The Quill is Gone

Penmanship was once a staple of our education. In a computerized age, it’s an art on the wane.

By Amber Bowerman

Olivia Hannigan takes my pen in her hand and writes her name on a piece of lined notepaper. The ‘O’ is big and round and confident, the ‘l’ a tall, narrow loop. The double ‘n’ in her last name is a jumble of bumps, difficult to decipher. As she forms the letters, the tip of her tongue peeks from the corner of her mouth.

The freckled fifth grader at Calgary’s Elbow Park Elementary School is learning to handwrite, a process that formally began when she was in grade 3. “At first I was really scared. It seemed really hard,” she says. “Now I really enjoy it. If I could do it neatly I’d probably do it more, but it’s hard to do neatly if I’m in a rush.”

In the end, her signature is a tad uncertain, but legible— which is more than you could say for some adults’.

Olivia would like to improve her penmanship. To do that she’ll have to take advantage of the 15 minutes a day teacher Jill Scarrow has set aside for handwriting. Once Alberta students are past grade 3, it’s up to their teachers to decide how much class time is given to honing the skill. Scarrow insists the students practise first thing every morning. “At the beginning of the year it was a struggle,” she says. “But the students have really improved.”

That handwriting is a dying or lost art goes almost without saying. keyboarding, e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging have relegated it to the realm of the romantic. As a practical, everyday skill, handwriting has fallen out of fashion in favour of faster, more user-friendly means of written expression.

Technology is pervasive, and our schools are not immune. Alberta students are introduced to the keyboard as early as kindergarten—when most are still learning how to hold a pencil properly. Innovative teachers have made remarkable use of tools they didn’t have a generation ago. In a number of university and college classrooms, handheld “clickers” have changed the nature of class discussions; instead of raising their hands or verbally volunteering an answer, students participate in discussions electronically, transmitting answers to their instructors via small wireless devices. Last fall, NAIT’s school of business became the first post-secondary business school in the country to use clickers on a large scale, distributing 1,500 of the devices to students. Certainly, when the “millennials”— kids born between 1982 and 2000—enter the workforce, few will be handed a pen or a pencil their first day on the job.

The millennials are a generation connected through technology. Of kids in grades 4 through 11, 86 per cent have their own e-mail account, according to the Media Awareness Network. Thirty-seven per cent access the Internet on computers they don’t share with others in their family. Computers are about as novel to millennials as cassette players were to generation X.

Millennials are so comfortable using technology that the way teachers teach has changed. For instance, there has been a move away from penmanship—a slow, deliberate and very personal form of communication—to digital communication, which is fast, easily altered and uniform in appearance. But it’s worth asking what gets left behind in our rush to embrace technology.

Alberta Education specifies learning targets, or “outcomes,” associated with each subject of study in each grade. Handwriting is taught in Grade 3 as part of the language arts curriculum, and falls under General Outcome 4: “Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to enhance the clarity and artistry of communication.” General outcomes are broken down into more specific ones: under “enhance legibility,” it specifies that Grade 3 students will be able to “print legibly, and begin to learn proper alignment, shape and slant of cursive writing.” Other benchmarks under the same subheading are: “space words and sentences consistently on a line and page;” “use keyboarding skills to compose, revise and print text;” and “understand and use vocabulary associated with keyboarding and word processing” (terms like backspace, delete, cut, paste, caps lock, enter and spell-check).

But the focus on computers starts much earlier than that. Under General outcome 4 for Kindergarten, Alberta Education specifies that children will “form recognizable letters by holding a pen or pencil in an appropriate and comfortable manner” and “explore the keyboard, using letters, numbers and the space bar.”

Occupational therapists say that handwriting forges connections between the left and right brain.

“A computer in and of itself is only a tool,” says Jill Mcclay, an associate professor in elementary education at the University of Alberta. “What matters is what you do with it.” Mcclay says teachers in Alberta have done remarkable things with technology in order to engage students and achieve learning outcomes. Examples range from having students keep track of the books they read in a year using a simple spreadsheet, to sophisticated video conferencing that links students to people and places around the globe. Thanks to the Alberta Supernet, students in rural areas can now participate in high-tech learning using the same high-speed Internet access their urban counterparts largely take for granted.

David Teasdale is a teacher at William E. Hay composite High School in Stettler, and president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association educational technology council. He confirms that students aren’t taught the mechanics of how to use a computer the way they were a decade ago. The goal in assigning an essay is to teach students to communicate eloquently and make a persuasive argument, not to use a word processing program. But, by typing the essay on a computer, the student becomes increasingly comfortable in a digital environment. “It’s not about teaching kids how to use the computer,” Teasdale says, “it’s about teaching other skills using the computer.”

Occupational therapists, however, will tell you that the same can be said for handwriting: it isn’t just about forming letters; it forges connections between the left and right brain, develops motor skills and encourages cognitive learning. Denver-based occupational therapist and handwriting remediation specialist Jeanette Farmer asserts that the act of handwriting helps develop children’s neural pathways, improves self-control and may even help combat attention deficit disorder.

Lori Craig, the occupational therapy and physiotherapy team leader at the Calgary Health Region, agrees that a lot happens in children’s minds when they learn to handwrite. “It’s profoundly complex,” she says, “because it includes motor output components and it includes ways that kids can self- regulate—to be able to be calm enough to focus, to be able to make the connection between what they’re thinking a letter needs to look like and to be able to do the motor planning and execution… It’s a very important skill for children to learn. Probably more important than we even realize.”

