Not so mighty any more

14th October 2011 at 01:00
Has the pen been vanquished by the keyboard? Some schools no longer teach handwriting, but could they be stunting their pupils' development in unexpected ways, asks Adi Bloom

Andrew Beswick is an unlikely revolutionary. His hair, receding slightly, is neatly combed. He wears a knitted jumper over a lilac shirt. His smile is amiable, his eyes twinkling. He looks, in fact, exactly what he is: a kindly primary school teacher.

But the Year 6 teacher is fomenting what may be one of the most significant revolutions of the modern age. Quietly but firmly, he is pushing his own school - and, potentially, all primary schools - into a brave new classroom world: a world in which there is no place for handwriting.

"The world is changing very, very quickly," is the message Mr Beswick repeatedly gives staffroom colleagues at Greave Primary in Stockport. "Less and less, I'm thinking that you need to teach children to write by hand beautifully. More and more, they need to master the keyboard and the skills they will need there."

His staffroom sermon, he says, is invariably met either with stony silence or heated debate. But he continues undeterred: "The skills we needed to master 10, 15 years ago - those are so not the skills you need to master for the next 10 to 15 years. Even in a primary school, you need to think about what's going to happen when children meet the big, wide world."

Mr Beswick may be a classroom revolutionary, but he is no maverick. Rather, he is at the forefront of a broad, far-reaching change. Earlier this year, education officials in Indiana announced that theirs would be the latest US state to adopt the Common Core State Standards: curriculum guidelines intended to guarantee educational consistency across the country. Under these standards, pupils must learn skills deemed crucial to their 21st-century success. Keyboard proficiency is one of those skills; handwriting is not.

"I don't think anybody would disagree that, for students to be college and career-ready in the 21st century, keyboarding is going to be the skill they need," says Ross McMullin of the Indiana Department of Education. "People a lot smarter than me came up with these standards."

So, from the beginning of this school year, there will be infant pupils in Indiana who will never be taught to hold a pen, will never be taught to join letters to one another, will never write in anything other than a childish, disjointed hand.

For many, this is the obvious end-point to a journey most schools have already embarked upon. Carey Jewitt, an academic at the Institute of Education's London Knowledge Lab, has been comparing classroom uses of handwriting and technology for 10 years. When she began her research, technology use in the classroom was still limited. Nonetheless, there was little extended use of handwriting. Where pupils were studying Macbeth, for example, the text was made accessible through classroom videos and trips to the theatre. And pupils researched witchcraft on the internet.

"Even back then, you didn't see extended student handwriting in the classroom - just short bursts," Professor Jewitt says. "Handwriting was very much only for the exam."

When she conducted a second observation, in 2007, handwriting had all but disappeared from the secondary classroom. In a range of subjects - English, as well as science and maths - teachers prepared their lessons in digital form, presenting them on interactive whiteboards.

More recently, pupils submit essays as print-outs. Others hand in memory sticks or present PowerPoint displays. Still others email their essays directly to the teacher. In these cases, teachers' handwriting is rendered similarly unnecessary: instead, they track changes electronically or, in more technologically advanced schools, insert audio comments.

In Indiana, pupils from the age of eight will now be asked to sit standardised tests online. Proficient typing will help them to pass exams; neat handwriting will help them write thank-you cards to great aunts. Even those officials who believe all forms of written communication to be equal concede that some are more equal than others.

"I think kids need handwriting," says Lisa Lantrip, assistant superintendent for Wayne Township, near Indianapolis. Dr Lantrip is responsible for managing the curriculum for all of her district's schools. "But I also think that, with all the expectations placed on our kids, taking up an exorbitant amount of school time, some things fall off the plate. There's only so much time to teach everything.

"We're still saying handwriting is important to us - the kids need to be able to read it. And we believe that they need to know how to sign their name." She pauses. "But kids are pretty inventive - they copy what they see. I believe they would learn how to sign their names anyway."

In an era of chip and pin, swipe cards and retinal scans, the value of a signature is, in any case, negligible. This is Andrew Beswick's argument to recalcitrant colleagues. "I just think of my own work, what I experience day to day," he says. "Reality is that it's a computer. It's a screen experience, writing. The pen comes out when I'm making a quick note, writing on a Post-It. But a longer piece of writing? I use the computer."

For all her advocacy of handwriting - Wayne Township's schools will continue to teach the subject, finding time somehow, "though it's a struggle, I can tell you" - Dr Lantrip accepts that its usefulness is limited. "The kids' world is very technology-driven," she says. "The future is uncertain - how much kids will use cursive handwriting. But we do know that technology will continue to increase importance in their lives. It will play a larger role in their life than it does today."

"Little children may not be able to write their names, but most can type them," says Professor Jewitt. "Look at Facebook. Even families on a very low income are using email, using Skype.

"Students' handwriting we've seen is absolutely appalling, because they are not getting any practice. They aren't handwriting at home. But lots of them are writing reams and reams and reams of very interesting stuff."

