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Perfect…Says Who?

“ k can be quite a tricky letter,” I explained in one of my feedback videos. “Let’s have a look at how you’re forming it now, then I’ll show you three ways I’ve found other people like and that work well when you want to join up.”

As you can see (and as is often the case with many letters I look at) 6-year-old Ella had developed her own representation of ‘k’ as she had perceived it. 

Here are the alternatives I modelled for her in a demonstration video so she could follow HOW they were formed. She experimented with them and decided she liked the top one best so that is the one we stuck with and practised. 

In last week’s blog – Perfect 🙂 I said I’d come back to think more specifically about individual letter formations and who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ and ‘without fault’ * when it comes to handwriting. I think this is where some of the confusion and frustration around handwriting judgement arises. 


Here’s some background to the issue:

On a very simple level, when a child forms a particular letter, they create a neural pathway in the brain. That pathway is strengthened through repetition and eventually the brain automates the process, freeing up working memory for new thinking.

I get children to imagine crossing a field of tall grass. 

To begin with it’s hard work treading down the grass but, after crossing a few times, it gets easier. Eventually (after crossing many times) a clear, definite pathway forms. They now barely notice it as they’re strolling along, and their thoughts are free to turn to other things like what they fancy eating or what game they’re going to play with their friend when they get to the other side of the field. 

This is what it’s like with handwriting (or developing any other skill or habitual thinking for that matter). Repetition leads to automation. The unconscious mind takes over.

To replace an automated formation the new version must be practised to the point where the new pathway is strong enough to supersede the existing one. This takes time of course and is the reason children revert to ‘old habits’ like reversals or spelling mistakes no matter how often they are ‘reminded’. They simply haven’t had the opportunity to practise enough. Little and often is key to success. 

(It’s also the reason I STILL revert to typing in an old password when my thoughts are elsewhere as I log in!)


Now here are the issues relating to ‘perfect’ handwriting:

The thing is, very specific teaching is effective…

Very clear, specific formation of individual letters (and then ways to join them) supports reinforcement of the pathways. 

I teach this way. I give choices where appropriate and explain (very simply) what’s happening in the brain; once we’re agreed though, we stick to it and I help children notice tiny details between formations and positioning. 

Today for example, I’ll be helping this 9-year-old notice the difference between his y and mine…

I guess this could be seen as imposing my judgement of ‘perfect’ handwriting; the fact is, letters need to be clearly identifiable so they can be read.

He’d chosen between these ‘y’s:

Once a decision is made I structure the process of repetition. Practice then allows the pathways through the field to become clear (automated) so that – in time – the writer is free to run around and play with their thoughts and words… expressing themselves without worrying about judgement of their handwriting or whether someone will be able to read it.

I talk about this to children often. I help remove stress and anxiety.

Ultimately part-cursive has been shown to be the most time-efficient script; I explain that we learn all the useful joins so that later on they will unconsciously decide which letters they do and don’t join when writing at speed. 

I also remind them that once they’ve established a fluent, cursive script they feel good about they can have fun evolving their style and experimenting with alternative formations … adding little touches of personality! They’ll end up with different styles for different audiences and purposes.

For me, ‘perfect’ handwriting, that is ‘complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault’ * is that which:

  • makes the writer FEEL GOOD 
  • is legible (to themselves and others)
  • is useful and used

To this end I think it’s the job of Primary schools to give time and focus to developing a fluent, automated cursive script and that Secondary schools should then take up the baton and support the evolution of personal style and practical application. My goals are applicable to both settings.

I agree schools should have a consistent approach. That doesn’t mean following a scheme blindly. It’s okay to offer alternative formations. Nor does it mean forcing all teachers to write in the school’s adopted script. Although this is helpful for demonstrating and many teachers choose to develop it, there are other ways to model formations to children (using the Better Handwritten videos for example). Teachers simply need to explain that they were taught and automated a different style when they were younger. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad about their handwriting. If they don’t feel good about it they can change it but if they’re happy with it they shouldn’t feel judged or criticised.

They DO need to understand how to teach handwriting well.

And they need to be aware of the powerful impact their interest or disinterest has on students.


One of my daughter’s friends came to stay last year; as we were chatting it became apparent that (aged 19) he had NEVER received a handwritten letter. Birthday and Christmas cards – yes – but never a letter.

We became pen-pals! Sometimes he’s expressed worry that I’ll judge his handwriting negatively (because of my work)… his formations and joins are not as I teach but he’s not a child learning and I can tell you, I think his writing is perfect:

  • He feels good about it
  • It’s legible
  • He’s using it and enjoying the fun and connection letter writing brings.

AND it makes me smile every time I see it on an envelope on my doormat 🙂

What makes handwriting perfect to you?


For more information on developing handwriting or the teaching of handwriting get in touch with Nicky at:

email: nicky@betterhandwritten.com

Twitter: @nicky_parr


Cambridge Dictionary Definition of ‘perfect’

Perfect :)

“I’ve hung Poppy’s lead up there, is that okay?” asked my brother. 
We’d just got back from a lovely walk and he’d headed into the house before me while I’d stopped to chat to a neighbour.

“That’s perfect,” I replied. “Thank you.”

Perfect

It’s a word I use quite often I’ve realised and, given last week’s blog where I was thinking about the damaging effect of a developing a perfectionist mindset, I decided I’d give it some attention this week and reflect on whether it’s something I might want to change. 

