Sunday, May 12, 2013

Is Handwriting all that Important?

The other day I said "Good Morning" to one of the parents of a couple of kids at one of the schools who I've seen around. It didn't take her long to launch into a tirade of "But writing's important and they should have to do it at school more" etc.

So I got to thinking. Just how important is handwriting? The "I want my son to be able to write me a letter" - which had me chuckling to myself - If there's a quick way of getting a message to a parent i.e. email, then why would you write a letter? That boy just don't love his mother.... But I digress.

Writing is an act of hand eye co-ordination which leads to muscle memory. i.e. you can close your eyes and write a couple of words and chances are they're going to be relatively legible. But do we lose pathways if we don't do more handwriting practice?

For my own experience in school handwriting was something horribly frustrating. I could try and get my ideas down or I could try and make it look nice. I was never a presentation person and so those ideas won out every single time - except when I brought a calligraphy pen which lead to torn out pages as I made mistakes (and drove my teachers crazy as the pages in an exercise book generally aren't thick enough to cope meaning I could only use one side of a page). I don't think I ever earnt my "pen license" at primary school.

I have to wonder how much of my awkwardness with a pen was due to being tall... Longer limbs without the time for muscle mass to develop at the same rate leads to an awkwardness and clumsiness.

Communicating ideas is really important. It's all good and fine having brilliant ideas but if you can't communicate those ideas, they're effectively pointless. But we're not in an age where the focus has to be the form the communicate takes but can instead focus on the content. So our children are able to learn concepts like tense that much earlier. The focus can be on the language, not on the handwriting (or ruling a line between each day).

That isn't to say that handwriting shouldn't be taught - but that we now have the technology to focus on the other bits that tend to get left behind. I remember an English teacher in high school who'd gotten really frustrated that most of us hadn't learnt the most basic structures of English e.g. discerning a verb, noun, adverb etc. This is at the age of 13.

What effect does it all have on our brain? We all know that we have 2 hemispheres to the brain - the right hand side of the brain deals mainly with creative things while the left hand side deals to more analytical activities. Also the left hand side of the brain deals to the right hand side of our body and vice versa. During drinks with friends the other night something occurred to me - while I'm right handed, most of the people I hang around with are left handed. I surround myself with those who are stereotypically more creative than analytical.

Writing is generally done by our left hand side (analytical - linear) while the ideas we're trying to purvey are generally more creative - at least in school where we're trying to encourage kids to write about their experiences or an interpretation. For example, writing assessments are generally done based upon a shared experience - an ice cream during class or field trip becomes a baseline for which every student can write about. And assessment is based not only on the structure of language but the ideas purveyed.

So both sides of the brain, and the ability to communicate between the two are being assessed - taking a bunch of ideas, putting it into words (something very linear - how often on this blog do I say something about "coming back to that"?) but having the words be able to spark something non-linear in the readers head. i.e. a story that contains a whole string of "and then" as in "We went to the museum on the bus and then my friend and I went to the toilet and then...." describes a student who, while they get the language, and are told to write about their trip to the museum, don't quite get how their writing should be giving the reader ideas. A computer can do the "and then's" - the analytical. We'd like to see a more creative/human element to the writing.

Reading assessments assess similar things. Not just the ability to read words off a page, but also the ability to interpret those words (comprehension) into logical/analytical sense as well as being able to expand upon a story i.e. "What do you think happened next?" or "Why do you think that character behaved in that way?".

In which case, does the act of writing create pathways to better enable this communication between the two hemispheres? Even now, I don't think that I can hand write something without knowing exactly what I'm going to write first. Computers have enabled me to do this though - I can have a vague idea of a subject I want to write a blog post about, set myself in front of my keyboard and in about 15 minutes time, have a full blog post (or a dud - something I end up deleting as it was the beginning of something but I just couldn't make it go anywhere). This is in part to the fact that I can cut and paste text, go back over a sentence etc. So the mechanics of writing are less of a limitation and I can then focus more on content (and presentation last - I try not to insert pictures, video clips, do anything with fonts until after I've got the content). I can focus more on the two sides of the brain working to come up with something readable rather than having to worry about the presentation/legibility of it.

Does this mean I don't think handwriting should be taught? Absolutely not. I think we can make it something exciting even. Show off a fountain pen, calligraphy pen. Make it into a module i.e. talk about how people wrote in the past (quill with an ink well and sand jar, dip pen, fountain pen, biro etc.) and how the different instruments for writing influenced the style of writing. Who had access to reading and writing and how was word distributed? (scribes, printing press, online etc.). Hand writing doesn't have to be this completely boring "one of these days I'll get my pen license" kind of activities.

Of course, writing and reading have been at the very center of education for a very long time (I'm not going to touch on the fact that it was only considered important for males for a very long time). The form of it has changed - i.e. desks don't come with a hole for an ink well and misbehaving boys aren't terrorising people with ink anymore. And even when you watch movies with the poor little black African kids finally getting educated, they're looking at the forms of letters and repeating the sounds those letters imply.

No one's looking to displace this. The question is, is handwriting really needed to quite the same degree? Can we not focus on writing more instead? This is definitely something that I think bears some conversation...

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