip” (Lust and Donica, 2011, p.560).

Why continue to teach handwriting?

Figure 1

  • handwriting is still common at home and work;
  • handwriting is still predominant at school;
  • handwriting can influence teachers’ judgements about the quality of a child’s text;
  • handwriting can impact a writer’s planning and text generation;
  • handwriting activates motor, visual, and linguistic areas of the brain and has a direct relationship with improving math, spelling, and science outcomes in later years;
  • handwriting supports cognitive and motor skills development, learning letters, spelling, reading, memory, composition quality and academic success;
  • decoding knowledge, including letter, sound, and phonological awareness is related to a child’s ability to write recognizable letters fluently; and
  • even adults have been shown to benefit from taking their notes by hand.

Poor handwriting skills and a lack of automaticity with handwriting increase the cognitive load of a child and consequently reduce his or her ability to draw on other cognitive capacities to improve the content of writing (e.g. McCarney et al., 2013)

Do we need to provide explicit instruction in handwriting and keyboarding?

Children in Australian schools are expected to be taught to write by hand. This process starts in the foundation year with cursive writing introduced at Year 3. The aim is that children will all have “a personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended periods” by Year 7 (ACARA, 2016, p. 22).

According to Medwell & Wray (2007), by the end of Year 2, children should be able to:

  • form all the letters correctly and easily when copying and in response to letter names;
  • write the whole alphabet from memory using correctly formed letters in alphabetical order in under one minute (this is a test of automaticity); and
  • decide when it is appropriate to use neat handwriting.

Letter formation needs to be explicitly taught including where to start and which way to go – to support automatic processing – that way the writer can concentrate on their message. While copy books can help, we must check that children are forming the letters correctly. Otherwise they may be practising incorrect letter formation.

Remember that learning to write by hand is combined with all the rules associated with concepts about print – where to start, which way to go, leaving spaces.

In Australia we tend to teach upper and low case letters together. Upper case letters have been shown to be easier to learn than lower case letters.

What about keyboarding?

Keyboarding involves the coordination of motor, perceptual sensory and cognitive skills in order to be able to type efficiently (Mangen & Velay, 2010). The sensory, motor and perceptual skills for typing differ from handwriting, the writer is required to use a search and type motion in place of the refined motions necessary to control a pen or pencil when forming letters (Kiefer et al., 2015).

Typing  requires the coordination of both hands and sequential finger movements to type letters in correct order (Freeman et al., 2005). Some young writers find computers challenging to navigate and the process of typing/keyboarding slow. Their hands and fingers are small, they are unsure of the locations of the keys, and have difficulty coordinating their fingers to press keys in the correct order. This can make being asked to type very frustrating, disengaging them from the writing process.

As with adults, children who use digital devices efficiently are able to write faster than those using pen and paper, enabling them to spend time thinking about what they were writing and to check, edit and improve what they had written. To achieve this level of automaticity takes explicit instruction and a great deal of practise.

The need for ongoing instruction in handwriting has been well established in the literature. Students need continuing handwriting instruction as well as explicit keyboard instruction (touch typing) beyond fourth grade. . . the continuing handwriting and keyboard instruction does not have to be intensive, but rather can be viewed as periodic tune-ups once or twice a week when students do warm-ups, like the athletes before the game:

(a) writing the alphabet from memory,

(b) copying interesting target sentences containing all the letters of the alphabet,

(c) writing letters that come before and after other named letters, or

(d) exchanging papers and circling letters that are illegible and discussing how to make them legible to others for purposes of written communication.

These warm up, tune-ups should be followed by more cognitively engaging writing tasks for authentic communication purposes (Alstad et al., 2015).

Most of us who work in jobs that require written communication could be described as ‘hybrid writers’ (Alstad et al., 2015). That means we are able to use a number of tools (pens, computers, tablets, smart phones) and processes (handwriting, typing, texting) and we choose the best tool and process for the purpose. This should be what we are aiming for for our children.

If you want to know more about the handwriting and keyboarding survey, please refer to earlier blog postings on this site that discuss this topic specifically.

If you want to read more on this topic, watch out for:

  1. Mackenzie, N.M., & Spokes, R. (2018). Handwriting and keyboarding skills. In M. Mackenzie & J.A. Scull (Eds), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.
  2. Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R. (2018). The Why, Who, What, When and How of Handwriting Instruction. Practical Literacy: the early and primary years, (available in Feb 2018).