The model I use for helping people feel better about handwriting is one that translates to anything we want to adapt and achieve. I use it myself all the time. It works every time:

  • focus attention and notice what’s happening now
  • break down what you want to change or happen into manageable chunks
  • take small step consistent action
  • reflect often and adapt as necessary in order to achieve desired outcomes (success)

Here are the kind of things I noticed myself saying when talking to students or thinking about handwriting:

“You’re forming ‘d’ perfectly now.”

(To a 7-year-old student)

Before
After

“This handwriting is perfect for the task.”

(Thinking about Bruce Springsteen’s notes for a gig playlist)

Bruce Springsteen – Handwritten Set List From 1986 Bridge School ...


“It makes perfect sense that your brain is still going back to your old formations while you’re busy choosing words, arranging them in sentences, remembering them and spelling them. There’s a lot going on!”

(Reassuring a 7-year-old who was disappointed his practice handwriting didn’t immediately translate to his story writing handwriting)

Handwriting Practice
Free Writing

“Ahhh, what a perfect gift…how lovely!”

(Response to this message from a mum who kindly shared her birthday card from her daughter:

“Absolutely love how far she has come with her handwriting!”)

Baseline Writing
Birthday Card

“None of us have perfect ‘birthday card’ handwriting all the time. Sometimes we’re just not in the mood. Sometimes we’re annoyed and it shows in our writing. That’s okay.”

(Reflecting on ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ practice with a 9-year-old student)

‘Happy’ Practice
‘Unhappy’ Practice

The Cambridge Dictionary says:

Perfect (Adjective)

1 – complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault: 

2 – used to emphasize a noun: ‘That makes perfect sense.’

3 – exactly right for someone or something:  ‘You’ve done a perfect job.

2 and 3 I’m fine with, 1 needs exploring further I think. So next week I’ll look more specifically at individual letter formations and who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ and ‘without fault’ when it comes to handwriting!

For now, having given it some attention and thought, I’ve decided I’m happy saying ‘perfect’. I use it in ways that align with my intentions and beliefs. I’m aware I need to be mindful my words are received as intended though. Because each person’s interpretation of perfect will be personal, based on their experiences and their sense of self. 

For me handwriting is a means of expression, communication and support. It’s the perfect tool to be employed and enjoyed (one that is often taken for granted or dismissed as outdated). It’s a skill that should be taught well so that children and adults always have it at their fingertips with no feeling of judgement becoming a barrier to using it. Then they can get on with being perfect just as they are with one less fear and worry.


What do you think? What does perfect mean to you?

Perfection Perception Perspectives

Laura’s Story

Note: Laura isn’t one person. She’s an amalgamation of people I’ve been privileged to listen to, chat with or support over many years. Laura represents their ‘perfection perception perspectives’.

The experiences are real. Through Laura I hope to give you an opportunity to think, reflect and understand that, for some who appear ‘lucky’ and acquire skills easily, there may be a hidden price they’re paying. Laura’s need for ‘perfect’ handwriting was in fact a clue to her misguided belief that she was valued and appreciated for what she produced rather than who she was.


Laura’s world began to crumble, soon after being awarded the school’s annual coveted trophy for consistent high achievement. 

It was the culmination of a year filled with praise: verbal praise, written praise, stickers, on-line sticker trackers, praise postcards… even phone calls home. She’d crossed the end of Year 8 finish line in 1st place and been heralded as an exceptional positive role model to other students. Unwittingly though, much of this praise for external achievement had resulted in Laura feeling that everything she produced needed to be ‘perfect’. She couldn’t afford to let anything slip.

The trouble for Laura was that now – suddenly – she found she had nothing left to give. She had completely burnt out. The only way was down and that was too much to bear.

Laura didn’t return to school for the next two years.

Handwriting – her beautiful handwriting – was in fact an indicator of her inner turmoil and a contributor to that burn out.


Laura had excellent fine motor skills. She’d found it easy to develop neat, fluent cursive writing at an early age and her work was constantly praised and held up as an example of impeccable presentation for others to aspire to. As you might imagine, she’d been one of the first in her class to get a ‘pen licence’, was proud of her writing and enjoyed making her work beautiful.

Things started to get a tricky towards the end of primary school as feedback began to emerge that she was writing too slowly. Lower than expected test scores were attributed to not writing at speed. Although Laura tried to address this, it upset her when her writing looked messy and the anxiety she felt made it hard for her to focus. She became angry and unhappy but no-one could understand why. In fact, she was criticised for being miserable when she was so ‘lucky’ and others found things much harder. She began to feel she must be a bad person.


When Laura moved to secondary school, she was keen to have a fresh start, make a good impression and do well. 

She made an excellent impression and did well. Very well. Brilliantly. She seemed like a magnet for praise and recognition.

What no-one realised (because she hid it so well) was that Laura was putting herself under immense pressure to keep up the standards she felt were expected of her and that she expected of herself. Beautiful handwriting was a must and yet it became impossible to produce with the increasing demands of her schoolwork. 

So Laura found a solution. She started to get up in the night to rewrite her work. She’d set an alarm for 3am and enjoy the peace and quiet of writing without distraction. No-one knew. No-one knew either, how angry she felt when teachers ‘messed up’ the work she had painstakingly written and re-written by marking it with untidy handwriting! Laura kept this up and kept it in…

… until the end of Year 8.


