Look At Life: Handwriting

7th April 2017

The writing's on the wall… for paper and pen.

By Heather Harris

‘My pencil is my friend. Our letters curl and bend, and when ideas refuse to come, I chew the other end.’

So says celebrated children’s author, Julia Donaldson. And few would argue with the creator of such literary classics as The Whale andThe Snail, Room on The Broom and numerous other rhyming bestsellers.

When it comes to creative writing, Julia, Roald, JK, Agatha and I share a common passion for all things lead and ink. Give us all a blank piece of lined A4 over a crumb-covered keyboard any day. And when inspiration overcomes us, what better to whip out of the back pocket than a dog-eared notebook and leaky biro?

There’s just nothing romantic about an iPad. No sense of journey about an Apple Mac. Imagine if Shakespeare had jotted down his rhyming couplets on his mobile phone?

And what about the love letter? When will future generations dust down pages found in their attic, tied up with ribbon, bearing the outpourings of unrequited love in passionate, tear stained scrawl.

Okay… so call me over emotional, but I’m worried. If the Finns have anything to do with it, the written word may soon be deleted from society one megabyte at a time. Last year they became the first country to erase handwriting from the school curriculum. Schools are given the choice to select and highlight typing instead. In America, too, 43 states have removed cursive handwriting as a compulsory skill.

According to Minna Harmanen, from the National Board of Education in Finland, “This change reflects how typing skills are now more relevant than handwriting.”

It’s an attitude that also might suggest why this country has produced about as many literary giants as it has Eurovision Song Contest Winners.

Picking up a pen and learning to write, ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ in legible letters is teaching so much more than pen control, though. As the National Handwriting Association stresses, “Mark making is basic to man. Our handwriting is very personal, a part of our self-image and an expression of our personality, just as the way we dress and present ourselves is.”

A recent study from Indiana University tells an even more emphatic story: ‘Research indicates that learning to write in cursive further improves students’ motor and visual skills, eye to hand coordination, spatial awareness, cognitive function and brain development.’

Oh, and there’s the small matter of learning. ‘The physical act of handwriting also facilitates the retention of information and the flow of ideas.’

It is ironic that in a year when the exam boards of our country are moaning about the illegibility of so many GCSE students’ papers, many are using this as a reason to stop teaching handwriting.

Surely, the opposite is true. We should be working harder than ever to teach children to write neatly so that they reap all the added benefits – and also pass their exams.

After all, few educationalists would argue that when it comes to revision it is better to sit at a desk with a pencil case full of multi-coloured pens and highlighters – than to sit passively at a keyboard, cutting and pasting the facts into our memory.

I recently went back to college and was the only student to take out my new gel pen (I’ve not remained stationary when it comes to stationery) and take notes from the board. My classmates judged ‘this ancient tool’ as my teenagers judge a mangle! All the others simply took a photo of the presentation on their mobiles.

But, come revision time, it was my mobile that was in constant use as everyone texted me wanting to borrow my notes. They’d ‘accidentally deleted’ their own while taking photos of their cat…

I do accept that technology has its place, and I have stopped my one-woman campaign to restore the handwritten thank you note/ Christmas card/party invitation. The writing really is on the wall for them.

Nevertheless, to take away from future generations the creative process and ultimate satisfaction that comes from scribbling down an idea, crossing it out, rewriting it, doodling in the margin, thinking of another idea and adding that to the first – is surely a sentence we should not impose.

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