‘If we deny pupils handwriting, we are robbing them of a form that individualises them’

Handwriting practice can develop a sense of connectedness and cultural identity, argues one researcher and poet

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Handwriting is going out of fashion. Finland is already phasing it out – with the Finnish government justifying its decision by stating that handwriting is becoming obsolete, that we don’t handwrite as much as we used to – and where Finland leads the education world follows. Already in the UK, people argue that IT – in which typing and word processing is an integral component – has consumed modern modes of communication. So teaching calligraphy or cursive handwriting is an outdated skill.

Of course, they have a point. You only have to look and see how so many of us rely on the keyboards of our computers, laptops, iPads, smartphones etc.

However, at a time when we are interested in getting everyone speaking English and integrating them into a shared (albeit, clumsy) set of ideas about Britishness and British culture, handwriting has played a pivotal role in defining my own sense of who I am, my work and my relationship with the wider world.   

In the mid-1960s, for instance, I learned English as a second language. For me joined-up writing was a form of assimilation into the shapes and patterns of a new language. In writing it, I was seeing a shift in my identity. It was tangible.

Prior to my entering primary school, I was only familiar with Punjabi in which, to my childish imagination, the letters hanged as if on a washing line, drying out in the heat of the Indian summer. They were printed neatly almost like building blocks, and contained a certain abruptness I associated with Punjabi and stories of India my parents recounted. The Punjabi script, with its different vowel sounds and consonants, seemed foreign in my classroom and mirrored the fact that I was foreign, an alien in an English universe. It accentuated a cultural and spatial displacement indicating something of belonging and identity – or a lack of it.

But English lettering and the rules of handwriting contained something closely associated with the feel of a playground. The loops and hoops – taught to me by a grammar teacher – echoed something of fun and playfulness. They weren’t neat prints like the script of the Punjabi alphabet. Instead they were swings and slides in which (especially in secondary school) I arbitrarily dictated the length and height with the ease and flow of my pen. The joined letters gave me a sense of our connectedness, a reminder that as individuals we exist not in isolation but in conjunction with one another.

So my primary school handwriting sessions were, for me at least, both intriguing and therapeutic because they allowed me to reassess who I was. They became the key to unlocking the English universe in which I lived and explored but most of all, they fuelled my imagination.

The capital E, for instance, always reminded me of the Queen. There’s something about the E’s confident stance, its majestic height, and its purveying quality that always suggested something regal. There’s something solid about this letter, indicating permanence. Today its three bars denote the structure of British society, the three-tier class system that dominates our world. In the context of citizenship tests, the bars might also indicate the three bodies that govern our laws – the executive, the judiciary and the administrative.

Cursive writing might also hint at how we reflect ourselves to the world. For instance, the initial R I used at the beginning of my signature used to lean forward uncertainly as if I were reflecting an imbalance of place and heritage in my cultural make-up. Today it’s formulated by a strident lower case L intercepted with an urgent Zorro-like slash conveying a confident expression of dual-identity. Back then dual and identity weren’t cajoled into a compound word. Back then they stood apart like many Asians of my generation.

Essentially handwriting has given me pictorial imaginings of my new world and has aided my preoccupation as a poet. From the beginning, I have always hand-written poems before I type them out. I do this because the process allows me to "feel" the words. It gives me a sense of the shape of the language and hence the "shape" of the idea. So learning handwriting skills can help pupils to think about the subject of their writing. It can help them to reflect, to consume its variants, all its colours – its size, its shades and tones.

Ultimately, cursive handwriting can provide you with a sense of connectedness; it can open your imagination and reflect your identity in the shape and construction of your printed words. To deny our pupils of this means we are robbing them of a form that individualises them. And for a poet, that is loss indeed.  

Roshan Doug is a researcher in education at the University of Birmingham. He also works as a multicultural education consultant and poet in schools (dougroshan@gmail.com)

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