In an overcrowded curriculum, certain subjects tend to be seen as indulgent anachronisms. Ancient Greek. Rhetoric. And, now, handwriting.
“I’m seeing children as old as 11, 12, who can’t write their own names,” said Melanie Harwood, who provides handwriting coaching in schools. “And they’re being passed through the system.
“Some children are being bullied because of their handwriting. Their friends are taking pictures of their writing and tweeting it. Kids comment on the writing: ‘They’re not very bright, because their handwriting isn’t very good.’ Good God. It’s horrific. You can’t have that.”
Ms Harwood was among a number of teachers and handwriting experts who met in central London earlier this month for a round-table discussion about whether handwriting lessons are necessary in the digital age.
Reverting to type
In more than 40 US states, the requirement to include handwriting lessons in the curriculum has been abandoned in favour of teaching keyboard skills. In Scotland, however, handwriting is still to the fore in primary schools.
“Although handwriting is a dying craft, in that it’s not taught separately as a component of any course, pupils are encouraged to ensure that the layout of their written pieces matches both audience and purpose – meaning it should be neat and legible,” said Debbie Gardner, faculty head of language and literacy at Garnock Academy in North Ayrshire.
Ms Gardner, an English teacher, added: “We always have an eye on the fact that 70 per cent of a final exam is based on what pupils write on the day…so it must be readable.”
Yet even in Scotland teaching handwriting is under ever more pressure, as Ms Gardner acknowledged. “In an ICT world, while beautiful handwriting might be nice, we need to make the limited time we have relevant to their lives and learning beyond the classroom,” she said.
And once handwriting has been taught, it needs to be practised. “It is largely a motor skill,” said Dr Angela Webb, former teacher, psychologist and chair of the National Handwriting Association. “You wouldn’t expect to be good at playing the violin without practising. Anything that is difficult is not pleasurable. If I had to do car mechanics every night, I’d be in tears. But if you work at it in the right time and the right way, it will become automatic. You’ll just do it.”
Learning handwriting is about more than acquiring a handy skill. According to Professor Rhona Stainthorp, who researches reading and writing at the University of Reading, studies have repeatedly shown that the more fluent children’s handwriting is, the better the content of their essays will be.
“If you can automate handwriting and you can automate spelling, then writing takes up less processing space in your brain,” she said. “So there’s more cognitive processing available for what you put on the page itself, and the quality of what you produce is enhanced.”
And it is a process that cannot be matched by typing words instead of writing them. “The point about typing is that you’re selecting a letter,” graphologist Adam Brand said. “When you’re writing, you’re actually forming it.
“When you have a keyboard, you have a pattern. When you have a piece of paper, you can write however you want. It frees up your creativity. It’s the difference between playing a violin and hitting a triangle. The subtlety required for handwriting is so much greater.”
Besides, there is no guarantee that typing will be remotely useful by the time today’s primary pupils reach adulthood, according to Dr Webb. “With voice recognition and Google glass, why are we wedded to the keyboard?” she said.
She also pointed out that it was a mistake to assume handwriting was irrelevant to modern children’s lives: students were still expected to sit exams with pen and paper. And, she added, although adults might not use handwriting in their daily lives, they nonetheless had the option to use it.
“We have at our fingertips a range of modes of writing,” Dr Webb said. “We’re very fortunate. Think about taking away a whole area of skills from future generations. They won’t have that choice.”