Much Handwringing about Handwriting.

My eldest son graduated from Oxford this year. That’s not a proud mummy moment. He seemed to be born geeky and there was nothing I could do about it. The thing is, he got there and survived the whole “3000 words a week” thing even though his handwriting is really crap.

His little brother is 8. And weirdly, (even though he is left handed and his brother right handed), his handwriting is almost identical. Small, scrawny, hurried. His brain moves faster than his hand and he can’t quite keep up. This week he was told that unless his handwriting improves, he’s not going to “meet his targets” in literacy. This was said to him gravely, as if it was a BIG PROBLEM. And now he doesn’t want to write at all. Last week, he wrote a poem about a volcano. He mentioned pyroclastic flow, magma chambers, Krakatoa. But it was his handwriting that got the attention. So he doesn’t want to write a poem this week.

I wonder what happens when a child with big ideas and vocabulary to match, stops writing. When they focus on writing slowly and neatly, choosing instead smaller words that will take less time, and shorter sentences.

Shall we just get a grip? There was a reason that doctors’ handwriting used to be a joke. It is common for quick thinking people to rush their writing. And now we have word processors, it hardly matters. Do we really want to put a whole generation of children off writing altogether? Yes, of course, we should strive for good presentation, to discourage doodling and graffiti on work. Or vomit/ketchup stains. But if a piece of writing is legible who gives a monkey’s if it’s cursive? Handwriting for years has been considered indicative of personality. And like many other aspects of education, it seems that individuality, personality and creativity are to be discouraged in the pursuit of conformity. I think it’s a bit rubbish.

16 thoughts on “Much Handwringing about Handwriting.

  1. It makes me want to cry to read this. My eldest has terrible hand writing, mainly due to the Asperger’s tendency towards poor motor skills. The SATs driven obsession with is writing almost killed his love of learning. Now he is choosing his options for GCSE and is resolutely avoiding all the humanities because they involve writing.
    What is worse, his brother is heading the same way; too has almost identical letter forms.

  2. Ofsted have a lot to answer for. The quality of the handwriting was mentioned during feedback in the last two inspections I was involved in in two different schools. I completely agree that so long as it is legible then it shouldn’t matter what style it is. Surely what they write is more important than how they write.

  3. Thanks all for these comments. Really depressing how swiftly we jump to the Ofsted tune without thinking through the consequences.

  4. When I hear stories like this it makes me ashamed of what is being done to children. My nine year old grandson is another ‘victim’. He’s smart and more than anything he loves to play. He’s aware of just how many hours of his time he gives to school each day, hates the homework and is not conforming to expectations with his handwriting and, you know what, right now that’s all fine with me.

    In 1963 Pete Seeger recorded a political satire with the title “Little Boxes” (written and composed by Malvina Reynolds). It satirises the housing built after the war for the “conformist, middle-class” families of the time. It was a classic protest song, of the type Seeger was world renowned for recording. All the houses were made of ticky tacky, making reference to the shoddy materials then being used in house construction, and “they all looked just the same”. So, what’s the connection, I hear you say?

    How much of politicians’ education reform agenda is aimed at playing to certain conformist middle-class values and expectations?

    Why is much of the New National Curriculum ticky tacky (shoddy material)?

    Do we really want our children to “all look just the same”, or even just their handwriting?

    How am I able, as a retired teacher, to declare that my grandson’s attitude is fine with me right now?

    I’ll let Pete Seeger help me out here too. He adapted words from The Book of Ecclesiasties to produce the iconic song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” in which we learn the ancient, faultless wisdom, ‘to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven’

    I don’t want him to look, sound or act the same as everybody, and that goes for his handwriting too. And, as this is his time to be a child and to know that never-to-be-repeated joy of being that children brought up in the presence of loving carers can experience, he gets that with my blessing.

  5. As a GP I have had to write thousands of prescriptions and medical notes for most of my career until computers like this one came along. When on the odd occasion I need to hand write something for a patient , say the name and address of a useful contact that can help them with their problem I quite often hand the pen and paper to the patient and say ” these days I cannot even read my own handwriting” which is a joke of course but not too far from the truth. This always brings a smile and an exchange of jokes about doctors handwriting – an we know laughter is the best medicine ! But to be more serious I recently found this TED talk :
    The lost art of letter writing | Elspeth Penny | TEDxSWPS
    19 Sep 2014 – This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. Whatever happened to the handwritten letter?
    which has transformed my life.