I’m sure you’ll agree, we need to be careful, don’t we?

This is not okay.

We need to stop and reflect… become more aware and think about the unconscious messages we might be giving to children and young people. Actions and comments contribute to shaping their thoughts and thoughts determine their experience of the world.

Hang on a minute… isn’t your work all about helping people develop ‘perfect’ handwriting Nicky? 

No, actually it’s not.

My work is about helping people feel better about handwriting, whether that’s their own handwriting or teaching it to others. It’s true that this mostly involves helping them change the look of their script but whether that’s to make it look ‘better’ or ‘worse’ depends on the needs of the individual.

Better Handwritten has 3 clear goals. We want people to:

  • feel good about their handwriting
  • feel confident that it’s legible (to themselves and others) 
  • benefit from using a range of handwritten strategies in their everyday lives

I’ll explore the concept of ‘perfect’ more in next week’s blog but for now here’s my perspective:

I’d love to hear your stories and experiences so please do get in touch!

You can find me on Twitter: @nicky_parr

or email: nicky@betterhandwritten.com

We Need to Talk About Pen Licences

All writing must be on the line. All handwriting must be the correct size and not too big or too small. All handwriting must be joined up where appropriate. To be awarded a pen licence, the child MUST produce at least a week’s worth of work in their literacy book that fulfils all of the criteria above.

And don’t forget…

From a pen licence available to purchase online

How do you feel reading this? 

Would you qualify for a licence? Would you get to keep it?

Are these realistic expectations? 

What unconscious messages are being transmitted? 

How do you think children feel about their ability to ‘pass the pen test’? 

All children.

How might teachers feel having to implement this kind of policy?

So many questions… sorry!

Of course children who acquire fine motor skills relatively easily and whose visual perception allows them to navigate lines effectively will be fine. But they would be anyway and that’s by no means the experience for many children. 

I think we need to talk about pen licences.

I’m fascinated. As I read the above examples (and many others scattered across the internet), I felt a surprisingly powerful wave of emotion wash over me and my fingers actually began to tingle! Here’s what came to my mind:

If your handwriting does not meet the criteria…

‘Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go! Do not collect £200.’

Monopoly Will Soon No Longer Have A Jail | Jail, Monopoly party ...

You’ll be fitted with a tag on release; if you re-offend, your pen privilege will be revoked and you will be sent straight back to Pencil-ville Prison (see my word play on Pentonville Prison?) 

It might sound a little dramatic but haha, that’s what surfaced! The frequency transmitted from the policies felt loaded… so heavy and full of judgement. 

Maybe I’ve just heard too many stories about the damaging and long-lasting negative impact on those who were last in class to get their pen licence or indeed never did. 

Maybe I’ve felt too much distress and anger during conversations with parents who have seen their child’s self-esteem plummet when they are not deemed worthy of the right to write in pen. When they see their child lose hope, feel ashamed and embarrassed.

Maybe I’m too aware that the teaching of handwriting is often not really understood or delivered effectively so it’s impossible for some children to achieve these demands.

Maybe my brain has encoded the concept as something that has an unwitting potential to threaten or hurt and a protective instinct kicks in. 

Who knows?

Whatever the reason, I felt strongly as I read.

I feel strongly. About pen licences. I don’t like them. I don’t think they are necessary and I believe the damage potential far outweighs the benefit of motivation potential.

I know opinion is divided and why… so let’s talk about it. 

If you feel they’re a good thing (or are indifferent) would you be open-minded to considering an alternative opinion? We can always agree to disagree.

The longer I work with people around handwriting, the more I come to understand just how deeply emotions are connected, felt and remain. My client work becomes about so much more than how letters look on a page. In my experience, when pen licences come up they frequently trigger an outpouring of angst or anger.

Before continuing I probably ought to clarify what a pen licence is!

It’s usually a certificate or wallet-sized card (similar to a driving licence) used by some schools – still many schools, judging by a quick search on Google – to incentivise pupils and mark their transition from writing in pencil to pen.

It’s a very public comparative judgement. While the certificate itself may travel to the relative privacy of a fridge, bedroom wall, drawer or bin, the day-to-day writing implement permitted serves as a daily reminder and mark of that judgement.

I have to be honest, when I asked on Twitter how people felt about ‘pen licences’ a week before writing this article, I wasn’t expecting so many to vote:

One of my favourite quotes comes from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’.

So let’s consider the interpretations of good, bad and indifferent.

About 400 people (15%) thought pen licences were good.

My class love them! I introduced them this term and the children have responded so positively. Handwriting has really improved.

This is the kind of comment I sometimes hear. It doesn’t surprise me and I get it. Children generally love challenges and the prospect of reward and recognition. A pen licence is a carrot being dangled in front of them as motivation and inspiration.

To this end it will initially activate the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS operates as a filter for what should be processed and prioritised.

To begin with everyone appears motivated. Improvement is apparent as attention is focused. As time goes by though, as some children achieve but others don’t, as attention inevitably moves on to other things (the teacher’s as well as the child’s), the carrot too often remains out of reach. Particularly if teaching and feedback isn’t specific and delivered systematically, consistently and with understanding of all that’s involved in the learning process for handwriting. Cognitive overload related to tasks and time demands can often see children stuck, unable to affect change and with feelings of failure, frustration and disappopintment.  

