Doing the right thing for ciotógs in school
New Irish research suggests left-handers may need more specialist help learning how to write. Kim Bielenberg reports
Around one in 10 children in Irish schools is left-handed, but little attention is paid to how they are taught handwriting, according to teacher Mark Howard.
Howard, who teaches at Delgany National School, Co Wicklow, has carried out research on left-handedness in Irish schools for his master's at UCD.
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Surveying teachers who have graduated since 1975, he found that none of them had been trained in how to teach ciotógs.
According to Howard's research, 33pc of teachers felt they were not confident teaching left-handed learners.
When teaching handwriting, 30pc of teachers use whole class teaching, feeling there was no time or it was not necessary to allocate special tuition to left-handers.
As a southpaw himself, Howard believes handwriting remains a crucial and difficult skill. He says it involves linguistic, conceptual and motor components, all of which have to be coordinated.
"If it can be mastered it can help with so many areas of learning."
In his school, he pays particular attention to helping out left-handers as a special education teacher.
The negative connotations of left-handedness remain deep-seated in our culture.
The word 'sinister' originates from a Latin word meaning left. And the Irish word ciotóg is translated in Ó Dónaill's Irish dictionary as "left-handed person; awkward person".
Howard says his own grandmother was among the many school pupils of her generation who were forced to change from her left to her right hand.
The days when hands were tied behind backs may have gone, but Mark Howard says there is still a negative perception of left-handedness.
"Some parents can be very concerned if they think their child is going to be left-handed. Before their child has started school they might encourage them not to use their left hand.
"If somebody is naturally left-handed, it is not a good idea to encourage them to use their right hand. My advice to parents is to let children decide which hand comes naturally to them."
The negative perception is more common if both parents are right-handers.
In his research, Howard also gauged the attitudes of teachers to ciotógs.
His research, which is published in the latest issue of the Irish National Teachers Organisation magazine InTouch, found that:
✦ 17pc of teachers said left-handers were generally untidy;
✦ 23pc said they were creative and artistic;
✦ 13pc said they had poor fine motor skills (the ability to make movements using small muscles in the fingers, hands and forearms);
✦ 20 pc believed left-handers had poor handwriting skills.
While a considerable number believe left-handers have poor handwriting, only around half of all teachers covered by Howard's research raised the issue at parent/teacher meetings.
Overall, Howard found that there was very little emphasis on training teachers in how to teach handwriting skills.
As part of his research, a number of left-handed pupils were given special attention to their writing skills for six weeks. He said this intervention produced noticeable improvements in dexterity, pen grip, page orientation, seating position, greater accuracy in the formation of letters and improved layout.
Right-handers may be taught to write one way, but that does not always suit left-handers.
For example, right-handers would be taught to cross their ts from left to right, while ciotógs naturally cross them from right to left.
Mark Howard says the positioning of the hand is crucial when teaching left-handers to write.
"The most important thing is to keep the hand below the line, so that it is not being dragged across the written word or covering it up."
Left-handers sometimes write above the line, meaning that they have to lift the pen to see what they have written.
If they are using a fountain pen or a marker, they can also smudge the page with ink as their hand moves across their work.
"It can have negative effect, because their work is ruined and their hand is covered in colour. They start to have a bad feeling about what they have been doing. They may not have been shown how to hold a pen properly."
Howard says that in many schools, these problems only come to light when children start writing with fountain pens, but often that is too late.
"Once habits are set it's very hard to break those habits. Right from day one in junior infants you have to get a handle on this."
The tendency to use one hand or the other is known as laterality.
Some left-handed writers may have dual lateralities.
This means they might write with the left hand, but use the right hand for other important functions such as picking up a spoon or throwing.
Howard says: "The research seems to suggest that the more dominant you are with one side the better.
"If there is too much dual laterality, it can be an indicator of difficulties with certain aspects of learning."
The special education teacher says classrooms can be equipped and laid out to take into account the needs of left-handers.
For example, most scissors are designed for right-handers, and classrooms can be equipped with scissors suitable for both.
Many children now use triangular pencils, which suit both lateralities.
Where space in a classroom is tight, ciotógs should be seated so that they are not knocking elbows with a right-hander.
Howard says pupils should not lend each other their fountain pens, because the nib of a left-hander will develop a different shape to that of a right-hander.
Occupational therapists may help a child if they are having a problem with handwriting.
Niamh Mallon, a paediatric occupational therapist, says hand dominance becomes apparent at pre-school and should be established by the time a child is going into primary school.
The therapist can establish which hand is dominant when working with children.
This is done through a test where a child is presented with items along an imaginary midline running down the body, separating left from right.
"We would keep presenting items along the midline and then record whether the child uses their left hand or right hand to pick them up."
Left-handers and right-handers not only write in a different way - they also think differently, according to researchers at Stanford University. Left-handers tend to look more positively at objects on their left side, while right-handers prefer objects on their right. This could affect everything from what cereal you buy in a supermarket to whom you vote for on a ballot paper, according to the research.