The Handwriting Debate

Photo from Pixabay

There's been a debate going on for a while now about the relevance of handwriting for students in today's world.  Many people have weighed in on this from early years teachers to professors, paediatricians, psychologists and everyone in between.  What are your thoughts?

As an educator, I've asked myself this a few times and am asking again as I work with my child who recently started school.  I don't think throwing handwriting out completely is the answer here, I do think we need to look at the emphasis we place on perfecting handwriting and what purpose it serves.

In my spare time, I'm also a crafter and love creating scrapbook pages with my own handwriting.  I scribble ideas in the many ideas books I have, I keep a gratitude journal, a create cards for many occasions all with my own handwriting.  As an intermediate school student, I learnt calligraphy and occasionally accent cards, envelopes and extra special awards with it.  Over my time as a teacher, I have received many handwritten notes from students that I still keep today.  I have a stash of written artefacts from my grandparents and great-grandparents that are very special to our family.  So handwriting still holds something for me, something that's a little different to a digital artefact.

However, I hated handwriting in school.  It wasn't until the final stages of high school that I developed a style that suited me.  Handwriting lessons were at times painful for me and served little purpose.  It was a chore that we had to do every day and I wasn't very good at it.  My linked letters looked like squiggles and were pretty unreadable.  When I finally moved away from having to link my letters 'properly' and developed a style that worked for me I loved it... and people could read it.

What should it look like?
Maybe we need to think carefully about how much time we spend getting children to have perfect handwriting that follows all the rules.  Perhaps we need to as educators think more about giving students the reason why we're handwriting -

To form connections in the brain between how a letter, word and sentence is formed and what it means when we're reading.  To make a connection between what we're hearing and what we're writing, making it easier for us to process our thinking.

Maybe we also need to think carefully about how we teach handwriting and take a more integrated approach to it, rather than just sticking to the daily lessons many of us endured as children.  I saw great progress in handwriting abilities when it was part of what sounds we were learning in phonics or the spelling rules we were looking at based on our novel writing and when it became part of our guided reading sessions.

Photo from Pixabay

Children's readiness to write
Of course, the debate isn't just about what goes on in the classroom to teach handwriting it's also about children's lack of readiness to write.  Many blame digital devices for children's lack of readiness and yes I agree if a child is on a device constantly they will probably not have the skills to write when they start school (here in New Zealand that's usually their 5th birthday).

However, I don't agree with the 'no device before their 5-6-7..' mantra. Even those students that don't have access to devices might not be ready to write when they start school.   There are many reasons for this. I think it's really important to not just blame a device for a lack of readiness in children.  I think we've got to look at the whole picture.  One reason I think is prevalent is that we aren't letting children play enough, we aren't giving them enough tools to just have a go with, we aren't leaving them to it and letting children fail, try again, succeed and continue to experiment on their own.

I also believe that we need to slow down and get to know our students.  Why does a child need to be able to read and write as soon as they enter school?  I think we have a real problem with this in New Zealand.  I wonder if we need to look more carefully at the skills we're giving students and where our focus should be.  Shouldn't a child be able to construct a story verbally with details before they think about writing?  Isn't the ability to hold a conversation, successfully interact with others and be able to seek and find help more important than the way your writing looks?

Our children live in a world that is vastly different from when I grew up.  Connection to the internet and playing, learning, finding answers, watching, and interacting with appropriate material on a device is part of their world.  While writing a letter by hand and posting it may have been a primary form of communication 20 years ago it is fast becoming a novelty to receive such communication today.  I think our focus needs to shift.

I don't think that stressing out about having some device time is going to do anyone any good.  What I do believe is of extreme importance is taking the time to evaluate what is happening on the device and when it is appropriate to use a device and when it isn't - focusing on the right tool for the job.  I'll talk more about this in future posts.   In a world where if you want to learn how to do something a simple search and watching a few videos can set you well on your way to doing so, why are we debating about how students handwriting isn't as good as it used to be?

What are your thoughts?

Here's a few recent news articles I read that prompted this post...
More Kiwi kids brought up on tech can't hold a pencilWill Technology Kill Handwriting
Why handwriting skills are essential in the digital age
The importance of teaching handwriting
When should a child learn to write?