We were treated the day before yesterday to a splendid example of the truly extraordinary mental contortions which are necessary if one wishes to be an 'autonomous' home educator. Just like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, the dedicated autonomous educator is required to believe six impossible things each day before breakfast!
A couple of days ago somebody whose child still cannot write even though he is in his teens commented here. The fact that he can barely write his own name was attributed by some others who commented, to the fact that he evidently had special educational needs. The mother herself is more inclined to suppose that not being taught systematically and drilled in handwriting practice has something to do with the case. Now most people would agree with the mother about this. When we have a large group of children who are taught a skill which almost all manage to acquire with varying degrees of facility and another group who are not taught and a number of whom simply fail to acquire the skill, most would assume that the teaching has had at least some bearing on the matter. It is so wholly typical of autonomous home educators that they should instead lay the blame on brain damage.
The first thing which occurs to me here is that I have never encountered this phenomenon with any child at school. Some have learning difficulties so severe that they are unable to learn to read and write, but that is not the case here; the mother says that her son is reading. Children at school who are capable of learning to write usually do so. They may have poor handwriting which is virtually illegible, but write they do. I have never seen a teenager of average intelligence at school able to write only in capitals and then hardly anything but his own name. The second thing which strikes one is that rare as this is with school children, it does not seem to be particularly uncommon among autonomously educated children. Without racking my brains, I can remember Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise saying that her son was writing laboriously in capital letters when he was a teenager and Janet Ford's son Chris also had a lot of difficulty with writing. I have seen several examples of this myself with older children and all were autonomously educated; that is to say they were not drilled in pre-writing skills and made to draw little circles and up and down strokes repeatedly. Other home educating parents talk about this openly; it is not rare. In other words, although some children may learn to write of their own accord, there do seem to be some who do not and of these, a number end up as teenagers who can only write capital letters and just about spell their own name. Since we do not see this in children of average intelligence who attend school, it is reasonable to assume that it is the type of education which is being provided which causes this, rather than some form of brain damage.
It has been suggested by some that because adults can learn to draw easily, the same should be true of writing. It is not; these are two very different things. When drawing, one can make the line go where one pleases. It can be straight or curved, short or long; the choice is yours. in writing, one is compelled to make lots of fiddly little anti-clockwise circles and loops, quick up and down movements, dots and horizontal bars. This must be second nature to one, it must be done smoothly and automatically. The way that we acquire this ability, which is known as motor learning or muscle memory, is by repeating the same fine motor movements over and over again. After a time, they become transferred to the cerebellum and from then on, this sub-routine can be called up without conscious effort. Riding a bicycle, teeth brushing, playing the piano and various other sub-routines of this sort are also stored in the cerebellum. It would be no use when playing the piano if one searched for C and then E and then G and then formed the hand in such a way as to play the three notes simultaneously. It would be impossible to play the piano like this. In the same way when writing, it would not do if one first tried to remember how to write the letter C and then after that started to think about how to do an A and so on.
The only way that these routines get fixed in the cerebellum is by plenty of practice. Those who were telling this mother that general practice in fine motor control would be helpful for a child were not really right. One can be able to do the most fiddly and exacting work with the fingers, but until those writing movements have become fluent, one will not be able to write properly. The younger one is when this is done, the better. Just as a young person can learn to drive a car more easily and faster than an older person learning, so too with handwriting. One might be able to persuade a four year old to sit at a desk drawing loads of little circles; I doubt that you will manage to get many fourteen year olds to do so! If it is not done when the child is young, then you might be heading for problems later.