Still I do understand why some people might see the model as a good one though:

  • some may have had a positive experience receiving a pen licence (either for themselves or their children)
  • they see the positives in the incentive intention 
  • they feel there is clarity about what is expected (is achievement supported effectively though?)
  • it might seem to provide evidence of high expectations from teachers and school (added bonus – Ofsted will probably like that won’t they?)

About 1400 people (52%) felt pen licences were bad. 

 “Max was last in his class to get his pen licence. He went from loving school to not wanting to go in and the very thought of writing made him angry. It made me angry. We were told handwriting improvement would just come if he practised. But it didn’t. Handwriting became a four-letter word in our household. I felt we were completely let down.” Parent

I can understand why people see the model as bad (and include my own perspectives here):

  • it discriminates against pupils who, through no fault or lack of effort on their part, are less able to control a pencil and/or influence their visual perception
  • teaching may not be effective
  • time pressure may make handwriting demands unachievable
  • criteria are unrealistic in relation to the additional demands of writing (cognitive overload)
  • it encourages perfectionism; this is damaging and I’ll blog about it next time
Extract from criteria for a ‘Platinum’ Pen Licence
  • the threat or actual loss of a pen licence and pen use is shaming
  • the model misses the point – pens are writing implements; how are children going to learn to use them effectively if they don’t have an opportunity to let their eyes, brain and hand adjust and coordinate to sensory feedback that is different to that from a pencil. You shouldn’t have to ‘earn’ the right or be ‘awarded’ them; they’re tools of the trade of handwriting
  • some children find it easier to write in pen than pencil

About 900 people (33%) were indifferent about pen licences. 

I can understand this. If you’ve never had any particularly positive or negative experiences around the concept the chances are it’s not been on your radar to consider. It was good of you to even vote to be honest. If you’re indifferent I’m guessing it seems like it could be a good idea on the face of it but you’re open to recognising it might not be for everyone? 

Maybe your opinions have shifted a little after reading. 

I’m grateful to everyone for taking the time to read and reflect. 

Please come and talk to me about it. Whether we agree or not, I’d love to hear your experiences and opinions. 

You can find me on Twitter @nicky_parr

or email nicky@betterhandwritten.com

Parent Pressures

We’re trying to remember the real positives. After…oh on Friday…when you said can you talk? I thought, I can’t – I think I’ll just be in tears. And it’s only handwriting. I thought, ugh I can’t even talk to you about handwriting… I’m too emotional about it…”

I was on a video call with Abbie a few days after I’d started working online with her eight-year-old son. 

The first couple of days had gone really well but on the aforementioned Friday I received this message along with the photo of his practice:

Straight away I’d asked if we could talk because I could feel there was a huge amount of emotion behind her message. Our call on the following Monday was a really helpful opportunity for me to listen and explain some things which helped Abbie begin to relax, trust me and trust the process. Things went well after our chat. Handwriting practice was moved to first thing in the morning after breakfast. We agreed it was hard to focus attention when her son had been concentrating online all morning (due to Lockdown) and was hungry.

Progress with Abbie’s son after 10 weeks

It’s really hard for parents. 

We want so much for our children.

Parents have their own perspective about how important handwriting is or isn’t. That perspective can change; their viewpoint is formed from personal experiences but also becomes affected by additional emotional factors, like their child’s unhappiness, anger, frustration, anxiety or distress… about pen licences… teacher concerns… fear about legibility in exams…about potential negative judgement or bias. 

It’s stressful! 

Parents want to help but often don’t actually know how to. This is sometimes reflected in feeling that they shouldn’t have to, that it’s the school’s responsibility.

When parents contact me I hear things like:

‘I feel the school should have done something sooner.’

‘I’m disappointed that nothing was flagged up.’

‘I actually feel quite let down by them.’

‘I’m concerned that teachers have allowed him to carry on writing like this for so long given that handwriting is taught in class.’

‘He says his teachers have tried but given up.’

Disappointed Stock Illustrations – 6,436 Disappointed Stock ...

I’m always a bit saddened to hear these remarks. 

I know how hard teachers work and how they want the best for their pupils. 

I know how much parents care and want the best for their children.

We need to work together.

Teachers and parents need to know how to help. That’s why I started Better Handwritten… to give guidance and support on highly effective teaching of handwriting.

Before we started working together, Abbie had done her best to help her son herself.

I tried worksheets over and over again but he didn’t engage in the task and it was a real struggle to keep him focused. I was also getting very frustrated with his writing, which (now I look back) was definitely having a negative impact on him and how he felt about handwriting.

I definitely didn’t appreciate the bigger picture of handwriting and all the things the brain has to coordinate to write. I felt like we had spent so much time practising and it was having no impact – I was starting to feel like my son was just being lazy and I must be a terrible teacher.’

Working with Abbie gave me an opportunity to help her reflect, understand and relax. I was able to provide a model that was manageable and got results. Thinking back to where we started reminds me just how many parents must be going through emotional stresses and strains trying to help their children.


I’ve actually just got off a call with Abbie! It’s nearly three months since we started working together and we’ve been looking back to that first week. I think Abbie’s words express the emotions involved for many parents so well …

I remember speaking to you in the early days and I just felt SO tearful every time we spoke, because I was finding the whole thing so emotional… I couldn’t help him. Working with you isn’t what I expected it to be. I remember thinking, you’re just here to help him with handwriting but all of a sudden you’re helping me with … almost handwriting counselling. 