Alstad, Z., Sanders, E., Abbott, R. D., Barnett, A. L., Henderson, S. E., Connelly, V., & Berninger, V. W. (2015). Modes of alphabet letter production during middle childhood and adolescence: Interrelationships and each other and other writing skills. Journal of writing research, 3, 199-231. doi:org/10.1239/jowr-2015.06.03.1

Feder, K., & Manjnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(4), 312-317.

Freeman, A. R., Mackinnon, J. R., & Miller, L. T. (2005). Keyboarding for students with handwriting problems. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 25(1-2), 119-147. doi:10.1080/J006v25n01_08

Kiefer, M., Schuler, S., Mayer, C., Trumpp, N. M., Hille, K., & Sachse, S. (2015). Handwriting or typewriting? The influence of pen-or keyboard-based writing training on reading and writing performance in preschool children. 11(4), 136. doi:10.5709/acp-0178-7

Lust, C. A., & Donica, D. K. (2011). Effectiveness of a handwriting readiness program in head start: a two-group controlled trial. AJOT: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 560.

Mangen, A., & Velay, J. L. (2010). Digitising literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing. In M. H. Zadeh (Ed.), Advances in Haptics (pp. 385-402). Rijeka: InTech.

McCarney, D., Peters, L., Jackson, S., Thomas, M., & Kirby, A. (2013). Does Poor Handwriting Conceal Literacy Potential in Primary School Children? International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 60(2), 105-118. doi:10.1080/1034912X.2013.786561

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9345.2007.00453.x

Understanding and supporting young writers

This posting is directed towards the educators and parents who attended the sessions organised by the Moonee Valley City Council on the 11th and 12th October, but may also be of interest to others. It was my great pleasure to present at these two sessions.  While the sessions were different, many of the key messages were the same. Therefore,  I have combined these key messages into one posting.

Message 1: Start with what children know and can do and build on. This means we need to know the children we are with – easy for families – but requires focused effort from educators.

Message 2: Early childhood literacy is “the single best investment for enabling children to develop skills that will likely benefit them for a lifetime.” (Dickinson & Neuman, 2006, p.1).

Early childhood literacy includes: talking, listening, singing, playing, role play, drawing, experimental writing and pretend reading.

Spoken language provides the foundations for reading and writing even though written language is different to spoken language. Talking with children about things that are happening in the ‘here and now’ is quite different to talking about things in abstract terms. It is important to help children talk about things that may have happened yesterday, or that morning, with someone who wasn’t there. For example, explaining to grandma what happened at the park yesterday when the dog ran away.

Reading books to young children is one of the most important gifts we can give them. Five books a day is recommended. Remember to also read the environmental print that we see when we are out and about. The stop signs introduce one of the first words that many children learn to recognise.

Message 3: Writing is more important than ever – Children who are actively encouraged and supported to draw, talk, write and share often become confident, flexible writers who create more complex texts than when they are restricted to just writing.

Image 10 at 300 dpi

Message 4: If children  see an advantage in being able to write, they will apply the same focused attention to learning how to write that they applied to learning to be oral language users.” (Mackenzie, 2010, p. 30).

Children copy what they see the people around them doing. If they see people reading they will want to read. If they see people writing they will want to write. We are modelling and demonstrating what we value whenever we are with children.

Message 5: A great deal of writing ‘capital’ can be developed through drawing and talking: Message making; Sense of story; Self-expression; Concentration; Fine motor skill development; Creative endeavour and Idea development.

Message 6: If we encourage children to add writing to existing modes of communication “writing becomes a parallel means of meaning making rather than a replacement for the drawing and talking they already do so well when they arrive at school” [or preschool/Kindergarten]. (Mackenzie, 2011, p. 338).

If given the models, opportunity, tools and encouragement, children spontaneously start to add writing to their drawings.
Drawing + Talking = 2 modes of expression
Drawing + Talking + Writing = 3 modes of expression

Message 7: Writing involves “complex perceptual-motor skill encompassing a blend of visual-motor coordination abilities, motor planning, cognitive, and perceptual skills, as well as tactile and kinaesthetic sensitivities” (Feder & Majnemer, 2007, p. 313) . . . requiring “sustained attention, sensory processing, and the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip”. (Lust and Donica, 2011, p.560).

