What I really think about pen licences

by | May 27, 2022 | Writing | 0 comments

The first time I heard the term ‘pen licence’ I was listening to Charlie, my eight-year-old, in the back of the car on the way home from school.

He wasn’t wildly impressed with the concept. He explained to me that his teacher, Mrs. Barker, awarded pen licences to those who could produce lovely, neat handwriting in class.

Once a child got their pen licence they were granted permission to make the heady move from writing with a ugly, blunt pencil, to writing with a smooth rollerball pen.

He was a bit fed up because he’d not been given his pen licence yet.

If you Google ‘pen licence’ you will find all sorts of downloadable certificates teachers can personalise to encourage their charges to raise their game in handwriting.

What is a pen licence for?

As with any rewards-based system, the idea of the pen licence is based on positive reinforcement. Children who work hard and focus in school are praised and made to feel good about themselves. Handing a hardworking child with good handwriting a certificate gives them a well-deserved boost. It shows them that their efforts are valued by their teacher.

As a mother of three boys and a teacher of many years, I too have tried all sorts of positive treats-based ideas to encourage young children to do their best and improve their behaviour or level of performance.

Now I’m older and wiser, I’ve learned how easy it is for genuinely good intentions to go awry and become a metaphorical stick to beat a child with.

How do children respond to pen licences?

Children who are able to produce beautiful handwriting already know they are doing well. Just a glance at their consistently-sized cursive joining makes them feel great.

Yet those who struggle to write feel bad already. The lack of a pen licence (when others around them have been awarded one) is just another knock to their confidence. Eventually they may turn away from writing completely.

Why do some children write more neatly than others?

Handwriting development rests on early developmental experiences. Very young children develop their gross motor skills first. Over time, through movement and play, their whole bodies become physically confident, agile and flexible.

According to the UK Government’s Help for Early Years Providers:

“Gross motor skills affect wellbeing and give children opportunities to socialise in play. Confidence and coordination in gross motor skills are essential for children in developing their fine motor skills. . . .

Fine motor skills involve small muscles working with the brain and nervous system to control movements in areas such as the hands, fingers, lips, tongue and eyes. Developing fine motor skills helps children do things like eating, writing, manipulating objects and getting dressed.”

Handwriting develops as children learn first to grasp a paintbrush or thick crayon, then to refine this initial grasp into a comfortable and controlled pencil or pen grip.

Children develop at vastly different rates. As a classroom teacher I was always aware that there would often be a seven-year ability gap in every year group. Some children will be working up to 3.5 years ahead of the average, and others up to 3.5 years behind. Experience has shown me that seven years is probably an underestimate.

Thus, the development of neat handwriting rests upon the previous development of refined fine motor skills. Data suggests that boys tend to develop these at a slightly slower rate than girls.

Of course, some children at the age of 7 or 8 (which is peak pen licence territory) will have undiagnosed dyspraxia, dysgraphia or dyslexia. ADD/ADHD and even ASD can impact a child’s ability to focus on the page. These specific learning difficulties negatively impact handwriting in a way a hardworking child can’t necessarily control.

The tools given to a child when learning to write have an impact on how neat their handwriting can be. A thick pencil or a fountain pen can be tricky to write accurately with, whereas a smooth rollerball seems to magically soften the edges of angled or scratchy-looking handwriting and gives it an instant uplift.

6 key reasons I do not support pen licences

… and why I don’t use them in my online handwriting classes for kids.

1. Pen licences just feel too ‘Victorian’

I dislike the ‘just try harder’ approach to teaching children. It feels dated – ‘Victorian’ (my husband said when we were discussing this earlier today). Children need specific, individual targets to work with, not being berated to simply ‘do better’.

2. Pen licences discriminate against children with learning difficulties

Clearly, pen licences can unfairly discriminate against those with a specific learning difficulties. At this stage in a child’s schooling, any additional learning needs may be undiagnosed.

3. Unfair to left-handed children

I’m left-handed.

  • Left-handed children need a little more support when first learning to write.
  • They need to sit up a little higher on their chair, to push the paper a little further away and angle it so it’s higher on the top left than the top right.
  • The book they are writing in shouldn’t have a ring-binder as it will buffer against their hand.

