Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Writing and Handwriting Are Not the Same Skill

Picture a 9-year-old boy--he loves books, but hates writing. Picture him at the kitchen table with his head nearly resting on a piece of lined paper. Under his curled arm, he has written a single sentence, and now he can't think of anything else to say. Anything other than, "I hate writing. Why do we have to do this?", that is.

Now picture him at my kitchen table, because I'm talking about Xavier.

Xavier is stuck on sentence two, not because he has nothing else to say, not because he doesn't really understand the assignment but because he lost his train of thought when he shifted from the creative process of working with ideas to the physical process of working with a pencil. We call them both "writing" but they're completely different skills.

Handwriting requires hand-eye coordination and fine motor prowess, like catching a tennis ball. Reading and true writing requires you to understand language, draw inferences and follow a story or an argument to its logical conclusion--brain work. Try reading a complex story or persuasive essay while bouncing a tennis ball. Could you do it? Were you truly doing both at the same time or just switching quickly from intellectual mode to physical and back? Do you remember what you read? I know I couldn't.

Enter Neo, a small, portable, inexpensive mini-word processor that many school districts are now supplying to their elementary students for note-taking and essay writing. Neo can even administer and grade teacher-downloaded tests.

The Neo is produced by AlphaSmart, which began producing portable keyboards in schools for dysgraphic and other special ed kids. But why not every child? They're learning keyboarding at school, most type faster than they write. A product such as the Neo ensures that their ideas come across legibly and spelled correctly, so the kids can concentrate on those higher-level thinking skills we're supposed to be teaching. At least typing gives you a fighting chance to keep up with a brain that's moving faster than your pencil can go.

"But they'll never learn to spell if they use spell-check!" "They'll never learn to write properly if all they do is type!" Not so. Even the best spell-checker will substitute "hear" for "here". (I had one that kept wanting to substitute "drachma" for drama.) So knowing your homonyms and homophones will still be an essential skill. And spell-check is no help at all for replacing missing words.

As for learning proper handwriting, it is true handwriting improves with practice, up to a point. DH used to have perfect handwriting, until he started writing out prescriptions and signing his name hundreds of times a day. Now his seventeen-letter name is down to seven and even my scribbled signature is more legible than his.

So when you're confronted with a kid who "hates writing," probe a little more. Do they easily dictate more complex ideas than you ever see on the page? Is his (it's nearly always a boy who says this) primary complaint that it "takes to long"? Does he have any keyboarding skills? (Stopping to hunt and peck is just as disruptive as stopping to draw the letters.) If the answer to these questions is no, some more teaching about story structure or developing an argument may be in order. But if the answer is yes, for goodness sake, give the kid a keyboard and leave the fine motor work for gym class.


Kim Moldofsky said...

I thought you were talking about my 8 year-old son. Like Xavier, has no shortage of ideas, but getting him to write down even a small portion of them is like pulling teeth. Thanks for the tip on the Neo. I'm going to check it out.

The Princess Mom said...

I'm glad I could help, Kim! There is hope for your son. Xavier is now 11 and though I took a lot of dication for him in 3-5 grades, by the end of 5th grade, he was writing his own book reports. His teacher even saved his last one--the one I didn't help with--to show to next year's class as a perfect model of a summary.

Hm, the one I didn't help with...maybe I wasn't as helpful as I thought. LOL

millenium man said...

New Video helping demonstrate better handwriting.
Handwriting is a tool for transfer of knowledge and must comply with acquired rules in order to understand what we read. The CD ROM deals handwriting problems, rules, tips, and exercises. From students who have lower grades and self esteem to physicians who by law have to improve their writing- this CD can help. Based on 10 years experiance helping ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia - Jason knows what works to improve your handwriting. Simple techniques, demonstrations - a new way of helping people of all ages improve their handwriting and be proud of their own ” work of art”

Product Details Amazon.com
Anyone Can Improve Their Handwriting:

CD-ROM: 40 pages
Publisher: Rainbow Cloud (July 20, 2006)
ISBN: 9659025173

The Princess Mom said...

"a new way of helping people of all ages improve their handwriting and be proud of their own ” work of art”

Which is exactly what I'm talking about--handwriting is an art form. Thanks for the resource, millenium man.