Early writing ‘milestones’ – Please remember that children experience these milestones differently. Some of the milestones overlap with one another. The process of learning to write is not linear and is greatly influenced by the environment and the opportunities children have to experiment and copy. For example, a child with older siblings may be experimenting with drawing and writing tools differently to an only child or first child in family.

If children have access to the right tools they will engage in ways that are appropriate. Have tubs available with paper, scrap books and a variety of textas, pens, pencils, crayons etc. The amount of supervision required will depend upon age and experience. Introduce scissors when you can see that the children can learn to manipulate these. provide appropriate scissors and help them learn this tricky process.

Somewhere between 0 and 1 children start to notice those around them drawing and/or writing. (Make sure they see what you would like them to copy)

Between 1 and 2 most children begin to engage with writing tools – pens, pencils, crayons, electronic devices and possibly mark making tools that are not necessarily designed as writing tools (e.g. Lipstick).

Between 1 and 3 children intentionally engage with writing tools in an exploratory way – this often resembles what we would call scribble. They like to draw with their finger on the foggy window in the shower,  chalk on the footpath, or stick in the sand. They also love finger paint (the bath paint is fun) or some shaving cream on the kitchen bench.

Between 4 and 5 many children learn to write their name and this first important word becomes a resource for exploring writing more specifically.  It is helpful if children can write and read their name before starting school. [Check with the school as to how they want children to write their names. Many schools will advise a capital letter for the first letter and the rest of the word in lower case letters (e.g. Simon). You might also like to ask what script the school uses. For example, in Victoria it will probably be Victorian script while in NSW it with be NSW Foundation (you can find both on the internet).]


Between 5 and 8 children learn to create messages with a combination of drawings and writing. Having a purpose for writing is important (e.g. letters to Santa or invitations to their birthday party). They will learn to hear the sounds in words and match them to appropriate letters. Invented spelling provides opportunities for children to explore how words are constructed.

Sample 2 - Punct

Message 8: Handwriting is still important in the 21st century. . . . handwriting activates motor, visual, and linguistic areas of the brain and has a direct relationship with improving math, spelling, and science outcomes in later years . . . poor handwriting skills and a lack of automaticity with handwriting increases the cognitive load of a child and consequently reduces his or her ability to draw on other cognitive capacities to improve the content of writing (Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010; McCarney et al., 2013).

The benefits of handwriting to young learners include: Cognitive & Motor skills development; Learning letters, Spelling, Reading; Memory; Composition quality and Academic success.

Chapter 8 Figure 15 at 600 dpi

If you want to know more about teaching handwriting, there is a chapter in our new book (see details below) and a new article coming out in February  2018:  Mackenzie, N.M. & Spokes, R. (2018). The Why, Who, What, When and How of Handwriting Instruction. Practical Literacy: the early and primary years, 22 (1).

“There is a general agreement [in the research literature] that writing with digital devices (typewriting or writing with a stylus on a touchpad) has no consistent advantages compared with handwriting in educational settings. In contrast, there is evidence for a superiority of handwriting over typewriting with digital devices in several studies” (Kiefer & Velay, 2016  p. 80).

If you want to know more about the Australian handwriting and keyboarding survey conducted in 2016 you might like to read some of the earlier postings to this blog.

New book available from Jan 18, 2018: Mackenzie, N.M., & Scull, J.A. (Eds) (in press), Understanding and supporting young writers from birth to 8. Oxfordshire: Routledge, UK.

The Draw, Talk, Write resource is available at:


Dickinson, D. K., & Neuman, S. B. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2). New York: Guildford.

Feder, K., & Manjnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(4), 312-317.

Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008-1017. doi:10.1037/a0020104

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012). Literacies. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Kiefer, M., & Velay, J. L. (2016). Writing in the digital age. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 5, 77-81.

Lust, C. A., & Donica, D. K. (2011). Effectiveness of a handwriting readiness program in head start: a two-group controlled trial. AJOT: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 560.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2010). Motivating young writers. In J. Fletcher, F. Parkhill, & G. Gillon (Eds.), Motivating literacy learners in today’s world (pp. 23-32). Auckland: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).

Mackenzie, N. M. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 34(3), 322-340.

