Handwriting in the 21st century

Keyboarding, handwriting or both for 21st century learning?

Think about the writing you do each day and what tools you use to do it. If you are anything like me, you jump from one screen to another, from tapping away with your fingers to holding pencils and pens to write in notebooks, on shopping lists and in your diary. You probably have not thought much about it.

For instance I am writing this blog on my laptop having just replied to a text on my smart phone and added some notes to my paper diary using a pencil. I do have an electronic diary, but after a bad experience of losing 6 months of diary entries from my electronic diary I now have both paper and electronic. You might be like me there too!

Literacy in the 21st century

This is the world our children are experiencing. The way they are becoming literate in the 21st century is so different to the way most adults today became literate.

We became literate in a time when literacy was reading, writing, speaking and listening, and life moved a little slower. (When I started my career we used the phone to speak to someone who was in a different location. Now I text or email more than I actually speak on the phone. )

But today 21st century texts are increasingly multimodal. They are created using different modes working together. A picture book is an example of a very simple multimodal text (images plus written text) whereas a webpage, or a movie, are both very complex multimodal texts with images, sound, movement and written text (even movies use writing in titles and credits and don’t forget subtitles). Children of today do not know a world without mobile phones, tablets and computers. They often learn to swipe a touch screen before they learn to hold a pencil. So where is this taking us?

Technology in schools and handwriting

 You might be surprised to know that half the tasks primary school children do at school every day involve writing. While some may think that this is done using technology, the reality is that is not the case. While schools strive to provide technology in many of our classrooms access is limited and issues with software, hardware and security and constant. Consequently, most of the writing our children do in primary schools at least, is handwritten. Is this a bad thing?

I am reliably informed that even in schools that are wealthy enough to provide (or require) that every child has their own laptop, there is a recognition that children still need to learn to write by hand.

I would like to know more about the attitude of teachers to handwriting and how they use it in schools today. I also want to know what parents of school aged children feel about what is happening for their children in terms of handwriting and keyboarding.

 What research so far says about handwriting

 There is a sound theoretical basis and mounting evidence to suggest that the relationship between handwriting and quality of written text is strong and surprisingly robust. It is certainly important when children are learning their letters. They learn the name of the letters, the sounds they make in different words, how the letters looks and importantly how to form or create the shape of the letters. There are also important connections here to how we remember.

Even adults remember more of what they write by hand than what they write on keyboard or tablet.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also teach children how to use keyboards, although there is some research to suggest that keyboard skills should build on from the skills of handwriting. According to Stevenson and Just (2014) it is more effective to teach keyboarding skills in Year 5 or later. Interesting.

What is important to learn when it comes to handwriting?

We can form letters in different ways and use a variety of styles. What is important is that the processes of letter formations are efficient. Most scripts have been designed with advice from experts in the area of fine motor control and posture.

Good pencil grip is important

Likewise, pencil grip. The recommended pencil grip is designed to allow the writer to write efficiently without straining the fingers, hand and arm muscles.

Handwriting is best understood as having efficient ways to write letters and words that lead to written text that can easily be read by both writer and other interested people. It is not about neatness, perfection or any particular script.

When letter formations are taught, children learn efficient ways of forming letters. When children rely on copying letters they can create inefficient processes that can become habitual. When children are guided to hold their pencil correctly at an appropriate time in their development, they develop an appropriate grip that will work for their fingers, hand, wrist and arm.

This can start before they start to learn to write, when they are drawing, and can be well established before they start to learn how to form letters and write words. If however, we don’t take notice of how they hold their pencil a poor pencil grip can also become habitual and very hard to change even though it is placing strain on the hand, wrist and arm.

It’s not just young people who use a mixture of handwriting and keyboarding today

I wonder what you were taught at school in terms of handwriting and keyboarding. My 90-year-old mother was taught Copperplate, and still has beautiful handwriting. While she doesn’t use a computer keyboard, she does text on her phone and use one finger to find her way around her tablet.

I was taught how to print (good old ball and stick) and then graduated to cursive at the same time as I graduated to a pen in primary school. I am self -taught when it comes to keyboarding. I so wish I could touch type. It would make the writing I do so more time efficient. But touch typing was not seen as a skill for students in the academic strand when I was at school.

What is happening in our schools today with the mixture of handwriting and keyboarding?

 This is the topic of my current research. I am looking at what is happening in schools with the mixture of handwriting and keyboarding. I am interested in the attitudes and experiences of teachers and parents around handwriting and keyboarding.

If this topic has tweaked your interest, perhaps you would like to respond to the confidential online survey. It is available now and closes on June 30.

My survey is for primary school teachers and parents of school-aged children. Go HERE to do it

Reference List available on request: nmackenzie@csu.edu.au

MackenzieNoella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She provides CSU students with current, authentic learning opportunities and assessment tasks which link contemporary literacy and relevant technologies with teaching and learning theories, practices and pedagogies. Noella is a member of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE). For the past 8 years, Noella has focused on the teaching and learning of writing. The program of research has included (1) the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, (2) the transition experiences of early writers and (3) writing development in the early years. In August of 2016, Noella will work with a colleague in Finland researching what Finnish children know and can do, in terms of writing, and how their teachers support their ongoing learning. Her research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence through awards at the state and national levels.