Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Writing Implements

By the end of the 18th century, people in positions of authority began to want to write more. Writing for pleasure and self-expression began to expand in addition to writing for record-keeping and accounting. Being in authority, those people had artisans at their disposal to help develop writing implements that were more efficient and comfortable than the traditional quills that didn’t need constant dipping in inkwells. This led to the invention of fountain pens.

For the next 150 years, the fountain pen continued to evolve, and it wasn’t until the World War II that the race to develop the best instrument was halted. Mass fountain pen production slowed, materials became scarce, and some of the larger pen manufacturers crossed over into producing military equipment.

This is where the young pretender, i.e. the ballpoint pen began to creep in. Smart fountain pen companies (most notably in Europe) began manufacturing their own ballpoint pens alongside their fountain pens, and managed to stay afloat. Others, not so smartly tried to resist the rise of ballpoints and as a result, went broke.

So for 150 years, every adult and child learned to write using a fountain pen. It is not unusual, even to this day in Continental Europe, for children to be given fountain pens in their first years of schooling. There are still plenty of reasonably high quality, cheaply manufactured fountain pens that allow them to do this.

The advantage of fountain pens for novices is that their relatively soft nibs don’t require much pressure to make marks on the page. This then allows the development of the finer motor skills required for legible, fluent writing. The softness of the nib also allows for minute changes in its shape in response to the writer’s unique angle and pressure profile, so that it becomes moulded by its writer’s hand. That’s why you must never lend your fountain pen to others.

Pencils, of course, especially the larger, hexagonal type have similar moulding qualities, but getting a graphite pencil to that ‘sweet spot’ where the point is just as you like it, is a fleeting pleasure. Soon the graphite wears down and the writer has to sharpen and start the process all over again. The advantage of pencil is that it is not indelible, so erasers can be used to correct mistakes.

Pencils are good for handwriting practice. I myself used to press very hard on the paper in an effort to control my handwriting. It wasn’t until I went to a school in the Netherlands that I encountered fountain pens. In continental Europe, fountain pens were a standard writing implement back then and I fell in love with them from the first moment I used one. The softness and relative weakness of the metal nib forced me to press less heavily on the paper and as a result I had to consciously develop neater handwriting by means other than pressure.

All students should start out using a pencil that is easy to grip, erasable and light in weight. There are also some pens on the market which are erasable. Be careful, though. The ink in those pens fades due to heat brought on by the friction produced when using the ‘eraser’ part. But heat can come from other sources. I once had a student who used a pen like that. He took great care to do all his notation and homework in a big A4 book. He left that book on the dashboard of his mother’s car one day in the sunshine, and when he brought the book to the lesson and opened it up, all his work had disappeared!

Personal preference, of course, wins the day. There are so many writing implements on the market and yet in primary schools, it often comes down to a ‘choice’ of two; and not even a choice. A popular primary school trend in recent decades has been the race towards a ‘pen licence’ – or at least toward being permitted to use a pen instead of a pencil.

I beg you, if this is something your system does, please consider the following view:

Children who come to see me at my practice often express feelings they would normally hold back at school. This is because in a 1:1, non-school environment they are no longer subject to peer scrutiny or to the inevitable power structures that a teacher-student relationship can bring.

Mostly these students struggle with the task of writing. There are two things in primary school systems that they consistently report as a source of ongoing humiliation and anxiety:

  1. Cold-writing exercises, when all scaffolds are removed and only a stimulus is provided and they are expected to write.
  2. Being made to work towards discarding the pencil and being permitted to use pen (we will call this ‘pen licensing’ from now on).

We will return to cold-writing later, but let us now explore pen licensing. Firstly, a pen licence scheme implies that pencils are somehow childish and undesirable. Yet many people prefer the feel and the impermanence of pencils. Why deny them this?

Secondly, some people find it easier to control a pen. They write more neatly with pen than they do with pencil. If you are trying to get them to achieve neatness so that they are granted a pen licence, restricting the use of an implement that may contribute to neatness is a pretty horrible catch-22.

In all but the strictest systems, the children who do not gain their pen licence at a certain year level return the next year and go immediately to the implement of their choice once restrictions and pen-licence nonsense is forgotten about. The only overall difference your pen licence scheme made was to the discomfort and shame of some of your students. That’s the pen licence legacy. Not neater writing; more shame.

It’s a jarring view, especially to teachers who have never questioned pen licences, but please don’t shoot the messenger. Instead, I would beg you to raise the demand for higher quality letter formation instruction in the beginning years. So much anguish could be avoided if the whole school takes on a more explicit approach to this activity.

I would also recommend discarding the false  pen/pencil dichotomy. Children should be guided in choosing their preferred implement without prejudice.

In an ideal world, fountain pens should be issued after the first year of schooling, with explicit instruction on how to use and care for them. They are relatively inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk, and some manufacturers even have child specific models with built-in tripod grips.

Fountain pens specifically made for children

Due to popular interest, I have included a link to a distributor of Lamy fountain pens. We buy them in bulk for our handwriting workshops for children. At $40, parents have to buy the pens as part of their starter kit if they’d like one, although at the moment, due to COVID, we haven’t been doing this, as it takes contact to groove children into using them.