McCarney, D., Peters, L., Jackson, S., Thomas, M., & Kirby, A. (2013). Does Poor Handwriting Conceal Literacy Potential in Primary School Children? International Journal of Disability, Development & Education, 60(2), 105-118. doi:10.1080/1034912X.2013.786561

A focus on vocabulary

Learning is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge, however it is not until children are reading texts that involve age-appropriate vocabulary that vocabulary becomes a significant predictor of reading comprehension.

Decoding, fluency, and comprehension all draw upon students’ known vocabulary. Text participation requires the reader to know the meaning of individual words and how their meaning is influenced by the words around them. Text participation becomes increasingly important as texts become more complex. As with reading, writing becomes more dependent upon vocabulary knowledge as writing becomes more complex and topic specific.

Listening and Speaking – competence is in advance of reading and writing competence. Children can understand much more sophisticated content presented in oral language than they can read independently. As children are developing their reading and writing competence, we need to take advantage of their listening and speaking competencies to enhance their vocabulary development.

Learners need . . . “access to the meanings of words that are used by adults (particularly teachers) and other students, as well as those used in books and multimedia, if they are to participate in their community contexts and learn effectively.”

Daffern, T., & Mackenzie, N. M. (2015) Building strong writers: Creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing, Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, Volume 23(1).

Typically, by two years of age children will have a vocabulary of approximately 50 words and by the age of three years children demonstrate an ability to comprehend and assimilate a new word after hearing it only once or twice (Hoffnung et al., 2013). This vocabulary grows to approximately 14,000 words that they can use (expressive language) by the age of six (Hoffnung et al., 2013, p. 269) with the average school student capable of learning between 5 and 10 words per day (a total of between 2,000 and 4,000 during primary and high school).

Hoffnung, M., Hoffnung, R. J., Seiffert, K. L., Burton Smith, R., Hine, A., Ward, L., . . . Swabey, K. (2013). Lifespan Development: A topical approach. Milton, Qld: Wiley.

The power of the teacher

The vocabulary modelled by the teacher will have great impact on students’ vocabularies. However, building students’ vocabularies requires more than just modelling. A teacher must be interested in words. They must be aware of the words they are using and the words that students are being exposed to through texts and multimedia resources. They must actively seek opportunities to discuss words and encourage students to do the same.

Lane, H. B., & Allen, S. A. (2010). The vocabulary-rich classroom: Modeling sophisticated word use to promote word consciousness and vocabulary growth. The Reading Teacher, 63(5), 362-370. doi:10.1598/rt.63.5.2

Word consciousness may also be promoted through the use of puns, jokes, cross word puzzles, anagrams and word games. Explicit instruction and modelling will be important as will opportunities for definitional vocabulary work, which will require students to explore different aspects of words. This goes beyond the standard dictionary definitions to include opportunities for students to see how words can change meaning in different contexts.

The power of Read Aloud

In the ‘Reading Today’ journal – ILA March/April 2015 – Pam Allyn identified five methods to instil a life time of good literacy habits in children:

  • Read Aloud;
  • Encourage close reading from the youngest age (using critical thinking questions);
  • Make the literacy journey a celebration;
  • Hand them a pen; and
  • Honour each child’s unique identity.

In the same journal, Steven Layne quotes Patrick Shannon – “The first rule of teaching literacy is to read to your children”. A worthwhile read is Stephen Layne’s “In Defence of Read Aloud”

It has been argued that much vocabulary acquisition results from literacy and wide reading rather than from direct instruction. However, a great deal of vocabulary acquisition occurs before children are reading books that introduce unfamiliar vocabulary.

Biemiller, (2006) suggests that most children (90 percent plus) can acquire new vocabulary at rates necessary to reach “grade level” or near grade level vocabulary in middle elementary school, if given adequate opportunity to use new words and adequate instruction in word meanings.

Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In D. K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2, pp. 41-51). New York: The Guilford Press.

Vocabulary lessons should be planned and spontaneous. For example, a quick spontaneous five minute vocabulary or word cline lesson may encourage children to be more specific with word choices.

Which words should I teach?

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.). New York: The Guildford Press.

Tier 1:

These are the high frequency everyday words which are commonly used in spoken language and simple texts (e.g., run, happy, baby, dog). Most children have been exposed to these words before starting school, unless they are English Language Learners (EAL) with a background in a different language.

