Saturday, 8 August 2015

Writing by hand. Keren David

Finland, it was reported recently, is phasing out classes in cursive writing in its schools. Instead children will be trained in keyboard skills, far more useful in our computerised world.
An essential skill, or an out-dated ordeal? 

I approve of this. It seems to me crazy to spend so many long, dull hours of childhood practising joined up writing, as though preparing for life as a Victorian clerk. Keyboard skills are more relevant, more useful and enable quicker brain-to-page communication.  Most people's need for cursive ends when they finish taking their handwritten exams -  another aspect of our education system that looks backwards rather than forwards.  After that, yes, it's nice to be able to handwrite love letters, or cards expressing sympathy. But in every other way, the computer is king.

At the International School where my daughter learned to write, she started out forming letters separately, then learned cursive, then switched to keyboards in Y4. My son transferred back to the UK in Y3, and was plunged into old-fashioned cursive lessons, striving for years to be granted a pen license. Meanwhile children we knew in the Dutch system missed out the first stage of lettering, and only learned to form letters for joined-up writing, a system that seemed quicker and easier. 

Hand-writing school work affects the way that children are taught to think about writing. I would advise my children to start with a second paragraph, adding the introduction to their essay or story later on. They'd look at me as though I were mad; of course they had to start at the beginning and write down to the bottom of the page.  All the word-processing skills that I use every day -  cutting and pasting in particular -  were unavailable to them.  They reminded me of my first job in journalism, when we were expected to make seven carbon copies of a sheet of A4 paper, and then write 35 lines with no errors. We had to handwrite stories sometimes -  as reporters do now -  when were were out on the road with a deadline pressing. But since the dawn of the 1990s, most of my journalism was done on a word processor or computer.

When I was a child I found hand-writing difficult to master. My hand could never move as quickly as my brain, and sometimes I lost letters or words in the scramble to capture my thoughts on the page. I was often scolded for the untidy presentation of my work. There were no word processors to yearn for, but if they had been invented in the 1970s they would have transformed my schooldays, assuming we were allowed to use them.  

When I trained as a reporter I learned Teeline shorthand, and have been using a scrappy version of it ever since. I moved from typewriter to word processor to laptop with pleasure and appreciation. I have scarcely used handwriting for the last twenty years. When I started an Open University degree, one of the most difficult things to adapt to was those pesky handwritten exams again. 

Some people believe that cursive aids the creative process, giving the writer time to form their thoughts. My experience has generally been the opposite.  And yet. Last week I was clearing a cupboard and found a notebook with my very first attempts to write a book.  I'd taken it to a cafe in a shopping centre and sat and written while my daughter and niece looked around the shops. I started off in third person, past tense for a page and a half. Then I shifted to first person, present tense and found that worked better. I'd written pages and pages. There was something intimate and exciting in seeing those pages, especially knowing six years later, that they were the beginning of a new career and a trilogy of books.

So, maybe I am too quick to condemn cursive. Maybe I should pick up a notebook and give it another try.  Do you think there's something special about joined up writing? Or should we all follow the Finns? 


  1. I feel the same about spelling as you do about handwriting - but when I suggested we get rid of it (and go phonic) my fellow writers were up in arms! Wonder if they will feel the same about handwriting? Without spelling and handwriting, think how much time there would be for more exciting and creative activities in primary school.

  2. My teachers made me miserable about the quality of my handwriting, though WHAT I wrote was high quality. I long ago gave up the cursive and stuck to print. As a teacher, alas, I have to write by hand on the board. Last year I had a student who used to gently take the whiteboard marker out of my hand and rewrite neatly on the board. But some of my students - teenagers! - prefer to write everything by hand first, including those in my Creative Writing class! Good on them, but for me, the keyboard has been liberating.

  3. I have a physical disability which leaves me with very poor fine motor skills. My writing is not good. I did go teaching however and often asked the children to write on the board. (It was an old fashioned blackboard when I started out.) I had one child, a girl, with almost copperplate writing and she came to me and told me gently that she would come in early each morning and put the work up for the day. She did too throughout the entire time I taught them. She later went on to win prizes for calligraphy. Some of the others struggled. The students are now taught "linked script" here - or, as they put it, "joined up printing".
    I think people do need to be able to write - what happens if the electronics fail?

  4. I agree with catdownunder. It's not that I have any special feeling for handwriting - I agree that schools are often teaching for the past rather than the future, and I have no problem at all with children being taught to use computers.

    But, my partner's nephew has his First Mate's Ticket, and navigates ships all over the world. He uses lots of high-tech jiggery-pokery - nautical sat-navs - BUT he was also taught how to navigate by the basic systems that have been used for hundreds of years. Because what if the ship's system goes down?

    I think everyone needs to be able to write, with a pen, as well as use a computer. What if you go somewhere remote, without a signal, but want to make notes? What if you want to be secret/private? - computers aren't private, despite passwords.

    I love computers - I write far more on computers now than I do by hand. But I CAN write by hand whenever I want to or need to. I think a child who can't write by hand has been short-changed - however much they grumble about having to learn the skill!

  5. I almost write exclusively on computer nowadays (I'm much faster at typing than I am at handwriting) and agree that keyboard skills are probably more useful than handwritten nowadays but I do think it should be a balance - we don't always have access to a keyboard. While I don't think I think handwriting should be abandoned completely I do think we should be changing the focus.

    Achieve a balance, maybe keyboard skills first, handwriting second - and maybe not to worry too much about keeping it joined up - this is where legibility often goes out the window anyway!

  6. Keren, the advantage is not necessarily in cursive but it is (in many ways) in hand-writing. Learning to write by hand is an important tool for those who have or will have dyslexia and similar challenges with print, because it harnesses the kynaesthetic sense, which is very powerful. And there are links with creativity, too - though that obviously doesn't mean you can't be creative on a keyboard. I would be very against throwing the whole process out, though i would streamline the teaching of it. It is my unprovable belief that my dyslexic tendencies would have won if I hadn't been taught to handwrite and spent most of my first 25 years doing it. I hate hadnwriting and wouldn't do it if I didn't feel it was important to me in some way.