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For thousands of years, humans wrote without any letters. They simply drew pictures to make their point. You didn’t have to know a certain language to understand these pictures. Modern-day drivers know that a road sign with an airplane on it means that an airport is nearby, no matter what language they speak. These ancient pictures worked the same way. Over time, these drawings changed into symbols. There could be thousands of these symbols, so it took many years for humans to learn to write.

We have kept records of things for millennia. Perhaps numerical records of how many sheep we have or to tell of an adventure that we had that day whilst hunting hairy mammoth and being chased by a sabre toothed tiger. Maybe we have kept records of fantastical stories that have been told orally for centuries and eventually they have been recorded in a written format.

 The early cave paintings showed that there was a need all of those years ago to express in some form story telling, or perhaps it was self expression, maybe they were done as lessons to others – a pictorial “how to ” guide or to keep a record of what they had done – prehistoric journaling.   We will never really know but it is fun to surmise what the purpose was of this cave art and to wonder about the people who created it all those thousands of years ago.    What is says to me though is that need to communicate of a bigger scale.    As we move through history we can see how this need to communicate develops. 

The ancient Egyptians invented one of the earliest known writing systems – hieroglyphs, which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘sacred carving’. This is because the ancient Egyptians believed that hieroglyphs had been invented by the gods.  So written, or carved, written communication is deemed to be something so special and treasured.   Something that has had to take a great deal of time a care – I wonder if they made spelling mistakes and began chiselling away again on a fresh stone tablet?   And then moving on to papyrus, more like our paper, where the images were done in ink and some vibrant colours were introduced.  But why? The ancient Egyptians believed that it was important to record and communicate information about religion and government. To leave behind a sense of who they were so that 5000 years later we can begin to understand life back then.   

 Then there were the ancient Greeks, again a symbolic alphabet but also epic tales being told, the stories and adventures, the myths.   Tales of great battles and sieges, of monsters,  of Gods and Godesses.  Adults and children alike would have been wide eyed at the unveiling of these stories and some of these we see today, in museums,  depicted on pottery.

 In Roman times messages would be scratched into wax tablets.  A wax tablet was made of wood and covered with a layer of wax.  It was used as a reusable and portable writing surface.     Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument, a stylus. A straight-edged spatula-like implement (often placed on the opposite end of the stylus tip) would be used as an eraser. The modern expression of “a clean slate” equates to the Latin expression “tabula rasa”.  I think it interesting that these were called tablets and that the man in this picture is holding a tablet that looks very familiar in the modern world, but this picture was painted in 500 BCE.

By now a more traditional way of writing had emerged, there were, and still are, different alphabets but writing as a more formal means of communication had begun.

Let us now zoom forward to 1476, and William Caxton.  He invented the first printing press and the first book to be published in English was …  the Greek histories of Troy.   Now the written word can be reproduced more quickly, this was an exciting time.

Skipping on to Victorian times , although schools have always been around it wasn’t until the Victorian era that these were improved considerably and available for all children rich and poor. In 1870 a law was passed which made it compulsory for all children aged between 5-10 in Britain to attend school. Paper was expensive so children used slates with slate pencils to complete their work. The letters were scratched into the slate with the pencil. This could be easily removed and usually was at the end of each lesson, however some work was recorded on paper and the children had to learn to write neatly with an ink pen in their copybook – this is where the phase, “Don’t blot your copybook” comes from.

So, why this impromptu history lesson?  As children begin to do more work on 1:1 devices they should be able to further enhance and broaden their learning, they can be used to record their work, to create documents, to explore and research, to complete and submit tasks, to photograph and film, to discover more about computing to learn on different inter-active platforms ….. the list is only just beginning and will grow. The door of further possibility and opportunity for our children’s learning is opening.  We will not forget how to write, nor will we neglect the important skill of oracy, but this is the next chapter where children will use a tablet and stylus –just like the Romans!

“Writing is the painting of the voice”


Published by headshipjourney

A teacher of thirty years, and mother of twenty seven years, I think I've learned a great deal - about children, about teaching and learning and about myself. We never stop learning and we should never be afraid to ponder new ideas, to roll thoughts around in our minds, to voice our opinions and have healthy debate. We should never have the arrogance to believe that we know it all but we should remain open minded ready to receive inspiration from those around us. And for me that inspiration comes from my own children, the children in my schools, parents and my wonderful team. I firmly believe that I am a privileged soul to be in the role that I am and I embrace every day and the challenge and joy that it will bring.

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