Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Handwriting on the Wall? Doubt it.

According to an article in today's Washington Post, teachers can no longer find enough time to teach proper handwriting. And they don't care.

"Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it's important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades."

I've mentioned before that I feel that "lovely handwriting" should be considered an artistic technique, not a writing skill. The Post's article would have us believe that without cursive writing, there would be no critical thought:

"The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit. Children who don't learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it."

"In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills."

Let's think about this. Being able to write easily from a young age makes children more likely to write well. Children who struggle with writing don't like to write. Earthshattering news? Hardly. And I would argue this means keyboarding is even more important than 15 minutes a day of handwriting practice.

A child who is not worrying about letter-formation will be able to add that much more attention to the ideas he or she is writing. More practice at letter-formation needed? No, how about removing letter-formation from the equation altogether? People who type don't worry about letter-formation, or spelling, or grammar when they are first getting their ideas down. All that technical stuff can be fixed later; it's the ideas that are important. Revising is easy in a wordprocessing program.

People (children) who are forced to laboriously hand-write an essay concentrate on all these mechanics to the detriment of ideas so they won't have to rewrite later. And that fear of having to rewrite is what makes the essays superficial. A child who is more worried about spelling than communicating ideas will write "Dad's mom" instead of "Grandmother." (Klaus, age 5, after three months in kindergarten). A child who is dictating a story will go on for pages with dialogue and extensive descriptions, will type a five page essay, but when hand-writing will struggle to finish half a page. (Xavier, the one with the perfect penmanship, grade 3) I suppose Professor Graham would be puzzled that my boy with the best handwriting is also the one who refuses to write.

We are in a transition period from the paper to the paperless society. (Offices have been trying to achieve this for years, right?) The paperless society is also a pen-less one. No paper, no need for pens. No pens, no need for penmanship. Yes, lovely cursive writing may survive as a hobby or an art form, like calligraphy (which used to be a necessary skill--for medieval monks--until the technology changed, i.e. invention of the printing press).

I would argue that technology is about to supercede the need for any handwriting. Think security, a signature can be forged more easily than a thumbprint. Electronic security codes and layered encryption seal legal and economic transactions. Credit card receipts and grocery lists are the only things I handwrite now. FastPass technology is doing away with signed credit slips and if I could order my groceries online, I absolutely would. Then what would I need pens for? Probably only to write myself sticky notes and I don't need good handwriting for that.

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