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Is handwriting history?

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 18:26 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Last week, as I struggled to persuade my eight year-old daughter to produce neat handwriting, it occurred to me that future generations may not be required to practise writing, or even spelling, at all. What bliss, I thought, as I watched my daughter doodle on her homework, no more nagging. But would it mean no more doodling too? I’m not sure I want the swirls and flourishes of individual handwriting to be completely replaced by the uniformity of a computer generated typeface.

Certainly Ofqual’s chief executive, Isabel Nisbet, caused an outcry recently when she suggested that computerised exams should replace pen and paper tests. In reality, this is probably some way off as financial constraints and issues of security, computer quality, technical faults, typing ability and so on would need to be resolved first.

girl doing her homework carefully @ Eleonore H

However, it seems that the writing may be on the wall for the humble pen. Although handwriting is part of the national curriculum, the focus in many schools is moving away from handwriting towards keyboard skills. As computers become cheaper and new technology is introduced, handwriting could well be phased out. And with birthday cards and thank you notes already being replaced by animated e-cards and texts, children have less opportunity to hand-write. 

Still, not wishing to appear a Luddite, I asked my 12 year-old son whether it really matters if handwriting dies out. At primary school, encouraging him to write was like getting blood out of papyrus, so I was surprised at his response. He says he achieves better marks for his essays when they are handwritten rather than typed. He also admits he’s easily distracted when using the computer and tends to think more carefully when writing because it’s not as easy to change. 

In fact there is evidence that handwriting helps build sequential memory and fine motor skills. It is important for self-expression too and helps us to connect better with what we are trying to communicate. As a result, we are more likely to retain the information. 

Of course, computers can be a huge benefit to children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but wherever possible I believe that learning how to handwrite, spell and understand grammar enables us to make better use of technology. There is a digital pen, which allows the user to upload handwritten notes onto a computer – this may gain greater prominence in schools in the future and combine the traditional skill of handwriting and all its merits with new technology.

In the meantime, writing with pen and paper is still very much part of the curriculum and the examination system. The primary school years are a crucial time for us to support schools in teaching our children to learn to write and spell with confidence.

If children struggle with handwriting, this can hinder their progress later on, so it’s worth encouraging them to write whenever possible at home. Younger children can help write shopping lists, birthday cards, menus, postcards, invitations, recipes, messages – the more fun and practical the better. Older children may enjoy making and writing a mini-book, writing down football teams and scores, writing to a pen-pal or writing a diary. Even doodling and drawing help to develop fine motor skills.

Reading and writing are strongly linked, so reading with our children makes it easier for them to connect sounds and letters, which in turn helps with spelling. As for those dreaded thank you letters, a combination of a computer-designed card with a handwritten message inside may be the way forward!

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Take a look at CBeebies Grown-ups 'Learning to write' page.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think that there will go on being a need for something to produce text onto paper on the move and that it is some way off it being practical for people to start getting printers out as they are walking down the street. While the need for cartridges for printers and compatibility problems between device and operating system remain an issue there will continue to be a place for the pen and even ignoring the old fashioned pens and pencils there are pen devices that can be used to write with and handwriting recognition software, so I think that handwriting is going to be around into coming centuries at least.


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