Our written traditions were established for right-handers. Pen licences feel like a micro-aggression towards those of us who are left-focused in a right-focused world.

4. Pen licences can divide a classroom

Pen licences can bring negativity into the school experience. Pen licences create a clear divide in classrooms between the haves and the have-nots. This feels like such a terrible shame, when children could be moving forward individually as part of an inclusive, supportive group.

5. Pencils blunt easily and encourage a heavy grip

I dislike any writing in pencil as I think the end result undervalues the energy and consideration that the child has put into the task. Even young children can be encouraged to produce neat handwriting using a lovely smooth rollerball pen. Pencils blunt easily and not only does this look ugly and knock the writer’s confidence, but it seems to encourage a heavy grip which stores up trouble for later on.

Essential to a good working pen grip is a light touch. Hand tension leads to pain when extended writing tasks are set later on in a child’s school career.

I would make an exception for a retractable pencil as these remain sharp and are so delicate that they snap if too much pressure is applied.

6. Children deserve pens—the best tool to support their handwriting development

Writing tools should be chosen to support the young writer. Careful choice of a smooth rollerball pen (perhaps a finer nibbed pen for left-handers who worry about smudging) will instantly improve presentation. When learning to write, if you are given the best tools—A4 lined paper with a margin, a comfortable surface to rest on and a brilliant pen—you will improve quickly and feel a sense of pride in your work.

Why hold back on these resources at such a key stage?

Why should we value neat, legible handwriting?

Neat, legible handwriting and cursive joined letters are the gold standard and I care about these as much, or even more, than most.

A little story to illustrate…

As an experienced marker of English SAT papers in the UK, I audibly groaned every time I opened a scruffy, illegible script. Daily, hundreds of exam papers for marking would be delivered by DHL to my door.

My aim was to work quickly and accurately, awarding as many marks as I could along the way (according to the given mark scheme). Scruffy, illegible writing slowed me down and challenged my tired eyes.

You’d be surprised how quickly I imagined this as a gesture of disrespect towards me from the student.

Although I pride myself on giving my all to every student, some examiners out there will not.

All students deserve to have their examiner on-side in public examinations.

Neat handwriting really will have a positive impact on grades later in a student’s career. Regardless of whether it is stated on the mark scheme at the time.

If pen licences are scrapped, what’s a better approach?

Overwhelm is the biggest problem faced by young writers.

Writing is hugely demanding. Before even putting pen to paper, children have to consider their content, their sentence construction, and their spelling.

Children who already feel bad about their writing may have moved past that initial overwhelm. The next stage is neglect. They switch off because they can’t do it.

The approach I take in my online handwriting classes is to set one (or sometimes two) individual targets for each child.

It’s simple really—I just look at their writing and decide what needs to be fixed first. Then I praise them authentically, for whatever content or vocabulary objectives they have achieved.

Once praised with enthusiasm and honesty, children are happy to accept a simple target to work on next time. Quickly that first problem is fixed, and they are ready to move on to the next.

I have 100% confidence in my approach to improving children’s handwriting. I’ve been teaching writing for over 20 years and I know that this system works for every child. (The only exception I would make to this would be children with dysgraphia. I have found that best approach in that case is to get to a point where the child can write calmly and legibly and then move them to touch typing, with a focus on content, not handwriting.)

The first class I taught was in a ‘failing’ and pretty tough inner-city school in West London. The children had been let down by the previous leadership and writing skills across the school were at rock-bottom.

Fortunately, the new head teacher I was working for was brilliant. She was not only committed to raising attainment, but had the skillset to know how to do it. It was here that I learned how to turn children’s writing around.

My teaching was singled out for praise by Ofsted and my marking was so effective that my class’s set of English exercise books were taken in by the senior management team and used as examples to the other teachers. I’ve never looked back and have used the same skills to train highly academic students to pass admissions examinations for top public schools and super-selective grammars.

Individual, manageable targets and a small steps approach work for everyone.

Wrapped up, of course, in lashings of gushing and authentic praise.