Part 1 of the survey findings

N.B.  The full survey findings will be reported in a peer reviewed research journal in the future. What I offer here, and in the coming weeks, are findings from the survey that I think may be of interest, along with some commentary.

The survey generated lots of interest. If you were one of the 353 parents (40.7% of the sample), 434 teachers (50.1% of the sample) or 79 retired teachers (9.1% of the sample) thank you for taking the time to complete the survey.

The majority of teacher respondents came from NSW and Victoria – most from Metropolitan (46%), followed by Regional Cities (28.8%), Rural Towns (19.5%) and Remote locations (3.6%). The spread was similar for parents and retired teachers.

Most respondents represented Public Schools: Teachers (57.2%), Retired teachers (76.9%) and Parents (61.6%) although respondents also came from religious and independent schools.

So what did the survey respondents say?

  • The teachers (92%), retired teachers (95%) and parents (94%) indicated that handwriting remains important in the 21st century
  • The retired teachers (92%) and current teachers (88%) indicated their belief that handwriting can affect learning in other disciplines
  • Most teachers (86%), retired teachers (87%) and parents (80%) believe that handwriting difficulties can impact a student’s self esteem
  • Most teachers (74%), retired teachers (87.5%) and parents (85%) believe that handwriting should be taught all throughout Primary School

Susan Cahill has also argued that handwriting is a critical life skill for primary school students.

“In today’s environment of high-stakes testing, handwriting is a skill that is often overlooked in order to focus on other areas of the curriculum. However, research indicates that handwriting is tied to academic achievement, especially composition and literacy skills.” (2009, p. 223)

[Cahill, S. M. (2009). Where does handwriting fit in? Strategies to support academic achievement. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(4), 223-228.]

  • Most teachers (87.5%) and retired teachers (90.5%) agreed that efficient handwriting frees up working memory so children can concentrate on their composition

Medwell & Wray (2007), suggest that one of the most important rationales for handwriting instruction is the development of speed and automaticity thus freeing up working memory.

[Medwell, J., & Wray, D. (2007). Handwriting: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Literacy, 41(1), 10-15.]

What does that mean? What is working memory?

Some suggest that we can only keep 3-5 items in our mind at once. When we are learning something new we have to pay more attention to the steps involved.

I am going to use learning to drive as an example. While we are learning to drive, we need to pay conscious attention to every element of the process: holding the steering wheel, using indicators, checking mirrors, working the brakes and accelerator (changing gears and working the clutch if the car is manual), watching the traffic, thinking about where we are going, speed etc etc. This is a complex process that takes a lot of short term working memory when we are a learner but once we have become an experienced driver, we do a lot of the steps automatically, freeing up our working memory to think about other things: what to cook for dinner, where you are going on the weekend, what the kids need to do after school etc etc. You may also be able to manage a cup of coffee, change the radio station and carry on a sensible conversation.

I wonder: Have you ever driven somewhere familiar and arrived thinking I don’t remember anything about the trip? Crazy but true. I have a friend who once admitted that she headed off down town one Saturday morning, to go shopping – but before she knew it she had pulled into the carpark at her work – nowhere near the shops. She couldn’t do that unless the steps involved in driving the car were automatic.

Writing is also complex: Writing involves understanding of how to apply Authorial skills (text structure selection – the right form for the communication – e.g. a report or a letter, sentence structure [grammar], and vocabulary choices) and Secretarial or Editorial skills (spelling, punctuation use and handwriting/keyboarding). To write well you need to have the knowledge and understandings of all of these  6 dimensions.

So, when a child is learning to write, handwriting or keyboarding are only one of 6 different elements they need to juggle. That doesn’t include content, or what they are writing about. That is a lot to learn.

If our handwriting or keyboarding is automatic and fast, we can concentrate on other elements of writing. Neither skill is practiced for their own sake or enjoyment. We hand write or use a keyboard because we have a message to convey.

Children of the 21st century need (I think) to learn both skills so they can choose the appropriate method for the task. I do not write my research papers, reports or blog postings by hand, I use a keyboard and computer. But, I do take notes by hand in meetings and I write on cards by hand. I still write my shopping list by hand. I think children should have the choice.