Tier 2:

These words are often referred to as high frequency words for mature language users (e.g., coincidence, introduce). It is knowledge of these Tier 2 words that Beck et al (2002) have argued have a powerful impact on language functioning and therefore should be the focus of classroom instruction.

Tier 3:

These words are low frequency domain specific words (e.g., isotope, herpetology).

In Conclusion:

The teaching of vocabulary is an equity issue and deserving of teachers’ time and energy. There is a “marked difference between the vocabulary knowledge of children from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds has been well documented” (Berne & Blachowicz, 2008).

Berne, J. I., & Blachowicz, C. L. Z. (2008). What reading teachers say about vocabulary instruction: Voices from the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 314-323.


How children learn to write

Just recently the university created an impact narrative based upon the research work I have conducted that highlights the relationship between drawing and writing. If you are interested please click on the following link:

If this tweaks your curiosity you may like to read:

Mackenzie, N.M. (2014). Teaching early writers: Teachers’ responses to a young child’s writing sample. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(3), 182-191.

Mackenzie, N.M. & Petriwskyj, A. (2017). Understanding and supporting young writers: opening the school gate. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42 (2) 78-87.

Mackenzie, N.M. (2011). From drawing to writing: What happens when you shift teaching priorities in the first six months of school? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 34(3), 322-340.

Mackenzie, N.M., & Veresov, N. (2013). How drawing can support writing acquisition: text construction in early writing from a Vygotskian perspective. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(4), 22-29.

Let’s talk about Finland: Lessons learned

In this post I am going to share some observations of my time in Finland in late 2016. For a thorough understanding of the Finnish education system I recommend that you read:

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. New York: Teachers College Press

25 years ago, Finland’s education system was not considered to be anything special – they made a conscious decision to create a system that was based upon equity. They looked at other systems for ideas, but then they decided to follow their own dream. Peruskoulu is the term used to describe comprehensive school from Years 1– 9 (compulsory schooling goes from ages 7-16).

Now, all children in Finland go to their local school (for free) and there is “little variation in student performance between schools in different parts of the country” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 6).

Before traveling to Finland in 2016 to spend time in schools and preschools, I read Sahlberg’s book and found it fascinating, but . . . I had this underlying idea that while the Finnish system was impressive, we couldn’t apply their processes here in Australia.  However, having been there in August/Sept 2016 and read Sahlberg’s book for the second time I think we can learn some important lessons from Finland that may make a difference to the learning opportunities for Australian children.

Finland has a smaller population than Australia.  True – but we have state education systems and the only Australian state bigger than Finland is NSW and it isn’t that much bigger. I wonder . . . who would dare?

Finland is not multicultural like Australia. Absolutely true – although they are taking more refugees and things are changing.

But did you know there are three official languages – Finnish, Swedish and Sami and most also speak some English? Finnish is the main language of education, with English introduced in Year 3 (by main stream classroom teachers and taught throughout primary school) and Swedish taught at high school. Many Finnish students leave school with Finnish plus two other languages (Swedish and English). Impressive!

Teaching as a profession is highly regarded and there is stiff competition to be accepted into a 5 year Research based Teacher Education Course. Teacher Education is free, but it is highly competitive. In 2016, the new intake of 90 into the Teacher Education Course at University of Lapland (where I was visiting) had been selected from 1000 applicants. Teachers are respected in the same way as doctors are in Finland. Why not in Australia? What could we do to ensure that Australian teachers were equally well regarded?

Teachers are respected for their knowledge and they are given a great deal of professional freedom – teacher judgement and formative assessment processes are pivotal. Teachers interpret the curriculum to meet the needs of their students. Primary schools teachers usually teach students for at least two years, giving them time to know their students and understand their learning needs. They do swap students to other classes if they feel that the student needs a different teacher.

Teachers in Finland teach less – the Primary School Day (at the schools I visited) goes from 8am-1pm, leaving the afternoon for planning, preparation and professional development.

“In Finland, teachers teach less and students spend less time studying, both in and out of school, than their peers in other countries” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 14).

