In these days of the ubiquitous computer, it seems odd that handwriting matters. As an adult you can get away with scarcely ever writing anything, other than the occasional illegible signature, by hand. But it's not so easy for schoolchildren to get away with a rotten scrawl. I'm painfully aware of this because, in 18 months' time, my nine-year-old son, George, will be sitting exams. On current showing, he is unlikely to scrape into his desired school. The maths will probably be fine, he may even do well in reasoning tests but unless his handwriting improves, I fear he is doomed to failure.
Like many children - many of them boys - he has always found writing a chore. Throw him a ball and he can catch it, so there is nothing wrong with his hand/eye co-ordination. Ask him a question and he will answer it in detail, so it appears that his brain works. But give him a piece of paper and he sits staring miserably into space. In the reception class, his teacher identified a problem with his fine motor skills and handed me a sheet of exercises - mostly drawing small patterns. But I didn't bother to make use of it because I assumed that his writing would get better with time, and that the only result of insisting on regular handwriting exercises would be escalating tension at teatime.
I regret that now. Five years on, his writing is still hopelessly babyish, especially in comparison to the girls in his class. "This is what a child of his age can do," said the teacher at the last parents' evening, picking another child's exercise book, seemingly at random. You would think that they were separated by several years in age, not just by a few desks. Panic ensued. First I turned to the internet, and tracked down some books of handwriting exercises. These he duly did, without much enthusiasm, purely for the promised reward of watching Top Gear before bed. At school minor improvement was noted, but not a radical transformation.
I also found articles by calligraphy experts on how to improve handwriting. They suggested techniques including getting more rhythm and regularity into writing by drawing lines of leaning waves - like joined-together ticks all heading for the far margin. I had a lovely time doing these myself, and my own writing looked a little less scruffy as a result, but nothing much changed when I asked my son to do the same. An orderly italic hand is somewhat down the line for him; he needs to learn the basics. It was time to call in professional reinforcements.
A friend who teaches at a secondary school recommended a specialist in South London who gives a boost to weaker writers. The root of Evelyn Moniram's technique is Brain Gym, a series of exercises developed by Dr Paul Dennison from California who had suffered from doing badly at primary school but discovered his whole functioning improved - not just his handwriting - when he encouraged his body and brain to work in unison.
Moniram taught George some of these techniques. Despite wailing all the way to the consultation, George ended up having a whale of a time marching around the room, touching his hand to the opposite raised knee. He also enjoyed making "lazy eights" - big sideways figures of eight in the air - to increase integration between both sides of the brain. Behind these, and many other exercises, lies the principle of getting the whole body to make motions that the hand will then find easier to do in miniature. "Movements across the midline help to integrate fine motor and large motor skills," she explained. "No child can produce fine motor movements for writing until he or she is able to control larger movements."
She identified a problem common among young children of getting too tense about writing because it is difficult. That results in the child pressing too hard on the paper and becoming exhausted from the effort involved not just from the hand but the arm, shoulder and back. To reduce tension, she made him draw lazy eights on a big flip chart, over which he then had to practice making each of his letters, using the round part on either side of the middle. After a few rounds of the alphabet, he returned to writing on paper and the exercise seemed to have relaxed his arm. It also helped to use a propelling pencil that makes it easier to write without pressing hard.
It was only afterwards that I found a report on the UK National Health Service website that rubbished the use of this kind of kinaesthetic training. Citing research carried out in the US in 2002, it said that the findings offered "no support for the use of kinaesthetic training in first grade (six- to seven-year-old) students." Soothingly, my masseur, who naturally believes in using the whole body in a relaxed manner, said that they were still worth doing. "A lot of what you are achieving is giving your son something else to think about when he is writing, or preparing to write, other than how difficult he finds it."
For whatever reason, the exercises help, but there remains a problem with writing neatly. Seeking new inspiration, I consulted the parenting guru Noel Janis-Norton at the New Learning Centre in North London. She approves of Brain Gym but doesn't believe it is the only help he needs. "I can teach him how to transform his handwriting in just a couple of months," she promised. Hers is an old-fashioned method such as teachers used to employ in the days when they dared to be sticklers. She started by asking him to write his name on a piece of paper with lines on it: these he had to stay between. First time around it was all over the place. She then asked him to tell her what was wrong with the result.
He knew, of course, most of what he was doing wrong. The capital letters weren't of uniform height, the risers were heading all over the place, as were the descenders. The lower-case letters were sometimes not reaching the guidelines, and sometimes going over them. Dots and crosses on the "i"s and "t"s weren't always included. Letters such as "m" contained loops where he should have been careful to keep his pencil on the same line going up and down. Nor were there always connective flicks at the end of letters.
He wrote his name again, with much rubbing out, and both the effort and the result received copious descriptive praise - "I like the way you've made sure the G is the same height as the J", rather than "marvellous". After another bout of self-criticism, he did it a third time and this time was told to sit straight and not to lean over the table as it increased the pressure on his hand. "It's important to be absolutely clear what needs to be done," Janis-Norton said. "Often parents and teachers say: 'That's scruffy', but they don't say what's required. If he writes just a little, very carefully, for 10 minutes a day, being careful will soon become easier for him."
Now it's up to us.