Enough for this week – next week I will share some more data from the survey with some more discussion around how and why primary aged children still need to learn how to write by hand automatically and efficiently. Did you know that we remember more that we write by hand than what we type? More next week. Noella

Learning to (hand)write in Finland

Learning to write in Finland starts in the very first week of Year 1. In Finland children start school the year they turn seven and the school year starts in August, meaning some are 7 1/2 before they start.  The school day is quite short (8am-1pm) and children are in classes of 20 children. The short school day and small classes continues throughout primary school. Children start Year 1 with a teacher who will also teach them in Year 2. Teachers all have 5 year Masters Degrees.

The term ’writing’ refers to any/all forms of text creation including early mark-making, scribble, drawing, painting, writing with letters, words and or sentences, and multi-modal and digital text creation (e.g, drawing plus talking, drawing plus writing). Handwriting is an important ‘secretarial’ skill that facilitates written communication.

Handwriting has been defined by Dinehart (2015) as ‘the ability to produce writing quickly and legibly‘.

Handwriting in Finland: I was interested to see that handwriting instruction started in the very first week of the first year of school. The instruction was very specific and daily. As the children mostly knew all the capital letters  the teachers started to introduce lower case letters in the very first week, while they checked the way they wrote their upper case letters.

Daily handwriting practice opportunities provided in a variety of ways – e.g. with paint and paint brush, apps on a computer tablet, small blackboards and white boards and in a writing book. The teacher watched closely and corrected any poor formations or poor pencil grip. I noted that most children had a good pencil grip.

Teachers told me that children learn how to hold a pencil when they draw. They do a lot of drawing at preschool and this continues into school. I noticed that the children’s drawings were creative and detailed.

Special pencils provided: I noted that all children were provided with pencils designed to make it easy to develop good pencil grip.They are thick and triangular, with round cut-outs that make them easy to grip correctly. I have seen them in some good toy shops and office/art supplies places in Australia but not provided by schools.

Children (aged 7) were keen to develop their ability to write well.

It is interesting to note the use of Copy Books. While these can be helpful, they can also be a trap. If children copy incorrectly they can develop bad habits. For these books to be helpful, the teacher must provide very clear demonstrations of ‘where to start and which way to go’ and then check that the child is forming the letter correctly. While the arrows provided may appear to overcome the need for vigilance, that is not the case. The teachers in these classrooms were checking children to ensure they were starting in the right place and correctly forming the letters. Only a small number of children were working in the books at the same time. I observed explicit handwriting instruction in Year 1, 2 and 3 classrooms.

No more Cursive Writing in Finland’s schools: Finland started a new Curriculum in August 2016. While children in the past were taught to print in years 1 and 2 and introduced to Cursive writing in Year 3, that is no longer the case. I observed as a Year 2 teacher explained to her students how writing in Finland’s schools was changing. She showed them what she described as ‘old fashioned writing‘. Then she showed them Finnish Cursive that children in the past were taught from Year 3.The children were disappointed to discover that they would not be learning cursive or ‘Running Writing‘.

Keyboarding or typing is gradually introduced in the primary schools. This is new for most as in the past it was not a requirement of the curriculum. While some classrooms had access to computers, often these were shared across classes. The computer comfort of the teachers varied greatly but this is a new focus for Finland.

Next week I will share a little about how the timetable is organised in Finnish Year 1 and 2 classes and start sharing some of the findings from the Handwriting and Keyboarding survey that many of you contributed to last year.

What about Finland?

Well it was a long time coming, but I can finally start to share some of the findings of my Handwriting and Keyboarding survey with you. However, before I start with the survey findings I want to report on my visit to Finland in August and September 2016.

What about Finland?

I was lucky enough to spend five weeks visiting schools and preschools in one of the most beautiful parts of the world that I have ever had the good fortune to visit. At preschool and school all children are provided with a hot meal for lunch that is prepared at the school.  All children eat the lunch that is provided. If they have special dietary requirements, the school kitchen can cater for these. Children do not take any food to preschool or school. Lunch is served cafeteria style and children sit at tables and eat with a knife and fork. Children are encouraged to try a little of everything. While visiting, I ate the school lunches and was very impressed with the food and the way the children conducted themselves.