I saw no wasted time in these shorter school days. Teaching is quite focused during each 45 minute lesson – I did not ever see a teacher NOT teaching during lesson time – whole class, small group or individual. Many lessons are conducted orally (class and group conversations) with a small amount of book work towards the end of the lesson. The only homework students have is the completion of book work (started in class but not completed). Primary school student who are efficient workers may never have homework.

The school assemblies I observed were limited to one per week – whole school – 10 minutes – the principal was the only speaker – short and sharp.

Starting school – the year children turn 7 in Finland, they start school. My observations of children starting school in August 2016, they are ready to go to school and ready to cope with the expectations of the teachers – they know how to listen, they know how to concentrate, they know how to engage, they know how to communicate, they know how to collaborate. There doesn’t seem to be a rush to get children reading and writing although the process starts on day one of the first year of school. Teachers refer to 9 year old students as ‘beginner readers and writers’.

Free hot lunches – All children in Finland preschools and schools are provided with a freshly prepared hot meal five days per week. They learn to try new things and eat together. This is the right of every child in Finland. The meals are good. I ate with the children while I was visiting, although I, like the teachers, had to pay a small fee for each meal (about 7 Euros). This is an interesting equity decision. No children bring food to school. All children eat the same food. If they have an allergy, they bring a doctor’s certificate and the school kitchen caters for their needs. I saw little of this. All children are encouraged to try a little of everything – and they do.

Creativity – I was amazed to see so much time devoted to create endeavours – art and handicrafts. The art and craft supplies were beautiful quality and time was provided under the careful guidance of the preschool and classroom teachers. Children developed their fine motor skills through these activities as well as their creativity. A recent post on the EduResearch Matters by Susan Davis (UCQ) challenged us to consider how Arts education fosters creativity and innovation –

“Creativity and innovation involves putting things together in new ways, it involves risk-taking, experimenting and refining, valuing the role of productive failure, and it involves making and doing, and is often collaborative and co-creative”.

Extra Support for Learning – Teachers’ aides are highly respected and actively involved in preschools and primary school lessons. Special Education teams are also evident in schools. According to Sahlberg (2015) almost half of all Finnish students “receive some sort of special education, personalised help, or individual guidance during their time in school”. This is a source of pride.

Preschool is free and is for one year only – the year children turn 6 years of age. It is free, and groups of 20 children are guided through preschool by a team of 4 qualified adults. Usually two qualified preschool educators and two qualified aides. Preschool is organised around play – half of the four hours daily is free play and the other half is structured play. However, free play has structure created by the resources that are provided. Board games, Jig saw puzzles and creative activities dominate although there are the usual Barbie Dolls, Home Corner, Lego and outside activities. Literacy instruction is restricted to learning how to read and write your name and to read and write the letters of the alphabet in Upper Case letters. There is no rush to learn to read or write, although about 25% of children ‘accidentally learn to read at preschool’.

What do children learn at preschool? Dispositions for learning that stand them in good stead for school:

  • Creativity
  • Concentration
  • Collaboration
  • Communication (includes listening skills)
  • You start something, you finish it

Our children can be at school from 4 ½ with Foundation classrooms often including children from 4 ½ to 6. Why couldn’t we model what we do in the first year of school on the Finnish Preschool with a greater focus on Play (structured and unstructured), Creativity and the development of Learning Dispositions and less on measurable outcomes? Why is play at school only what happens at recess and lunch?

These are my thoughts about some on the things I observed in Finland in 2016. It is interesting to note that the Finnish economy has also improved over the past 25 years along side their education system.

More on the vexed topic of handwriting

“Whichever way we look, written language is not going away. It is just becoming more closely intertwined with the other modes” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p.182)

I think these researchers are telling us that writing in the past was all about print (ie words and sentences) but now often includes other modes for example, images (still and moving) and sound. The texts we engage with on the Internet for example, include multiple modes or forms of meaning making. While it is important for students to learn to interpret and create multimodal texts (and they can do this from a very young age) print or written expression is often at the centre of these texts. Our children must learn how to write well – it is more important than ever (Brandt, 2015). However,

“a significant proportion of children experience handwriting difficulties throughout their schooling. More of these children are boys than girls and their handwriting difficulties are likely to impact upon their ability to compose written language”. (Medwell and Wray, 2008, p. 43)

What does the Australian Curriculum say about the teaching of handwriting?