I was so overwhelmed when we were first working together whereas now working on handwriting is such a pleasure. Our whole perception has just changed… how we look at it, how we take it on and how we talk about. Before the whole thing was so negative…for both of us. And it doesn’t feel like that at all any more.

It’s good to talk about handwriting. It’s good to learn about it… really understand what’s involved. We need to break down the stress barriers that are denying children AND parents the many benefits and pleasures that writing by hand can bring. Understanding is empowering.

A tag from a parent who had bought the Better Handwritten video course to use with her son.


For more information on how to support children with handwriting, contact nicky@betterhandwritten.com

High Expectations

Ofsted inspectors love high expectations. 

I’ve noticed this. I’ve read through enough reports to get a sense of how they feel about handwriting and presentation.

There are way too many to share of course but I’ve picked a few comments out of the hat:

Teachers do not have consistently high expectations of pupils’ writing. As a result, pupils’ spelling and handwriting often are not good enough.’

‘Expectations of what pupils can achieve have been too low, particularly in handwriting and presentation.’

Teachers must challenge pupils to improve their presentation when it falls below expectations.

(from 2019 Reports)

I’ve got to be honest, I have mixed feelings about the phrase ‘high expectations’ because too often it’s not clear what that means.  I understand why it’s used (and I believe I have them) but it’s a term that’s so open to interpretation. I think we need to give it some thought and have more conversations about it because in reality, some interpretations do more damage than good. In this Ofsted context, for me there’s a sharpness about it, an intensity… a judgement and criticism of teachers, which feels like pressure to put pupils under pressure…

“Max had always thoroughly enjoyed school until he hit the second part of Year 3,” Kate told me, “when the only thing his teacher ever commented on was how he had to improve his handwriting. He stopped wanting to go to school even though he loved learning and loved his friends. Feedback to us as parents was simply ‘it will come if he practises’… but it didn’t. Handwriting became a four-letter word in our house.”

3rd Desk From The Wall | I'm a teacher, again

You may not be surprised to hear that Max was the last to get his ‘pen-licence’ at the end of Year 5 and (now in Year 6) handwriting “is still a source of struggle.”

I hear so many stories like this. Aside from the child and their handwriting, the relationship between teacher and parent becomes fragile. That’s not good for anyone.

But wasn’t Max’s teacher simply ‘challenging’ him to improve his presentation and ‘having consistently high expectations’?

When it comes to handwriting, I don’t believe effective high expectations are about:

  • being ‘strict’
  • ‘telling’ children to improve
  • constantly reminding them of what’s wrong and then getting frustrated when they keep making the same mistakes
  • making them miss playtimes to rewrite things or writing something out in ‘best’ when they’ve just finished a lengthy draft.

Of course, when there’s a degree of threat involved (having to re-write or miss break) fear levels can make children more alert, and this can sharpen their short term focus, but it doesn’t make for a good relationship with writing. In fact it damages it. It’s not rocket science.

In this example can you see where the pupil attempted to go back and ‘join’ some words in his writing after finishing, to try and avoid having to write it out again. He was aware of the expectation to join but was unable to sustain joining up at the same time as formulating sentences from his thoughts.

An approach as described above tells me a teacher (or parent) doesn’t really understand (or have time to understand) what’s involved in producing the ‘expected high standard’ of handwriting: 

  • the small step development of fine motor skills 
  • the need to practice until writing becomes automated
  • the load on working memory when writing
  • the impact of anxiety on working memory
  • the impact of distraction in the environment 
  • and the emotional context for an individual

I could write a book on this but instead, just to get you thinking, I’ll share 3 suggestions for developing high expectations regarding handwriting:

  • Have them for yourself. Develop your subject knowledge around handwriting

How can you expect something of a child when you don’t really understand the issues they’re facing – the developmental, neurological and emotional factors involved?

What are you modelling and communicating in terms of your own writing, beliefs, interest and the language you use?

Confidence in your own ability transmits. It can transform you from sharing an air of frustration, disappointment, negative judgement or disinterest to one of calm reassurance, positive support and practical suggestions. You will come to embrace and trust the expression ‘Less is more’!

  • Prioritise consistent discrete handwriting practice

15 minutes a day:

5 minutes looking, discussing, thinking

5 minutes writing

5 minutes reflecting

 If it’s important to you, important enough to allocate regular time and attention, it will become important to a child. Children crave adult attention and this investment of time and focused attention is a powerful catalyst.

Work to establish a consistent routine so there’s no decision necessary (for you or a child) about whether practice will happen today or not. It just does, like brushing our teeth. That makes it easier for you and the children.

  • Be interested and have conversations

Genuinely. About handwriting but also in individuals. Build in elements that let them know you know them.

In this practice for example, I’ve included the name of a video game (Fortnite) that I know the student likes. I’ve also included places that he’s connected to.

Be interested rather than judgemental.

Thinking back to the example of the posthumous joining:

“Ahh I can see what’s happened here. You had so much to think about – choosing words and making sentences that there wasn’t enough thinking space for remembering to join up all your handwriting. Isn’t it interesting to see?! Don’t worry for this piece. If we were going to put it on the wall we’d find time to copy it out but I was perfectly able to read it. You explained your thinking really well.”

Something along those lines. You get the idea.

As I said I could go on, but for now I hope you can find a little time to reflect on what high expectations in handwriting mean for you. Please go and enjoy having some conversations about it!