This is where boundaries become hazy, definitions fluid. The shift from handwritten to digitally produced work means more than the ability to produce and submit an essay electronically. It means an entire re-evaluation of what written work actually is.

Mr Beswick cites the example of Leon: one of the most successful writers in his Year 6 class. For the last two terms, Leon has barely picked up a pen.

Leon is a Year 6 pupil who struggles with fine motor skills. In real terms, this means that he is an 11-year-old boy who cannot do up buttons, cannot turn a page easily, cannot use a pair of scissors. And who cannot hold a pen without significant difficulty. Unsurprisingly, written work has never been something that Leon enjoys. When he does put pen to paper, his work is slow, the letters ill-formed and varying enormously in size and shape. The words themselves are barely legible, but Leon's pain is writ large and clear across the page.

Then, mid-way through the year, his school acquired voice-recognition software for its computers. Where Leon had previously wrangled with pencil and paper, or resorted to the slightly less challenging battlefield of the computer keyboard, he now merely spoke his ideas out loud into a microphone and found them immediately - and accurately - transferred onto the screen.

Initially, he responded to his non-writing writing task by producing stream-of-consciousness essays: a direct channel from brain to mouth, copied verbatim onto the page. But gradually, noticeably, his thought processes have slowed down. He thinks before speaking, composing sentences in his head first. From being a special needs case, Leon suddenly became a notable high-achiever. Technology is rehabilitating the outsiders, returning the outcasts to the fold. Suddenly, an inability to cope with the mechanics of writing need not stand in the way of producing a top-scoring piece of, well, writing.

"It's kind of life-altering, really," says Mr Beswick. "Very often, these children have fantastic imaginations, fantastic vocabulary - it's just the labour that's a problem. They have spent most of their schooling finishing last, taking longer than everyone else. And now they are finishing first, producing top, top stuff.

"It's a real shift in power. It challenges traditional notions of what should be taught in schools, of what achievement is. And that muddies the water a little bit as far as handwriting is concerned."

The earliest handwriting dates back to the fourth millennium BC, when Mesopotamian temple officials began pressing a stylus into soft clay in order to keep effective property records. These writing systems relied on literal depictions of the items being represented: a picture of a cow, for example, would indicate one cow owned by the temple.

The first steps towards a phonetic alphabet - one that accurately represents the spoken sound of a word - were taken in Phoenicia, in the second millennium BC. Phoenician, a Semitic language, relied only on written consonants. As in informal versions of modern-day Semitic languages - Hebrew and Arabic - readers used their intuition to fill in the necessary vowels. It was the Greeks, in the eighth century BC, who created letters to represent vowel sounds. And thus the alphabet, in a recognisable western form, was born.

As writing became an increasingly desirable skill, teachers began carrying samples for their pupils to copy, engraved on thin sheets of copper. The flowing italic script captured on these sheets resulted from the movement of sharp point through metal. This was easily reproduced by nib and ink on paper, generating the cursive script now known as copperplate.

In human terms, all this makes handwriting a relatively recent skill. There is, therefore, no part of the brain specifically evolved to enable us to pick up a quill and attach an open 'p' to a loopy 'en'. However, the brain has made significant adaptations to accommodate the human proclivity towards doing so.

Writing researcher Karin James works in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. (It is not known whether the irony of abolishing handwriting lessons on the doorstep of a leading handwriting researcher is appreciated by local education officials.) Dr James conducted MRI brain scans of reception-age children who had not yet learnt to write. Then, following several weeks of handwriting lessons, the children's brains were scanned again. While the children could identify individual letters, they did not yet know how to read. But Dr James found that children who had been taught to write developed brain patterns similar to those found in reading adults.

"This is setting their brains up to be able to process letters and words," she says. "That doesn't happen with keyboarding, or even with tracing the letters. Creating the form, stroke by stroke, seems to be very important. They need to produce letters in their minds, then create the form on paper."

The children's letters were often messy and poorly formed. But, Dr James suggests, this was part of the learning process: by producing three very different looking letters, "a" for example, they realised that a letter could take many forms, yet still retain its inherent "a"-ness.

"I don't know that I would go as far as saying handwriting makes us human," she says. "But if we replaced handwriting with keyboard skills, I think children would be delayed in lots of aspects. They would have trouble learning how to read.

"If children only learn to write on the keyboard, we would have to evolve to use different brain systems for reading. It's anybody's guess what that might mean - we don't know what the effects might be. If we take handwriting out of the school system, we would be taking something away without any evidence that the effects aren't going to be harmful. In my view, that's very dangerous."

For teachers who still doggedly insist on including handwriting as part of daily school life, such dystopian pronouncements have the ring of truth. "There's a link between cursive script and effective spelling," says David Gibbons, head of Nettleham Junior School in Lincolnshire. In the corridors of his school, walls are lined with displays of handwritten work, surrounded by brightly coloured decorations. "English is such an awful language to spell. But certain words - like 'their' - if you learn to spell in cursive form, there's a muscle memory there."

