The pen is not so mighty any more

6th July 2012 at 01:00
Has the classic writing tool been vanquished by the keyboard? Some schools no longer teach handwriting, but could they be stunting 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 (P6) 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 others - into a brave new classroom 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."

He adds: "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. Last 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 have been infant pupils in Indiana who will never be taught to hold a pen, will never be taught to join letters to one another and 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 have been submitting 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.

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."

"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 have 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 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 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 cannot hold a pen without significant difficulty. It comes as no surprise that 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.

But midway 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 on to 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 on to 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 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."

In human terms, handwriting is 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. Dr James conducted MRI brain scans of four- or five-year-old children who had not yet learned 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 says, 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 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. "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."

He make the point that, unlike computer print, handwriting is an expression of personality. It is idiosyncratic; it is human; it is the hallmark of an individual.

In numbers

3,202 - The number of candidates who have received permission from the SQA to use a word processor through special assessment arrangements in this year's exams.

159,000 - The number of candidates in this year's exams.


The University of Edinburgh is a leader in higher education when it comes to exploring the use of digital technology in exam conditions.

Divinity students and MBA postgraduates in the School of Business have for the past five years been given the option of using a laptop to write their answers in exams, rather than the traditional pen-and-paper, handwritten method. About a fifth now opt to type.

The School of Divinity has received funding from the Higher Education Academy to carry out a particular project: in mock exams, students were asked to answer alternate answers by writing and typing. When they came to the actual exam, uptake of the use of laptops had doubled - and one student estimated that being able to sit the exam by laptop made a 15 per cent difference to his score.

One consideration in the use of laptops is security. The university uses Exam4 software designed by Extegrity, which is also used by some of the leading law schools in the US. The software locks the laptop to prevent access to the internet or hard drive and provides word count and timer facilities. The final submission is made via a wireless network and scripts can be printed for marking.

Research suggests that the more often an essay draft is revised, the higher will be the score and some of Edinburgh's divinity students said they were more inclined to reread their work on a computer.

Other comments included:

- "I'm quicker and I use a better vocabulary when I type";

- "I think I would become distracted by the editing of the structure possible on a computer. I would also be prone to deleting more of my writing so would end up with less written work on the topic";

- "I made a plan for the handwritten essay, but not for the computer version";

- "I started typing immediately because I knew that I could edit my answer as I went along";

- "When handwriting, I feel that I am forced to approach the task with linear and sequential thinking, whereas with the ability to type, I am able to come to the task with a more scattergun approach";

- "It's a good feeling to know that with typing I am able to insert a thought seamlessly into what I have previously written. It can be embarrassing to do so with handwriting, inserting all sorts of asterisks and arrows pointing to different notes";

- "I feel that a tutor reads typed and handwritten answers differently, instinctively expecting more lucidity from a typed page. Because of this it seems that handwriting is advantageous, despite the benefits of typing".

The Scottish Qualifications Authority says it is aware of, and following, the work of the University of Edinburgh (and others) in this field "to judge possible implications for us".

But it adds that the use of keyboards in exams presents challenges, particularly a manageability issue if there are large numbers of candidates.

A spokesman said: "We have no firm plans to introduce e-exams or use of computers in exam conditions on a general basis. It is currently the case that, so long as schools or colleges have requested permission from us beforehand, and all additional functions such as internet capability, USB ports and spell-checker have been disabled, then candidates could use PCs, laptops and word processors. The number of presenting centres which have indicated that they wished to make use of this facility is very small indeed. Computers are currently used for coursework submissions."


Bryan Lewis, head of The Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Edinburgh, believes the use of fountain pens improves the quality of pupils' work because it forces the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem.

All the junior school pupils use fountain pens for 80-90 per cent of their work from the age of 10, reverting to pencils for subjects like maths.

The children learn a handwriting style developed by teachers at the school.

"Modern fountain pens are beautiful to use; it's not like in the old days of broken nibs and smudging," says Mr Lewis. "We have a particular writing style and we have developed it carefully and found a way that allows left- and right-handed people to write without smudging."

For him, handwriting skills are part of a wider issue of maintaining standards and promoting the junior school's values of respect, kindness, enthusiasm, grace, commitment, integrity, confidence, responsibility and appreciation.

"Although the link is not a direct one, the high standards we expect of our children through the use of a fountain pen and through our insistence on high standards in spelling, punctuation and presentation are important elements in our commitment to academic and personal excellence," he says.

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