Judgement Day

“Excuse me!” She ran down the corridor after me. 
“I just wanted to ask, if you have time, could you come back and show me your handwriting please? It’s just I’ve never met a handwriting specialist before and I’d really like to see your writing.”

And there it was. Impending judgement. My stomach dropped a little as I processed her words. 

I reminded myself that it was perfectly reasonable for this teacher to be interested (or was she feeling defensive I wonder?) … and also perfectly natural for me to be alert to judgement. It’s a very human thing isn’t it, judging and feeling judged? 


Job titles are necessary and useful in helping people begin to understand what we do, but I’m always aware that mine brings certain expectations with it. Expectations that mean my handwriting is gonna be judged – obviously!

It’s interesting because my work really isn’t about MY handwriting, it’s about my ability to help other people with theirs… teaching them and helping them develop a script they feel good about, is legible and useful (and helping other teachers do that too). Of course, how my writing looks is part of the evidence base; I understand that. 

It’s good to be conscious because judgement is what so many children and adults feel when it comes to handwriting. 

It can make them not want to write. 

It can make them feel frustrated, angry, embarrassed and self-conscious.

It can raise anxiety levels, taking up precious space in working memory that is needed for so many other things.

Or

It can make them want to write more.

It can make them feel proud and confident.

It can also tip into influencing aspirations for perfection which become impractical or even damaging.

Judgements can make us feel bad OR good and they influence our behaviour.

I’ll share some stories of people who have been affected by judgement of their handwriting in my forthcoming blogs.


I replied honestly.

“Haha, people often seem to imagine I’m going to have some amazing calligraphic style. I’m sure they’re either disappointed or unimpressed by how regular it is! It’s neat (when I want it to be), it’s cursive (when I want it to be)… but it’s not calligraphy!”

My general style is the product of continually modelling for others – I often wish it had a bit more flair and personality!

My styles are also the product of how I’m feeling or the task I’m undertaking. 

Styles. Plural. A spectrum.

I guess I’d better show you my writing then. Let’s get it over with!

If you can, tune in to your thoughts, whatever they may be. Notice what you hear yourself thinking…

“Well that’s nothing special,” or

“What a mess!” or

“It’s quite nice,” or

“Mine’s better,” or

“I wish my writing was neater,” or

“Who cares about handwriting anyway?” or 

…something else.

Note how I’ve been lowering your expectations… a useful strategy when we feel vulnerable to potentially negative judgement.

Ready?

Here we go!

So there you go. Eight shades of ‘✍🏼 Nicky Writing’. There are more (maybe not fifty) but you get the idea.

So what do you think of my handwriting? What’s your opinion? Your judgement?

And how do you feel about yours?

PS Did you notice how I started off with my messiest styles then built up to my neater ones? 😉

Come and tell me on Twitter @nicky_parr

or email me: nicky@betterhandwritten.com

Next week I’ll be sharing my thoughts about teacher expectations when it comes to handwriting.

Handwriting Hangups

Sometimes people are surprised I called the business ‘Better Handwritten’ and not ‘Better Handwriting’.

It might not seem that important but there’s a reason. It’s because our work is about so much more than the outcome of neater handwriting. Clients do get that, but they get so much more than that. 

I see them start to relax and enjoy the experience; they begin to write more and discover that some things really are ‘better handwritten’. It was as if their feelings about handwriting had combined to form an invisible forcefield of resistance, a barrier that denied them access to the incredible tool that writing by hand is – supporting memory, personal connection and self-expression. Together we disable that forcefield so they can begin to enjoy the freedom that writing brings.

I see confidence, pride and pleasure grow. 

And I often see the deeper ripple effects as they start to reflect on their handwriting story. They begin to pay close attention and unpick how their writing has evolved – how it’s woven into their history and is part of them.

I’ll let Trish explain what I mean:

HANDWRITING HANGUPS – Trish’s Story

I wanted to share this story with you all after having a call with Nicky and taking time to do my handwriting exercises (still on it).

It’s a little bit about my handwriting story (well at least on the surface it is). 

Actually it goes deeper than that – although at the time I didn’t realise how deep.

It was the early 1970’s and I was a little girl, living in East Belfast at the height of ‘The Troubles’. Those of you who don’t know what that means may need to Google it.

Suffice to say it was a very turbulent and violent time in Northern Ireland. Bombings and other terrorist attrocities were committed on an almost weekly if not daily basis. It’s hard to think that this was the UK. 

Things were so bad, and so uncertain that my parents took the decision to send me and the youngest of my ‘big’ brothers (I have 4), over to the mainland to live in Liverpool with my aunt Margaret. 

It was traumatic in a number of ways (but I’ll share those parts another time).

Back to the handwriting.

Me and John, were enrolled in local schools. John at the high school and me at Bedford Road Primary School. 

New ‘friends’. New teachers. New school. New home. New ‘mum and dad’. New accents. Everything new. 

No phone calls or internet. We did letters and the occasional phone call to one of our neighbours who had a telephone.

Going into my new school was petrifying. Mrs Radcliffe (my new teacher – I’ll never forget her), did her best to settle me in, but I remember being very afraid and overwhelmed. 

My thick Belfast accent was a source of great mirth, and I did my very best to keep quiet and not be heard, although later in life I’d make up for that!

