At Jenner Park Primary School in Barry, Wales, pupils between the ages of seven and nine are writing letters to residents of a local care home. The initiative sees children and their elderly pen pals exchange updates about their lives, helping to build relationships between generations while also giving the children an understanding of the value of writing letters by hand – an activity that’s becoming less and less common.
The project was started by Springbank Care Home as a way to create links between the two. Now, the school stresses the importance of taking time to write letters with pen and paper, making good handwriting “meaningful and real for the children”.
Laura Johnson, the teacher who coordinates the scheme at Jenner Park, says she’s seen her pupils develop a real sense of empathy and understanding of elderly people. “The pen pal scheme has given them a more meaningful focus, which has made writing an enjoyable and exciting task,” explains Johnson. “They love being able to write to the residents and share their news.” The process is also useful for learning to write for different purposes and audiences, she adds.
A similar letter writing project is taking place at Franche Primary School in Kidderminster, in partnership with two local care homes. “There’s something about reading a handwritten letter that gives you a positive buzz, rather than something that’s printed,” says Katie Sinclair, creative curriculum leader. “There’s a slight excitement about deciphering the cursive script and knowing that person has actually sat down and written it just for you and only you – it’s very personal. That’s why our letter writing is a big part of what we do at school.”
The children have also been writing letters to their heroes such as the former rugby player Jonny Wilkinson and the naturalist and TV presenter David Attenborough, asking what their motivations are for the work they do. Attenborough responded with his own handwritten letter, explaining how he has always had an interest in animals. Pupils in year 2, meanwhile, wrote a letter to the Queen last year inviting her to their summer party – an offer she politely declined.
“All of our writing is for a purpose. That’s the key in getting children to value handwriting,” says Sinclair. “As soon as you put an audience there, [knowing] that someone out there is going to be reading it – whether that’s parents or another group of children – there’s always the real sense of pride to go along with it: I’m writing so it needs to be read, I’m proud of what I’ve done.”
The sense of pride in writing created by hand can be instilled in children from a young age. In Hydesville Tower School in Walsall, nursery children are given a letter of the week to form in creative ways, using finger painting, sand or marker pens on paper. “There’s a genuine sense of allowing children to explore and appreciate writing letters,” says headteacher Warren Honey.
The school maintains a focus on handwriting throughout the years, from dedicated handwriting classes in the prep school to a calligraphy club offered to the older groups. Honey says that illegible handwriting “has an impact in terms of ability to proof read, self-regulate and understand their own thinking and ideas”. It also makes it difficult to self-assess, he adds, if they are struggling to identify what’s been written.
The school has created something called the pen licence. It allows younger children to move from using a pencil to pen once they’ve reached a certain standard. “There’s a lot of excitement about reaching that pen licence stage,” says Honey. “There’s an idea of wanting to create something that’s beautiful in its own form.”
He believes having a goal to work towards helps pupils appreciate the importance of the skill. “A lot of the work that’s done will be based around good quality pen or pencil and paper work, because we need children to explore and make mistakes and start again – any emphasis on handwriting allows that to be a natural part of what’s going on in the classroom.”
Sinclair adds that developing students’ writing in this way matters for their life after school: “For us, it’s important that we create citizens of the future who have a set of life skills that can make them successful.”
The dominance of technology is a challenge, she admits, but she also believes both tools have their place. “Obviously we’re competing with technology continuously,” she says. “And I know there are people there saying you don’t need to bother about handwriting because tech is out there. But we don’t see it as competing. We’re trying to get pupils to realise that there’s a place for handwriting, and to know when it’s important to use each.”