  6. The above article and comments have one thing in common: they’re all about boys. I know the sample size is small and (obviously) self-selecting, but could this emphasis on neatness be one possible reason why boys underperform in relation to girls in subjects that involve writing?

    I used to teach mainly bottom sets for English CSE/GCSE. These inevitably comprised mostly boys. Their handwriting was poor but (usually) legible (at least I could read it). So I sometimes typed out their work (on a typewriter not a word processor – we’re talking BC – before computers).

    Debra – you’re right about thoughts moving too fast to get them down on paper legibly. I give thanks daily for learning touch typing and practising until I can type quickly. This means words appear on the paper almost as soon as thoughts. If I have to handwrite, I get frustrated because I can’t keep up and I lose my thread.

    Robert Peston, BBC Business guru, once said his mouth couldn’t speak the words in his head quickly enough. The Telegraph described his manner as ‘strangulated diction and repetition of small words before all impediments are swept away in a torrent of knowledge.’

    Sometimes the ‘torrent of knowledge’ is dammed (and damned) because hands and mouths can’t move quickly enough.

  7. Do keyboard / word processing skills get as much emphasis? NO, in my humble opinion, and all children will need these in the future.

      1. Actually, I think both are needed. When a pupil writes something down by hand (it doesn’t matter if it’s not ‘neat’, as long as the pupil can read it), it reinforces whatever it is s/he’s learning.

        Using a keyboard doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

        But being able to touch-type quickly is better than handwriting when trying to get thoughts down on paper.

        To summarise: handwriting helps it go in; typing quickly helps it come out.

  8. I find it very easy to teach good handwriting quickly and effectively. This means that others could too – but the standards of writing of many teachers and assistants writing on their boards, marking and annotating work and even scribing for early years children could do with improvement.

    I think the aim should be for all teachers and assistants to provide a good model of handwriting if they expect the children to write well – and they also need to be able to teach handwriting well. I also think children deserve to be taught such that they have a choice when they leave primary – to be able to write neatly and ‘maturely’ in a handwriting script when relevant, and of course this does not have to be ‘all the time’ – there is a time and place to write neatly and children should be aware of that and able to fulfil that goal.

    Teachers and parents should, arguably, be aware of that too, and be able to fulfil that goal.

    1. The thing is, I just think it’s a complete waste of time. And when I think about it, most of the people I know who are highly educated and intelligent, don’t have the neatest handwriting. There is a huge difference between writing “well” and pretty handwriting – one is about vocabulary, content and structure. The other is just aesthetic. I know where I’d rather focus my energy.

  9. I think another issue is that our children see very few handwritten texts. They’re surrounded by typed information on worksheets and books. The writing on smartboards in the classroom is rarely neat as they’re not sensitive enough to provide an exact replication of what is written on them and, as a previous commentator noted, the writing isn’t all that neat to begin with. I’ve just looked around my home and the only handwritten item is a scribbled shopping list on the fridge – I’m surely not the only parent who only has this writing on display.

    1. In BC days, teaching in a secondary school, I was often shocked at my pupils’ handwriting. I annoyed my son’s primary school teachers by giving him exercises to make up for what I perceived as their inadequate attention to an ability that undeniably affects a person’s identity, self-perception and communicative skill. What is wrong in the situation described here is not the concern over handwriting, but the separation of this from concern for the person. Instead, it is presented to the boy as a failure to achieve a ‘level’.

  10. I couldn’t agree more. As a left hander I was forced to use a fountain pen at school, which has a nib designed for right handers. I was constantly chastised for smudging, as I dragged my left hand across the page over the wet ink. That was 40 years ago! Have things changed? Not really. My son is also left handed. He is a bright, articulate 18 year old, with ‘terrible’ hand writing who has been warned that he may be marked down in his A Level English exam if he doesn’t improve it, as the examiners get ‘tired’ of trying to decipher his hand. Really? His brain works faster than his hand and he has amazing things to say, but what we measure in our society is neatness, conformity, and ‘staying within the lines’.

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