Writing practice consisted of using a pen (where ‘at home’ I’d always used a pencil). I found it alien and hard to grip. It skipped across the page and left big blobs everywhere. 

I hated it.

Lined jotters (yes that’s what we called them in those days), were provided and we would spend time each day writing. 

I can remember diligently writing out what was on the board. 

Simple A, B, C’s and short sentences which would then be handed in for marking.

Then the shame. 

My handwriting was torn apart for being too small. Scrawly. Untidy. 

I didn’t know that the rules were I was to use 2 lines of the page to create my letters. The bottom was for lower case and the top for capital letters. 

As a result of not knowing the rules, my handwriting appeared tiny and crammed into a small space (just how I felt at the time).

I was humiliated. 

I was the class ‘dunce.’ 

Everyone was talking, laughing and pointing at the new girl with the funny voice who didn’t belong and didn’t have any friends. 

Even now I can cry at how that little girl didn’t know what was really going on in the world or why. When she tried to fit in, she just didn’t.

So I learned how to play the rules. 

I used two lines of the page to form the letters. To create the words. 

I learned how to hold the horrible biro that leaked and streaked and made the page look like it was crying – because I was crying inside as I did it.

But I survived. 

I hated it. 

Every. Shitty. Moment.

I stayed quiet. I complied. 

So when the time came to go back home, I couldn’t wait to get away. 

Somewhere that was equally scary, but that at least I knew my place. 

Where I belonged. 

I went back to my old school. My old friends. My old teachers. My old home.

And a big surprise awaited me.

Something I didn’t anticipate (what 8 year old does?) 

Things had changed. 

I wasn’t away that long, but things had definitely changed.

My thick Belfast accent had been replaced with something a little softer (although it’s hard to believe it now).

My old school friends began to call me the Little English Girl. 

They said I was a snob. That I thought I was better than everyone else. 

So once again, I stayed quiet. Tried to blend in. Tried to please everyone, so I would be accepted. Be liked again. 

And the handwriting?

Well, of course I was back to the ‘old rules.’ 

So now my handwriting was taking up way too much of the pages as I wrote. 

Big. Bold. Two-lines deep. 

It looked ‘shouty’. 

It was now ridiculed for a different reason. My teachers and my school mates said it looked like a kid trying to learn.

The pen I brought to school was firmly dumped and I was back to pencils.

Back to the start.

So my handwriting style now? 

I think its untidiness and lack of consistency is a direct reflection of those early days. 

I often use joined up, print and capitals in the same piece of writing. 

At times is it beautifully formed. At others a complete scrawl. Big and bold. Or tiny and unintelligible.

It is fragmented. Just as I was in those early years.

So now?

Well meeting Nicky and actually participating in doing this work has revealed so much more to me than merely improving my handwriting.

It has uncovered part of my personal story and its role in shaping me.

And for that I am very grateful. 

My daily handwriting practice is now as much mediative and healing, as it is enjoying discovering who I really am. 

One letter at a time.

Thank you, Nicky.

xxx

It was an absolute pleasure supporting you Trish. Your story stays with me and inspires me to help others uncover theirs.


So what’s your handwriting story? 

How is your child’s handwriting story evolving?

I’d love to hear! 

Email nicky@betterhandwritten.com to share your story or to enquire about a personalised 1:1 support package.

Visit www.betterhandwritten.com for details of online courses, support services and to request a free personal handwriting review.

Types of Pen Hold and Managing Change

“Nicola, can you stay behind at the end of the lesson please,” said Mr Cowan my first-year secondary English teacher (it was before the term ‘Year 7’ existed).

I rolled my eyes…internally. I was usually only internally rebellious.

Believe it or not I was quite naughty at school. Not a lot, just a bit. I was one of those students who managed to get away with things because I was generally cheerful and helpful. The trouble with that though, was that it was usually me who was commissioned to make an excuse to leave the room and fill up the party-cracker water guns, or crawl around picking up paper cannon balls to re-stock our troop’s arsenal. 

Anyway, I assumed I was probably going to be reprimanded for some such nonsense, but to my horror Mr Cowan announced, “I’ve noticed your pen hold is wrong and I’ve put you down to attend a group each week to correct it.”

I was mortified!

I’d always prided myself on having nice handwriting and was at that exciting stage where I was experimenting with developing my own cool style. I’d never even considered how I held my pen! How dare he! A wave of heat flooded my face and I found myself struggling to hold back tears of embarrassment and rage. 

I attended one session. I was moody, sulky and stubbornly refused to engage. The internal rebel stepped out onto the stage and blinked in the spotlights.

Mr Cowan gave up and we moved on. 

This is NOT how to manage or affect changing a pen hold. 


Looking back years later, a teacher myself, I imagined Mr C had been on a course. He’d probably been told that the tripod grip was the one and only correct grip (he was misinformed) and had honourably set about fixing those of us whose pen holds were incorrect. I know he had the right intentions; he just went about it the wrong way.

And no, I’m not revealing my pen hold yet; it’s a cliff-hanger, you’ll have to wait til the end!


Before I outline key points to be aware of when supporting someone to change their grip, let’s look at types of pen hold. I’ll only cover some common ones so that I (hopefully) don’t lose your attention! Please bear in mind there are a range of variations.

Considering these will help make sense of why awkward holds develop, why there are benefits to modifying some holds and why others are absolutely fine to leave alone.