The Australian curriculum (ACARA) is clear that handwriting should be taught from Foundation (first year of school) until Year 7 when students should have ‘a personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended period’.

However, it appears that there are students entering year 7 without having achieved the year 7 handwriting expectations.  Some parents who responded to the survey indicated that they had a child who was experiencing some difficulties with handwriting. One suggested,

It’s difficult for a child with poor handwriting to achieve the results they deserve, as their work is not always easy to digest.  

Recently I had a discussion with a Paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT) who deals with children and adolescents who have problems with fine motor skill development. She told me she receives lots of referrals for children who are struggling with handwriting from the first year of school right through to Year 12. I asked her to share the reasons for the referrals and she listed the following:

In the early years, referrals are for poor pencil grasp, not being able to make meaningful drawings, having limited ability to control the pencil, not grasping the concept of drawing letters and hand swapping. Each of these issues can make it difficult for a child to engage in writing tasks in the early years of school.

In primary school referrals relate to: being unable to write in a legible or organised manner, poor pencil grasp, being unable to write for extended periods of time, letter reversals and lack of progression. Given that from eight years of age children spend up to half of every school day engaged in writing tasks (across all subjects) this is a huge problem for some children.

High school students are referred for: illegible handwriting, slow handwriting, hand pain and fatigue. Some require special consideration or a ‘writer’ for external examinations. Given the amount of writing needed in high school, this is of particular concern.

Is there a gender difference in terms of referrals?

According to this OT “in the past there has certainly been a greater proportion of boys, however over the past 12 months the number of girls being referred has increased.”

Who refers children to OTs for handwriting problems?

  • Predominantly referrals come from schools/ teachers;
  • 30% overall from paediatricians – generally older students (grade 4 onwards);
  • 60% referrals for high school students come from paediatricians

I also wanted to know how children referred to an OT for help with handwriting feel about this.

  • the younger children are usually very responsive. Enjoy the one-one-one attention and a play based approach.
  • high school students usually demonstrate a sense of relief that someone is finally helping them and that school is going to be easier.

How do we know if a child has efficient, automatic handwriting?

While there are different assessments used to test handwriting automaticity, a simple test used by some researchers and schools involves children being asked to write as many letters of the alphabet (in lower case and then upper case) in one minute.

“Although children have plenty of opportunity to write all these letters in the course of their school work, they rarely write the whole alphabet from memory in sequence, so this task is not well rehearsed and demands organisation and retrieval of letter forms in visual memory as well as the generation of the relevant motor patterns”. (Medwell & Wray, 2014, p. 39)

According to Medwell and Wray,

At the beginning of year 1 a child should be able to:

  • Form all the letters correctly and easily when copying and in response to letter names
  • Recite and write the alphabet in correct order

At the end of year 2 a child should be able to:

  • Form all the letters correctly and easily when copying and in response to letter names
  • write the whole alphabet from memory using correctly formed letters in alphabetical order in under 1 minute (This is a test of automaticity)
  • Decide when it is appropriate to use neat handwriting

It is worth noting that Medwell and Wray also suggest that by the end of year 2 children should be able to locate all the alphabet keys (on a keyboard) rapidly in response to letter names or visual cues (like cards or letters on screen).

I wonder what the answer is for today’s children. It seems to me that they need to learn to write efficiently by hand and using digital devices, as both are used in schools on a daily basis. The temptation to think that handwriting may be a thing of the past is not realistic at this point in time. Why?

  1. School do not have the infrastructure to provide all children with digital devices for all writing tasks from the start of school;
  2. Teachers do not have the training to teach keyboarding to children in a way that would make handwriting obsolete;
  3. While we have research to link handwriting and thinking and learning processes, we do not have the same research for keyboarding and thinking and learning;
  4. We do not have the research to tell us when the optimum age is for teaching children keyboarding skills; and
  5. We do not have the research to explain how a focus on keyboarding only will impact child development processes.

References for this post

Brandt, D. (2015). The rise of writing: Redefining mass literacy. Cambridge, UK: University Printing House.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). Multiliteracies: new literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4(3), 164-195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2008). Handwriting – A forgotten language skill? Language and Education, 22(1), 34-47. doi:10.2167/le722.0

Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2014). Handwriting automaticity: The search for performance thresholds. Language and Education, 28(1), 34-51. doi:10.1080/09500782.2013.76381