I’ve observed the rapid growth of teaching Reception and Year One children (the four and five year olds) a form of font which is neither a simple, sensible ‘print’ nor quality teaching of joined handwriting.

This is instead of teaching a simple print at first.

This really needs to be addressed nationally – I suggest it should STOP.

In my view, and experience, there is no rationale well-founded enough to warrant this practice. I urge everyone promoting this approach, and practising this approach, to please stop and reflect. 

Let’s have the discussion.

The rapid growth and uptake of this practice warrants a truly national discussion to prevent a lot of unnecessary hardship for teachers and children themselves.

Some years ago, I was aware that some advisors in the field of ‘dyslexia’ would suggest that it is easier for children with dyslexic tendencies to learn to form letter shapes when every letter starts from exactly the same position – from the ‘writing line’.

[They argued, why not start as you mean to carry on? Why teach a handwriting style that later children will have to change?]

How many teachers when beginning to teach children how to form letter shapes with lead-in joins even use paper with lines?

If you look around, you will note many, many examples of adults themselves (in a teaching capacity) start this ‘lead-in’ join not from a writing line, but floating in the air – a sort of vague position on the board or paper (or in the sand-tray!) – and/or for their labelling round the classrooms and corridors.

Further, this lead-in join often takes the shape of a ski slope or a ‘hairstyle’ with a curvy flick to it. It’s all very haphazard. Try looking at these letter shape examples from the eyes of a child. How consistent are the adults writing this lead-in join? Is this top quality, consistent letter formation?

Then, again to my horror quite frankly, I note labels around virtually all schools using this approach that do not rationalise the joins from letters which, when properly joined, would end with a ‘washing line’ join to the following letter. Thus, the ‘following letter’ would not start from the line when the letters are finally joined in whole words. [The letters that end with ‘washing line’ joins and do not go back down to the writing line are: o, r, v, w, x.]

In fact, these lead-in joins should simply NOT be taught as part of print letter shapes. They are JOINS – not letter shapes.

Then, when we teach our four and five year olds phonics and how to decode printed words, much, if not most, if not all print in early reading books is in a simple print font – not quasi-joined letter shapes. The print fonts may vary slightly – and we do need to draw attention to font variation as part of our teaching – but we’re not asking children to write in the various print forms – just one consistent form for handwriting – and linked to the ‘sounds’ as part of the phonics provision.

Here is a resource that can support the teaching of different fonts.

The resource above is from this page of many free resources.

There are many critics of introducing phonics provision for our four year olds in England’s context. People often point out that in Europe and some other countries, ‘formal’ teaching of reading instruction may not start until children are six or seven years of age. 

But surely all the more reason in England, and the UK, to introduce phonics with simple print letter shapes – including capital letter shapes (don’t avoid capital letters as they are code for the same sounds as their lower case equivalent letters).

At no point am I saying that teachers can’t teach joined writing successfully when they introduce the print-with-lead-in-joins approach from the outset. But so what? Is it really necessary? And when do the teachers teach print? Do these teachers think that children should not be writing in print when they are older – for example when labelling diagrams? 

Shouldn’t all pupils be taught to write in PRINT as well as joined handwriting?

And do we really need to have a one or two-year ‘run in’ using these quasi-joined writing letter shapes in order to teach fully joined handwriting well?

Absolutely not.

And do the children themselves need a long ‘run in’ before they can write in joined handwriting competently? 

Absolutely not. 

I’m going to find some examples of the flawed labelling in schools using this form of print with lead-in joins to illustrate what I mean. I’ve seen this flawed labelling in really good schools – schools that do get good results.

Do the ends justify the means in this case?

Again, I think not.

Our four and five years olds have enough to learn when it comes to reading and writing and spelling in the English language. The English alphabetic code is the most complex alphabetic code in the world. It takes years to teach it REALLY well for reading, writing and spelling. 

Why make the process more complicated for our little learners than it needs to be?

When the time is right for teaching fully joined handwriting (certainly when ‘print’ is mastered well – and around the beginning of Year 2 if the children are well-taught in foundational literacy), then here are some suggestions for teaching fully joined handwriting very quickly and very well – with lots of free alphabet and handwriting resources for support:

Debbie Hepplewhite’s Handwriting Site 

And here is an article I’ve written about the teaching of handwriting.

There are plenty of resources featuring handwriting in our FREE Phonics International programme – and a superb tabletop Alphabet near the bottom of the Unit 1 webpage.

We also provide ready-made Alphabet and Alphabetic Code tabletop resources via our No Nonsense Phonics Skills site.

Update April 2021:

The Department for Education in England has just published new core criteria of ‘DfE Validation of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Programmes 2021’.

I am delighted to report the ‘Explanatory Notes’ included with the guidance mentions, at note 3, this issue of children being taught print with lead-in joins’. This is what it states:

3. At first, children should not be taught to join letters or to start every letter ‘on the line’ with a ‘lead-in’, because these practices cause unnecessary difficulty for beginners. Children may be taught to join digraphs, but this is optional. (All resources designed for children to read should be in print.)

At last!

I do hope that this message filters into schools and settings where our poor 4 to 6 year olds are being taught print with these unnecessary lead-in joins.

Further, Ofsted first mentioned this issue in the report known as ‘Bold Beginnings‘:

In January 2017, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) commissioned an Ofsted-wide review of
the curriculum. Its aim was to provide fresh insight into leaders’ curriculum intentions, how these are implemented and the impact on outcomes for pupils. This report shines a spotlight on the Reception Year and the extent to which a school’s curriculum for four- and five-year-olds prepares them for the rest of their education and beyond.

See Page 23, para 59:

Headteachers in the schools visited agreed that children needed to be able to form all letters correctly and consistently before joined-up handwriting was considered. Nearly all were unanimous in their view that they did not teach a cursive or pre-cursive script in Reception. These headteachers believed that it slowed down children’s writing, at a point when they already found manual dexterity tricky and the muscles in their shoulders, arms and hands were still developing. 

This illustrates that both the Department for Education and Ofsted have raised concerns about teaching beginners a form of letter shapes with the ‘lead-in’ joins. This would not be the case if there wasn’t good reason for this steer – it is such a specific message.

I go through some ‘pros and cons’ rationale for teaching a print font with lead-in joins in a recorded webinar which you can find at the bottom of this page;

Debbie Hepplewhite Handwriting

I am currently hearing from teachers and literacy advisers – some who describe how pleased they are to have had this steer to move early years teachers away from teaching the infamous ‘lead-in join’ instead of simple print – but also some who are dismayed that their senior managers are not paying regard to this steer from officials who are in the position of observing the bigger picture of teaching handwriting in our schools. Indeed, it is mystifying why the Department for Education (DfE) has validated some phonics programmes that include print handwriting with the lead-in joins from the outset.

***England: I’m HORRIFIED that teachers of 4 and 5 year olds are teaching a form of print with a ‘lead-in’ join – please stick to simple print!

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