UKEdMag: Handwriting – What’s the point?

  • It is easy to argue that now, with the advent of technology, there is little need to teach handwriting to pupils
  • Their lives will surely be dominated by fiddly little phone keyboards, computer keyboards, or impressively evolving voice recognition software – that can do all the hard work for you.
  • Perhaps, in fact, skills could be taught to encourage young people how to use Swiftkey or Fleksy keyboards more effectively rather than the painstaking task of trying to get children to join up their letters using a pen or pencil – this is a more effective use of teaching time, surely?
  • When we handwrite, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated.
  • In this extract, from UKEdMagazine June 2014, Colin Hill explored current issues in the handwriting debates with strong arguments for and against teaching the art…

The importance of the skill of handwriting is markedly different among nations across the world. In Australia, pupils are expected to “Consolidate a personal handwriting style that is legible, fluent and automatic and supports writing for extended periods” (Year 7 expectation, ACELY1727), whereas in England pupils are expected to “write legibly, fluently and with increasing speed”. Often, there are debates about the handwriting style that should be taught (usually cursive or script), yet in contrast the USA Common Core standards call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.

And maybe there is some justification in this approach. The way all media is changing, with paper being used less and less. Some technologists have argued that it is important to teach letters and numbers, but doing it in a way that children will be using in their lives, with a focus on keyboards and typing, not triple-lined paper – being able to print will suffice with the advances in technology.

Aisling Brown notes this shift with her students, “A large proportion of students do the greater part of their revision on computers or tablets, if not their actual classwork. This has been the case for many years – even 10 years ago I wrote most of my school essays on the computer. The use of technology in the classroom is advancing in exciting directions and constantly developing.

“So, if students hardly handwrite in the classroom, I am not convinced of the purpose of examination through this means. If nothing else, a typed essay is significantly quicker and easier to mark. A typed submission also enables easy editing – no more angrily crossed out misspellings or arrows squiggling across pages to insert further thoughts, no bringing five pens, a pencil, two rulers and a calculator just in case. And won’t somebody please think of the trees?” Although, we all know of colleagues who insist of printing EVERYTHING out.

The digital education officer continues, “It appears to me that we have two options – students continue to come out of exams in physical pain from the quantity of writing they have to do, or lose valuable lesson time teaching handwriting purely for the purposes of an outdated form of examination. Not to mention the lost marks due to an indecipherable scrawl – some of the most able students are the most frustrating in terms of legibility.  Exams are hugely stressful ……and demanding experiences for students, teachers and examiners already, without insisting on an increasing outmoded form of notation. Exams should reflect and assess what is going on in the classroom. Handwriting is no longer an automatic part of the learning process and its use in the examination process therefore must be re-evaluated.”

But researchers are now discovering that the importance of handwriting and broader educational development are intrinsically linked. French psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene recently told the New York Times, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. It seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realise – Learning is made easier.”

Indeed, another study has demonstrated that that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones. The research found, “even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.”

So, whether this is an argument for the traditionalists versus progressive thinkings, the questions will continue.

To continue reading this article, click here to open up the June 2014 edition of UKEdMagazine free.

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About @digicoled 446 Articles
Colin Hill - Founder, researcher and editor of ukedchat. Also a bit of a tech geek! Project management, design thinking, and metacognition.

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