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Technology and the death of handwriting

11 March 08 11:32 GMT
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

The art of handwriting is being threatened by the rise of the machine, research suggests.

One in three children struggle with their handwriting and almost one in five slip into text message language when they do put pen to paper, according to a recent survey.

Meanwhile, one in five parents surveyed for My Child magazine's Write a Letter Week said they last penned a letter more than a year ago.

If the figures are representative, this apparent demise of handwriting could have serious implications for educational achievement.

Currently, four out of 10 boys and 25% of girls, aged 11, fail to meet the required standards for writing in their national tests.

Although only 3% of the marks in this test are awarded for good writing and spelling skills, experts argue the child's ability to write and the quality of their text are inextricably linked.

Professor Rhona Stainthorp, who is conducting research into children's writing abilities, says there is growing evidence those who write faster and more legibly get better marks.

This is because poor handwriting itself is hampering a child's ability to express himself.

"If you are a slow writer you have not automated your writing skills adequately - so much so that much more of your mental capacity is taken up by processing that text.

"This even affects undergraduates in a stressed situation like an examination, but has a much greater impact at the younger age group."

It is hardly surprising that many children growing up in an age where instant messages have replaced handwritten notes to friends, will struggle when they take up a pen.

With the arrival of chip and pin, even a person's signature has become obsolete as a means of identification.

It is not just children's over-reliance on computers and mobile phones for communication that is the problem, it is the way technology encroaches on leisure time too.

Chairman of the National Handwriting Association Angela Webb says children generally have far less physical play these days.

"Instead of going outside and doing handstands against the wall, they are playing computer games inside," she says.

This has an impact because while they were playing outside they were also fine-tuning the physical skills needed for writing.

But these days they are more likely to be wearing their thumbs out on games consoles.

More PE

Head teacher of Newcastle's Hadrian School Chris Rollings says: "It's not just the fine motor mobility skills of the finger and thumb, but the whole body that's important.

"The head has to be held still, as well as the trunk and the shoulders."

At his primary school for children with severe learning disabilities, they use PE and physical play to try to open the channels in the brain associated with both handwriting and wider learning.

Mr Rollings says experience shows children with developmental coordination problems improve if they practise certain types of exercise.

"If you give these youngsters access to 'deep pressure' activities like wheelbarrow walking - where a child is upside down with his hands on the ground and another child holds his legs - then you connect the motor perceptual pathways that are needed for handwriting."

The same is true of other PE activities that involve hand-eye coordination, he says, and the benefits are just as rich for children without learning disabilities.

Information officer at the National Handwriting Association Suzanne Tibertius says children who have not had the chance to develop their fine motor skills before school often struggle with handwriting.

But can we blame the demise of handwriting wholly on children's increased reliance on technology and a lack of outside play?

Mrs Webb argues a lack of good teaching has a role to play too.

She says: "This generation of children has gone through school without being taught how to hand write properly because it wasn't a priority.

"And there's a generation of young teachers who were never taught how to teach handwriting."


Prof Stainthorp says schools are taking the issue of teaching handwriting seriously but agrees that many teachers lack the right training.

"One of the things that we have to face up to is that they are not necessarily thinking about how to move from writing legibly to writing quickly - that's one of the key issues," she says.

So should children with poor handwriting be pulled out of class and given remedial lessons?

This could be counterproductive, suggests Prof Stainthorp: "Handwriting is a very odd thing, when children move into adolescence criticising their handwriting is like criticising their core self."

What is really needed, she says, is a renewed focus on handwriting teaching in the early years of primary school.

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