The CHR makes use of a number of programs to help children who struggle to attain that skill. Among them is Handwriting without Tears, developed 30 years ago in Washington, dc, by yet another occupational therapist, Jan Olsen. one day in 1977, her young son came home distraught because, in his words, he had the “worst handwriting in the room.” Olsen recalls,“I called the teacher and she said, ‘Yeah, he does.’” So Olsen developed a system to help her son and others like him learn what she says is a crucial skill. “Handwriting is all-encompassing. It requires a visual, a physical, a cognitive. It uses the whole child.”

Handwriting without Tears is taught to more than two million children in the US and Canada. Teachers bring small wooden letters to lessons and allow the children to touch them, trace the curves and feel their shape before even attempting to create a letter on a page using a pencil or pen. In some iterations of the program, students shape letters out of Play-doh.

Olsen believes that the ability to write with pen and paper is an “educational equalizer.” As she explains it, “In the States we have a huge income disparity. For (poor students) their living situation can change so frequently they sometimes don’t know where they’ll be from week to week, month to month, let alone whether they’ll have access to a computer… For most kids handwriting is not going to be their primary means of communication. But nevertheless you still have to think you are depriving children if they don’t have the ability to write well and comfortably.”

Today, huge numbers of young Canadians are using digital communication to express themselves in writing and to establish social networks. According to the Canadian Media Awareness network, 28 per cent of grade 4 students use instant messaging during the school day. By grade 5 that number climbs to 43 per cent and by grade 11 it’s 86 per cent. not surprisingly, e-mail and text lingo is creeping into students’ written work.

Do computers make children lazy writers? Why look up a word when you can spell-check as you type?

Consider the challenges in grading a book report that includes the sentence, “I lost interest @ the end of the book b/c 2 many plot lines crossed ATST.” (For those of you not fluent in IM (instant messaging), ATST is short for “at the same time.”) “For anyone who’s not willing to adapt or learn that lingo, it’s difficult,” says Teasdale.

Dorothy Stanley, an ATA staff officer in professional development, taught English for 24 years and says the language has changed because of technology. “We tend to abbreviate our way of writing on the computer and so that becomes (students’) way of communicating. It’s a whole different language,” she says. “And yet, when I see these English 30 students write essays and their departmental exams, they’re good writers.”

For McClay, the tool a child uses to write—be it pen, pencil or keyboard—matters far less than the outcome. “There’s no particular virtue to good penmanship, good handwriting,” she argues. “We teach children to print, to write script, to keyboard so that they can have a variety of ways to compose and to express themselves… The point of literacy is not whether you use a pencil or a pen or a keyboard, but what you use them for.” She worries that some children have such a difficult time with handwriting that they will write less—and less well—if forced to communicate via pen and paper. “There are a number of children who will write more, and more fluently, when they can get on the computer, because they’re not struggling with penmanship,” she says. “Any child who is not a good speller, if that child is limited to handwriting he’s more likely to write shorter text, to writer safer text—you know, to kind of dumb down the vocabulary—because they don’t know how to spell the harder words. If you let that child go into word processing, he or she can write more and do the revisions without it being a painful experience.”

But do computers make children lazy writers? Researching and writing on the same machine means it’s easier than ever to plagiarize: cutting and pasting passages of text—even entire papers—from other sources has become such a widespread problem that many schools make use of websites such as www.turnitin.com, which compares student work to online texts and rates the originality of school papers. And why, a busy student might ask, would you look up the spelling of a word in the dictionary when you can spell-check later or as you type? In fact, why bother with spelling at all? Shortcuts and abbreviations from text and e-mail are typed more quickly than full words and are widely understood by young people.

McClay likens text and e-mail lingo making its way into students’ written work to a child using her outdoor voice indoors. “What good teachers have done for a very long time is they’ve tried to help children to assess what’s appropriate for what communicative situation,” she says. “So in text messaging it would be very silly for someone to write everything out. Likewise, if you’re trying to make a persuasive argument or you’re trying to do very detailed writing, teachers are generally trying to teach children that you don’t use text messaging. We’ve always tried to teach children what kind of language is appropriate for what situations. now we just have more kinds of situations.”

So, does the push toward digital communication in our classrooms spell trouble for childhood development and literacy? It may be too soon to tell.

Few researchers and experts—save for a handful, mostly in the US—are even studying the subject. Olsen and Farmer are two of the better-known remediation professionals in that country. In Alberta, organizations like Skill Builders and the Calgary health Region pick up where the school system leaves off, helping students who struggle with handwriting and aren’t getting enough specialized instruction in the classroom. Learning to handwrite, they say, is an important part of childhood development.

Back in Jill Scarrow’s homeroom class, Olivia Hannigan’s classmate Boris Verkhovskiy is adding his signature to the notepaper.

He’s particularly excited about the unit they’re studying now: handwriting as a tool in criminal investigations. “If you find a note at a crime scene you can test the suspect’s handwriting and see if it matches,” he says, knowingly.

Unlike keyboarding, handwriting is personal. As with a fingerprint, no two people leave exactly the same mark. That’s why handwriting analysis remains an important tool in criminal investigation. And handwriting analysts will claim that much can be gleaned about your character from the way you cross your cursive ‘t’ or dot your looping ‘i.’

The individuality of handwriting isn’t lost on even über- connected, tech-savvy millennials. “With typing on a computer, you just push buttons,” says Boris, pausing to admire his signature. “With handwriting you have to make the letters yourself.”

Amber Bowerman worked at Alberta Views for four years before joining SAIT as an editor and adviser for student journalists.

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