Firstly, let me remind you of the Better Handwritten goals I shared in Part I of this blog last week.

When thinking about a person and their handwriting:

  1. we want them to feel good about it.
  2. we want it to be legible (to themselves and to others)
  3. we want it to be useful (different handwriting for different purposes)

For some people, pen hold impacts negatively on these goals because it:

  • is painful (the kind of pain that you get used to and grudgingly accept or avoid encountering whenever possible)

  • causes frustration (for example with smudging, when work is constantly spoiled and writing hand stained) which leads to stress

  • draws unwanted attention and comments about looking awkward or different (causing self-consciousness and anxiety)

  • constantly interrupts their view of what’s been written, which affects immediate review and reflection

  • affects outcomes (an inefficient grip blocks finger movements; this impacts on ability to write at speed, which in turn can impact on school work and exam performance)


So how does an individual’s pen hold evolve in the first place?

Put simply, there’s a process to work through.

Pencils and pens are tools; from an early age we became aware of them by observing others using them. As with learning many early skills, we copied – based on our perception and ability at the time.

As young children that probably meant picking up a crayon in our little hand. We weren’t aware of the details of finger position and anyway, didn’t have fine motor control yet, so we adopted a fist grip. 

A fist grip uses a whole arm movement… try miming it like I just did!

 

Around age 1 – 2

Gradually we discovered control was easier with our palm facing down and forefinger on top. We could control this from the elbow so it was a little less tiring.

 

Around age 2 – 3

Over time, as muscles in the wrist and fingers strengthened, our hand began to turn to the side which meant we could control movement from the wrist and relax the arm.  We had to adjust our fingers to balance the pencil.

 

Age 4+

This seems to be the point where some creative positioning develops which unfortunately, if unnoticed and left unchecked, results in an awkward and often uncomfortable hold becoming automated.


What we want is an efficient grip that allows distal control (the ability to move the muscles of the fingers separately).

This brings us to the most effective pen holds: the dynamic tripod and quadrupod grips:

 

The dynamic tripod hold has 3 digits in contact with the pen
(thumb, forefinger and middle finger)

 

The dynamic quadrupod has 4 digits in contact
(thumb, forefinger, middle finger and ring finger)

There are also ‘lateral’ versions of these grips where the thumb crosses the pencil, holding it in place but still allowing effective finger movements. These are generally fine too:

 

Lateral tripod and lateral quadrupod holds


Here are key points to give some careful thought to when reviewing a child’s grip and managing change:

  • there is a developmental sequence to an individual’s pen hold evolving

  • not all children will naturally evolve an efficient grip

  • an efficient grip allows effective movement of the finger muscles; an inefficient grip restricts and blocks finger movement

  • adults may need to intervene and support change; it is crucial that teachers and parents understand how to help and work together

  • change is often met with emotional resistance; this is normal and to be expected. If this is not managed effectively however, the upset and damage caused may result in a negative association with writing and damaged self-esteem

  • inefficient pen holds should not be ignored and change shouldn’t be abandoned when resistance is met (but it must be managed compassionately and with confidence)


Mr Cowan gave up.

Amy gave up (Blog Part I).

Adam’s primary school teacher gave up (Blog Part I).

Not because they didn’t care, but because they were worried they would do more damage than good. They didn’t have the knowledge and understanding of the process of change or strategies to manage it effectively and confidently.

That’s why I’m currently developing Better Handwritten’s

One month to Transforming Pen Hold

I want to share my knowledge and experience with you and others who will benefit. 

If you’d like to be contacted when the guide is released please complete the contact form in the website menu.

 

And no, I hadn’t forgotten… I’ll finish with the big reveal!

I have a DYNAMIC QUADRUPOD hold 🙂

(so it didn’t need changing anyway – but Mr Cowan didn’t know that back then)

 

Why do some students struggle to copy from the board?

You know some children struggle to copy neatly and accurately from the board, but why?

Well aside from their fine motor control there are a number of contributing factors, one of which is the vestibular system.

Things to be aware of:

The vestibular system gives us our sense of balance, co-ordination and movement. The vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear and are activated every time we move or change our head position. 

When children copy from the board their heads move up and down frequently. Among other things, the vestibular system influences coordinating eye movement. Some pupils have inaccurate vestibular processing.

Those with poor working memory will have to look up and down more frequently than others. Working memory is the system we have for holding information in mind for a short time while we use it to solve problems or make decisions. 

Things to do:

  • Identify the children in your class who find it more difficult.
  • Ask your class how they find copying from the board. 
  • Listen and note down individuals who say they find it challenging and how they describe the experience.
  • Give them a paragraph to copy from the board and give yourself space to be present and observe for yourself. Make notes. 
  • Experiment with using different colours for sections of text (and background) to help pupils track where they’ve got to. Remember to explain WHY you’ve used colour in this way and ASK them what is helpful and what is not. 
  • Children who have noticeable difficulty can be provided with a paper version to copy from so there is less head movement required.

Over time and with encouragement they can reflect about how much information they are able to hold in working memory for copying. They can also be taught strategies such as:

  • repeating sections aloud to support remembering
  • crossing out information as they go to help keep track
  • reading back frequently to spot omissions (including whole line omissions!)
  • explaining what they’ve copied in their own words to decide if they understand the content. 
  • (asking questions if they don’t)

Developing self-awareness, understanding and practical strategies empowers individuals.