Monday, 10 August 2009

Mary Coen Advanced Skills Teacher and Letter Layers creator: The World of the Emerging Writer

I am an Advanced Skills Teacher in Literacy and the creator of Letter Layers, a revolutionary interactive programme that encourages early adoption of cursive writing skills. The idea for Letter Layers was developed during my years as a teacher (over 20 years between you and me ;-)) and was based on the research I carried out as part of my Masters Degree studies in Special Education.

I see cursive handwriting and the correct formation of individual letters as an essential skill that children must develop as soon as possible in their journey to becoming independent writers. Sadly, it is an area that has been long neglected by research and government and there is a need for more guidance and resources to help teach this fundamental ingredient of early literacy development.

Handwriting has also been largely ignored by the National Curriculum and even The Revised Strategy is still only concerned with neatness, style and correct joining. Composition has been seen to be the main driver in children learning to write.

Class Teachers have been discouraged from distracting children from the creative/composition side of writing by drawing attention to handwriting while they are composing. But what happens if you are unsure of how to form the first letter of the first word that your story starts with?

“Does the ‘a’ start on the line, in the middle, further along the page?”

What happens if you are printing and not writing cursively and therefore run out of time in a timed writing exercise – you are unable to get to the climax of the wonderfully creative story you had crafted so beautifully in your head?

Nothing – that’s what happens.

Sometimes it is worse than nothing.

Anger and frustration at not being able to note down ideas and thoughts can often be seen in primary classrooms.

Children who are unable to note down their thoughts, who are unable to write, come to detest making any mark on paper as they feel they have failed at the first hurdle.

Early writing is an extremely complicated process

There is no hierarchy in the complex set of skills required for writing. Children work on lots of the components for writing at the same time e.g. hearing sounds, recognising sound symbols, linking a sound to a symbol etc. Handwriting or the formation of letters is just one of these skills. Imagine … a child that is able to write the letter ‘e’ doesn’t necessarily know that the sound it makes is ‘eh’ and may not be able to hear the sound ‘eh’ at the beginning of the word ‘egg’. It’s an exhausting business learning to write!

Before any of these skills become embedded or automatic the child holds them in the working memory. This is like a temporary storage box where we hold the information necessary for completing any given task.

The working memory is constantly being bombarded with ideas and thoughts. This causes problems. Once a task has been completed new information is introduced to the working memory so that it can complete other tasks and existing information that has not become embedded in the long term memory is discarded to make room for this fresh data. An example of this might be where a child was able to write the letter ‘e’ perfectly well on Monday but on Friday they are unsure of where the letter should begin and end. (And ‘e’ is a pretty tricky letter to write! It looks a lot like a squiggle to the child!)

This is why in the early stages of writing children have to be reminded each day of the same things they were reminded of the previous day. E.g. What’s the first sound you can hear in ‘dog’? How do we write the sound ‘d’? What other sounds can you hear in ‘dog’? Etc.

What does research say?

Research is now telling us that although we know that there is no hierarchy in the skills needed to produce writing, the skill of being able to hear a sound and write the corresponding letter as early as possible is crucial if the child is to be an effective writer.

Therefore the earlier children are able to recognise sounds and form letters correctly the earlier they will get on to composing pieces of writing that they will be delighted with.

Look out for more my next article where I will explain why children MUST learn how to write cursively as early as possible.

CLAY, M. (1975) What Did I Write? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT (1998) The National Literacy Strategy Framework for Teaching. London: Department foe Education and Employment

MEDWELL, J., and WRAY, D. (2007) Handwriting: what do we know and what do we need to know? UKLA, 41, pp. 10-15

BEARNE, E., and GRAINGER, T. (2004) Raising boys’ achievement in writing. UKLA, 38, pp. 156-158

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