Preschool

In Finland children go to Preschool the year that they turn six. The school year begins in August as does the preschool year. Six year old children attend preschool every day for four hours for one year and there is no cost to parents. The preschool classrooms I visited had two qualified Early Childhood teachers and two qualified Early Childhood assistants for a class of 20 six year old children. The preschool program is play based and so children spend their day engaged in both structured and unstructured play activities. This varies from: construction with Lego; playing with dolls in the home corner; playing a variety of board-games; completing jig saw puzzles; listening to stories along with creative pursuits like craft, drawing and painting.

At preschool children are taught how to write their names in capital letters. They are also taught the alphabet in capital letters. Preschool is not the place to focus on learning to read, write, or formally engage in mathematics; that starts in school.

The atmosphere is relaxed but busy and very positive. It seemed to me that children would come out of preschool with some very important skills and messages to take with them to school. I have listed these below, in no particular order.

  1. Listening skills – children learn to be active listeners through the conversations they have with adults and other children as well as listening to stories.
  2. Attentiveness and concentration – I observed children playing the same board game for 45 minutes and others who worked in pairs or small groups to complete quite complex jig saw puzzles.
  3. Perseverance – you finish what you start, and then you clean up. If you are playing a board game, you don’t give up because you aren’t winning, you finish the game and the winner packs the game away.
  4. Sense of self as a learner – children seem to demonstrate positive self-esteem without appearing over confident. The feedback they receive is based on ‘having a go’ not getting the best score. They are however normal children, so there is always some healthy competition. There is no ‘testing’ but the teachers interview each child from time to time to find out what things they would like to explore.
  5. Creativity – children are encouraged to draw, paint and to make things using craft materials. They are provided with beautiful quality resources (e.g. pastels and paints) and are given the time and support to be creative.
  6. The alphabet (in capital letters) and how to write their names (also in Capital letters). While the program is very relaxed, children are exposed to writing and reading and teachers told me that 25% children ‘accidentally learn to read and write’ at preschool.
  7. Fine motor skills develop through the drawing, craft and art activities. Interestingly, children are taught how to hold a pencil during drawing rather than writing. They do far more drawing than writing at this stage in their learning and drawing provides lots of opportunities to develop pencil grip, without the pressures of learning to write at the same time
  8. How to work with books – children listen to stories and handle books in a very relaxed way.
  9. Respect for their teachers and other children.

While none of the above are surprising, I remind you, that these children are in preschool the year they turn six years of age and given that the school year starts in August, many can be 6 ½ before starting preschool.  My next posting will look at starting school in Finland and discuss how writing is introduced to children in the first year of school.

Becoming a Writer Project

Becoming a writer began in 2007 and has a particular focus on the relationship between talking, drawing and early writing. Each year since 2007 Noella has worked closely with preschool and early years teachers and gathered extensive data from young children. An exciting professional outcome of the Becoming a Writer Research has been the development of a short video presentation View the video[ 12 minutes long, opens in new window]. to be used by schools with parents of children starting school. The presentation is supported by a take home brochure for parents. These resources were funded and supported by the NSW Department of Education and Communities, Riverina Equity programs. In 2015, Becoming a Writer expanded into a project titles; Understanding and supporting Young Writers which was run with the Victorian Curriculum and assessment Authority with Kindergarten and Prep teachers from the Marysville Cluster and Darebin Early Years Network.

VCAA – new (2016) video for Early Childhood Professional and Parents and brochure for parents. http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Pages/earlyyears/subscribe.aspx

Writing Analysis Tool

About the Writing Analysis Tool

Writing is a complex process, and this complexity poses particular challenges when researchers and teachers approach the task of analysing young students’ writing samples. This tool is designed to map shifts over time in the range of skills and competencies young writers use to communicate intended meanings and messages using standard writing conventions. Writing samples (N=3193) were collected from 1799 students, in the two most populous states of Australia in 2010. The close analysis of 210 samples by four members of the research team supported the development of the tool. The tool and its application revealed key areas of learning and the current range of Year One students’ writing in these areas. While designed for the purpose of research, the tool has the potential to help classroom teachers capture shifts in students’ writing, assist teachers to provide feedback to students, and support teaching decisions.

Technical information

This web app is designed for desktop/laptop devices and tablet devices. It has not been optimised for mobile phones.

The recommended browsers are listed on the main application page. Though this tool is built with HTML5 and CSS3 it has only been optimised for the recommended Firefox, Safari and Chrome browsers. It is also recommended that you use the latest versions of these browsers for the best experience.

Get the latest versions of these browsers: