The implications of digitizing writing in the classroom

Handwriting: A Deeply Human Performance on Paper

By Donna Velliaris on Sep 22, 2017
a person writing
Embracing new technologies in the classroom can signify the reduction of traditional pedagogical approaches and one of the most prominent cases of ‘out-with-the-old’ and ‘in-with-the-new’ is that of handwriting instruction. Due to the advancement of technologies, some educators consider handwriting as old fashioned or archaic—a dying art. Rather than ask questions pertaining to the validity of teaching/practicing handwriting in schools at a time when technologies are asserting their primacy, educationalists ought to be conscious of how ‘handwriting’ (unimanual activity) and ‘keyboarding’ (bimanual activity) can be complementary, and not mutually exclusive.
…I do not have a personal vendetta against technology, but I have found that the hand is still the greatest romancer of the eye.
—So You Want My Job: Master Penman [online], 30 November 2012

Some educationalists posit that handwriting will succumb to the popularity of digital interfaces and inevitably vanish forevermore. Educators should, however, stop comparing the relevance and superiority of these two methods against one another. Agreed, typing is a fundamental skill that does need to be learned in today’s modern-age, but it should not be taught at the expense of penmanship. This ‘either-or’ proposition is ludicrous. One cannot dispute the fact that the performance of the hand when scribing is more personalized and meaningful than typing. Thus, by diminishing or disregarding the significance of handwriting, educators may deprive their students of a performance on paper—as unique as a fingerprint, beautiful, deeply human, a flare of individuality, presence and character—that intertwines both language and art, and is a personal history, solid and reliable.

…the act of writing should not be forgotten and aside from its charm for certain tasks it still has much more utility than it is often given credit for. In many ways, handwriting is still less restrictive than its digital counterpart and has many advantages both functionally and creatively.
—Why is Handwriting Still Important in the Digital Age? [online], 14 March 2014

Factors that influence handwriting performance in children may be intrinsic i.e., stemming from the child’s actual performance capabilities or extrinsic i.e., relating to environmental/biomechanical issues that can compromise written output. Extrinsic examples include, in no particular order: chair/desk height; environmental lighting and noise; placement of paper on the desk; sitting position; type of paper used; type of writing instrument used; volume of handwriting the student is expected to complete; and/or distance of the whiteboard when copying. Ideally, students should be seated with: (1) feet flat on the floor; (2) hips and low back supported against the chair back; (3) knees flexed to approximately 90˚; (4) elbows loosened; and (5) with forearms resting comfortably on the desk surface. There is an abundance of research to indicate that providing dedicated and ongoing writing instruction can advance accuracy and fluency of students’ handwriting performance, thus from the outset, it is essential that teachers/instructors evaluate such biomechanical factors.

Ominously, though the link between writing (hand) and scholastic achievement (brain) i.e., action-perception coupling, does not always appear logical, the mechanisms by which penning—cursive or not—spurs higher learning are significant. Handwriting has been understood to: (a) activate the region of the brain involved in thinking and language development; (b) affect the fluency and quality of compositions; and (c) boost memory encoding. Notably, handwriting remains a major form of assessment for many formal qualifications e.g., accountancy, law and medicine, and has been intimately linked to success in the workplace.

…we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.
—Why Handwriting is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age [online], 20 June 2016

Digital forms of literacy should not replace that which has empowered humans for thousands of years. Such modernization will have educational implications as the keyboard snatches letters from the realm of a student’s hand, and impersonalizes and disembodies their script. Handwriting is an immensely complex and sophisticated skill whereby the process—movements and functioning of the hand—effectively interacts with pathways to the brain. Educators must recognize the far-reaching academic and psychosocial consequences of students’ poor handwriting. As such, knowledge of age-appropriate expectations is indispensable in strengthening motor-learning processes via first-handwriting and second-keyboarding as students strive to attain articulacy in their written communication.

Please be sure to check out the following publication featuring Dr. Velliaris' expertise regarding this topic: Handbook of Research on Effective Communication in Culturally Diverse Classrooms.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.

QUESTION: In the light of emerging knowledge about the implications of digitizing writing on literacy acquisition and competency, how can and should writing instruction adjust accordingly? Please log in or sign up below to comment.
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