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What is a pen licence?

Child handwriting with a pen
Earning a pen licence is a proud moment for many primary-school children, but what does your child need to do to achieve this milestone?

Handwriting is undergoing something of a revival in primary schools. Whereas the old National Curriculum didn’t make any mention of children’s penmanship, the new curriculum, introduced in 2014, requires them to be able to produce ‘fluent, legible and, eventually, speedy handwriting’. 

Often, teachers acknowledge this milestone by giving children a certificate called a pen licence. But what does that little piece of paper – cause of so much pride among KS2 pupils – actually mean?

Why give out pen licences?

In the early years of primary school, children are usually encouraged to write in pencil. ‘It’s quite a forgiving writing implement, whereas pens can be difficult to hold and control, with the potential of the ink smudging, which makes it more complicated for children to master the basic movements of handwriting,’ explains Dr Angela Webb, psychologist and chairman of the National Handwriting Association.

But at some stage, usually around the beginning of KS2, children graduate to writing in ink. ‘You would expect most children to be using a pen by the age of nine, once they’ve achieved a certain level of competence in writing with a pencil,’ says Angela.

Many schools mark this transition by awarding children a pen licence: a certificate that states that they are now allowed and expected to use ink for both their schoolwork and homework. ‘Pen licences formalise the transition from pencil to ink, and the prospect of earning a pen licence is used by teachers as a motivator to encourage children to develop the required standard of handwriting,’ Angela says.

How your child earns their pen licence

Although handwriting is a statutory requirement of the National Curriculum, pen licences aren’t, so they’re not used in all schools, or earned in a consistent way. The common factor, however, is that children need to show that their handwriting has reached a certain level, as decided by the school or the individual teacher. ‘Generally, teachers will be looking for legibility, accuracy and neatness,’ explains Angela. ‘Speed is sometimes considered, too: some children are able to write very neatly when they can take their time, but struggle when they have to write quickly.’

Some of the skills that children may need to demonstrate to earn a pen licence include:

  • Using a correct pencil grip
  • Writing on the line
  • Joining letters correctly
  • Starting each letter in the correct place
  • Keeping letters the same size
  • Forming letters with the correct shape
  • Leaving appropriate gaps between words
  • Ensuring that ascending and descending strokes are the right length
  • Writing clearly enough for other people to read their work

Teachers will usually assess children’s work over a number of weeks to decide whether they’re ready for a pen licence, rather than basing their decision on a one-off handwriting test.

The drawbacks of pen licences

Although pen licences can be a great way to encourage children to work hard on their handwriting, they can be demotivating to those who struggle with their motor skills. ‘It can be a huge stigma for a child to be the only one in the class who hasn’t got a pen licence, or whose work is displayed on the wall in pencil when everyone else has used ink,’ Angela says. ‘It’s more sensitive for teachers to encourage all children to use both mediums for a while, and to give children some element of choice over what they use, depending, for example, on whether they’re doing rough notes in a jotter or producing a piece of work for a display.’

Helping your child gain their pen licence

With time and practice, most children will develop their own handwriting style that works in both pencil and pen. However, some children need a little extra help to neaten their handwriting. ‘One of the best ways to help is to work on patterning at home,’ Angela advises. ‘This is often seen as an activity for younger children, but working on pattern-making using a variety of mediums, such as paint or markers as well as pencil and pen, will help to develop the movements your child needs for fluent, automatic handwriting.’

If your child is struggling, it’s also worth speaking to their teacher about the possibility of them trying a different type of pen – particularly one that is designed for people who have difficulties with handwriting. ‘There are many writing implements on the market that can make writing easier and more pleasurable,’ says Angela. ‘A child who struggles to use the class handwriting pen might do much better with a pen that has a different angle, weight or shape of barrel, and then be ready to make the transition from pencil to ink.’

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