To generate cursive handwriting, pen, arm and torso work together, creating a sense of space and direction. By contrast, tapping on a keyboard often involves only a gentle up-and-downing of the fingers. "If you try to spell 'their' wrong, your body says, 'no, no - you don't do it like that'," Mr Gibbons says. "It's a bit like a dance class: once you know the steps well enough, muscle memory takes over."

Whenever Nettleham Year 3 teacher Rachel Moreton works her way through pupils' spelling tests, she invariably notices a correlation between spelling accuracy and the neatness of the handwriting in which the words are written. This, however, is little surprise. With cursive script, she says, pupils will copy down chunks of a word - "Feb" then "ru" then "ary", for example - learning to piece the word together as they do so. Without joined-up handwriting, they tend to copy only one letter at a time, looking up between each one.

And Ms Moreton has noticed that children of all abilities tend to switch off their critical faculties when working at a computer screen. Typed classwork regularly contains far fewer capital letters than handwritten work: "They get into the flow of typing, and they don't want to break off to find the shift key and put in a capital letter."

"We had one little chap, and we had to work a lot on his handwriting. He didn't see himself as a writer, because he couldn't read his own work back. Yes, he used the computer a bit. But he knew that people could read it back because the computer had done it for him. Now, he knows that people can read his writing because he's got better at this particular skill."

This is a point both she and Mr Gibbons return to repeatedly. Unlike computer print, handwriting is an expression of personality. It is idiosyncratic; it is human; it is the hallmark of an individual. "If you see an envelope coming through your door that's handwritten, that feels very different from one that's just been generated by computer," says Ms Moreton.

She regularly gives her pupils the choice between typing up work to display on classroom walls, and photocopying handwritten stories from their exercise books. The majority always opts for handwritten displays. "It feels like it belongs to them much more if it's in their handwriting," she says. "It's part of their personality. But if you don't put your name on a piece of typed work, the chances of identifying who it belongs to are pretty much zero."

Indeed, as individual handwriting become rarer and rarer in schools, its very scarcity loads it with additional meaning. Professor Jewitt, of the London Knowledge Lab, points out that, when delivering a lesson on an interactive whiteboard, teachers tend to rely on pre-prepared, type-written slides. Then, when pupils ask questions or make points during the lesson, the teacher will handwrite these on to the whiteboard in digital pen.

"The typed work has a different role from the handwritten work," she says. "The typing is more authoritative. It stands for the canonical knowledge that the school and the teacher have. The handwriting stands for the students' ideas. Students aren't allowed to respond in kind to the knowledge that teachers are creating."

There are other dangers, too, to consigning pens and pencils to the museum storeroom of history. Keri Facer, who researches digital culture and educational change at Manchester Metropolitan University, insists that the problem with predicting the future is that we are fundamentally unable to conceive of the inconceivable. We can imagine a future dominated by keyboards and computers, because keyboards and computers already exist. But if the future were filled only with objects that already existed, 21st-century teachers would be delivering lessons on how to daub woad on cave walls.

"There's no inevitable future," Professor Facer says. "If we only teach our kids to do one thing, then we're banking on one particular future coming about, and that's very risky."

There may, for example, come a time when every pupil is given an individual electronic tablet. Versions of these tablets already exist: pupils use a stylus to make notes on the screen, which are then converted into printed text. Some of the newest technology, therefore, relies on the user's ability to produce legible handwriting.

"We need to make sure that kids can express themselves in whatever medium is appropriate," Professor Facer says. "We need a whole range of ways in which pupils are able to write and communicate. It's as important for kids to be able to bash two bits of wood together as it is for them to do 3D modelling.

"We can't rely on one future trajectory. It may be about technology, but it may be about climate change, world destruction and the fight for survival. If we all go to hell in a handbasket, it will be useful to have modes of communication that aren't reliant on electrical supply."

Indeed, it turns out, even Indiana education officials are reluctant to commit to a future where children cannot revert to the pen in extremis. While cursive handwriting will no longer be compulsory, Mr McMullin hopes that parents will nonetheless insist on it being taught in schools.

"It's up to communities to hold their local education officials accountable," he says. And if the local community is too busy texting and sending emails? "That would be a larger, systemic problem. The state being dictatorial isn't going to help that at all."

Beyond the staffroom walls, with no doubters to convert, Mr Beswick also admits that it is difficult to commit fully to a voice-activated, computer-generated future as long as one continues to live in the handwritten present. "Is handwriting obsolete?" he says. "That's a big, big argument. I sit right on the fence, really.

"Definitely, presentation matters. As long as children are using pencil and pen, good handwriting will matter. But the number of occasions in which they are using these particular tools is reducing. And it will continue to reduce."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today