Open Thinkering


Is handwriting dead?

Flickr - handwritingEven as a teacher, I don’t have to write much in an average day. In fact, the most handwriting I ever do at a time is in my diary. That’s probably why, whilst it’s not GP-level indecipherable, it’s certainly not ‘neat’.

But then, on the other hand, last time I checked I could type around 80 words per minute on a keyboard. This is due to me having used a program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing when I was about 12 (it came free on the front of a computer magazine). Its games-based approach made learning to touch-type fun. It didn’t take many hours of practice for me to become fairly quick.

My grandmother, in her eighties, would probably manage about 2 words per minute on a keyboard, but can write incredibly neatly in the copperplate handwriting drilled into her at school. My father’s a ‘hunt-and-peck’ typist and writes, well, dramatically; my mother types about as fast as I do (if not faster) as she used to be a secretary, and her writing is small and neat. As you can see from even just this micro cross-section of the generations in the Belshaw family, the ability to communicate via different mediums depends on context.

An article on the BBC News Education site cites a survey that would suggest that ‘one in three’ children have a problem with their handwriting. One in five, apparently, ‘slip into text message language when they put pen to paper’. 40% of boys in the UK and 25% of girls fail to meet the national standards for writing in tests. This, the survey author believes, leads to those children being disadvantaged when it comes to examination performance.

I’d like to raise a couple of issues. Firstly, I think it’s anachronistic that only those who have broken limbs or diagnosed Special Educational Needs get to use a computer in examinations. In a History exam, for example, we should be looking for historical skills, not handwriting ability. If pupils were taught properly how to touch-type (as they are in other countries) then there would be a more level playing field. It is my belief that under the present system girls’ ability, on the whole, to write more neatly than boys leads to higher grades.

I’m certainly not saying that people shouldn’t have neat handwriting. Of course they should. It’s just not the be-all and end-all it perhaps once was. Examination systems need to take account of changes in the way we communicate. The article bemoans the average amount of time since children last wrote a letter. But then, the last time I wrote a letter was when I was at school. Don’t people use email now? :-p

Secondly, I take issue with the obviously biased section which reads as follows:

Chairman of the National Handwriting Association Angela Webb says children generally have far less physical play these days.

“Instead of going outside and doing handstands against the wall, they are playing computer games inside,” she says.

This has an impact because while they were playing outside they were also fine-tuning the physical skills needed for writing.

But these days they are more likely to be wearing their thumbs out on games consoles.

Hmm… ‘wearing out their thumbs’. But don’t these very games teach valuable hand-eye coordination? I know from experience how beneficial to reaction times and speed-of-thought ‘games’ such as Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Nintendo Sight Training can be. Allowing children to play on games consoles for hours on end is not a good idea. Of course not – everything in moderation. But it certainly teaches skills which aren’t being taught in schools, many of which are rooted in the 20th century. :-s

So handwriting, is it ‘dead’? No! There’ll always be a need for communication via written symbols. The extent to which it is relied upon as the preferred method of communication, however, will inevitably decline. As I’ve already stated above, if it wasn’t for my diary and marking pupils’ books the amount of words I physically ‘write’ per day could probably counted using my fingers and toes… 😉

What are your thoughts on handwriting?

(image: handwriting by flippy @ Flickr)

7 thoughts on “Is handwriting dead?

  1. I just said cursive is dead, you’ve taken it a bit further. 🙂

    I’m a lefty with arthritis, so I am all about things that make me have to write by hand less. I never had good handwriting, even when I wrote by hand constantly.

    The thing about how video games is somehow worse for handwriting skills than doing handstands against the wall (btw, I never did those for fun, even before video games) makes no sense. If anything, video games are going to *improve* your hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

    Basically, I agree.

  2. I’ve got quite neat, easy to read handwriting, honed by the need for my writing to be legible on whiteboards. However, I’ve recently had to change the way I write as the school at which I teach two days a week favours cursive handwriting and all staff have to model it. Couldn’t see the point myself when there’s nothing wrong with the way I write but I’ve tried hard!
    I’d agree about the use of computers etc – once you can type at speed, it’s so much easier to type – and much more legible, even if you do have lovely handwriting. Only problem I find is that I make far more spelling mistakes when typing than when I write- but I guess that would underline what we always tell kids in exams. – read your work at the end for mistakes!

  3. I am in a somehow different situation. I teach science and chemistry in Norway, and my pupils (age 16-19) all have a laptop computer for use at school. One each. And access to a wireless network.
    The problem is that if I allow them to use their computer for tests (and I'd love to – some of their handwriting is almost impossible to interpret), they have access to at least all their notes. That is if everything works as it is supposed to and I manage to close their network access. If that doesn't work properly, they also have access to internet og at least MSN messenger (which often seems to sneak around the closed access somehow).

    An ideal situation in class would be if I could prevent any communication, and only have the sites I decide accessible. Also for testing. If they have taken time to make useful notes, they should be able to use them. Written exams in many subjects in Norway are now "open-book" – both books and computers are allowed, but no communication. This makes it really hard to make good assignments and excercises, and I am not quite there yet (only in my second year of teaching).

    So the handwriting is still crucial for the pupils work, since they do their tests on paper (at least in my classes).

    I passed the limit a few years back where I now type faster on the computer (about 430 correct strokes/minute) than I can write by hand. My handwriting is quite nice, but gradually getting worse, and slower, since I don't practice it as much anymore. Dead? No. But used soooo much less!! And still a bit more personal than typed letters, even if the content is the same.

  4. As the child of a mother who stressed the importance of neat, cursive handwriting, and who lamented the demise of my elder brother’s cursive when we moved from the city to the suburbs – the teachers at that inner city elementary school placed as great a premium on handwriting as my mother – I believe it is a lost art form, and is as much a part of one’s presentation to the world as any thing else. Given that so many kids have turned up with ineffectual motor dexterity these days, parents are choosing not to fight that battle. As a teacher who must read the handwriting of these students, I wished that somebody had placed a higher priority on it.

  5. I believe in a balanced approach. I’m not fond of the attitude that technology replaces. I prefer the approach that technology enhances. Therefore, the ability to type or text message doesn’t mean there is no reason for people to know how to write legibly.

    It’s a skill that should be taught. It’s a good vehicle for building manual dexterity, it’s a skill that will come in handy in multiple places over a lifetime and it indicates a level of self respect and mindfulness about one’s work that is often absent in American public schools.

    I agree that video game use needs to be balanced with other activities… outside play, sports, dance, etc. Our children shouldn’t be raised to ignore their bodies as merely useful vehicles for dragging their heads and thumbs around.

  6. Handwriting is a skill. Everyone develops their own style. Of course there is the slight gripe that we educate children to write in cursive script at around Year 2/3 and becoming more legible the older they become. Of course I do wonder what script they have to learn from… the teacher on the board…. and… well where else? Books in print are -> PRINTED <- so the only example are in the handwriting text books.
    We write cursively as it is faster!! I would settle for slightly slower, but printed neatly with correct spelling and real content.

  7. I’m interested in natural user interfaces in the area of electronic documents. Slate-PCs (slim tablets like the iPad) are on the rise and many of them offering handwriting recognition for taking notes. I agree that written symbols are here to stay but I wonder if we really shouldn’t be teaching some form of shorthand. If the main use for handwriting now is taking notes, would this not be a more efficient form of written communication? I wrote a blog post this subject here:

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