Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is handwriting a dying art?

With Computers, e-mails, text message and chip-and-pin technology taking over, the days of handwriting appear to be numbered

By Stuart Jeffries  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Writing and handwriting have grown apart. Brian Dillon, lecturer in English at the University of Kent, England, writes in his review of Fischer's book: "In a world in which most of our handwriting is as unreadable as ancient Sudanese, writing dominates as never before in the form of a technological specter: Plato's `dream-image.'"

If that is the case, what is the future for handwriting? What, really, is the point of teaching our children to write, when most writing can be word processed and voice recognition technology can turn speech into text? There is a very interesting discussion of just this at the Basic Skills Agency Web site (www.basic-skills.co.uk/site/page.php?cms=2&p=1687), a discussion whose chosen medium, one might think, proves the skeptic's point.

One correspondent, Alan Wells, bemoans his own handwriting, before writing: "My point is, does it matter? I've had two chairman [sic] who were major industrialists, neither of whom had handwriting better than mine. It didn't seem to stop them rising to the top in business even though much of their rise must have been before the introduction of the word processor. So is it worth schools spending endless time on handwriting when it seems to matter less and less? Could the time not be spent better? And so long as we have access to word processors why bother?"

Quigley, though, is convinced that writing is a skill we will always need, saying," There are lots of reasons to write. If you have a shopping list to write for example, or a note for a milkman."

Personally, I don't know when I last had a milkman, still less when I last left him a billet-doux. A more persuasive argument for the maintenance of handwriting is surely that, as students learn this skill, they are building other developmental skills such as sequential memory and fine motor ability. These fundamental skills assist students in other essential academic areas such as maths.

There is also a strong aesthetic argument: We shouldn't neglect the sheer beauty of which handwriting is capable.

As Rosemary Sassoon, author of Handwriting: The Way to Teach It, says: "Handwriting is an imprint of the self on the page."

The national curriculum, in any event, now stresses handwriting skills. The four criteria of the Statutory Assessment Tests' (SATs) level two handwriting test are legibility, consistency in size and spacing of letters, flow and movement and a confident personal style. But there is a problem.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that young children have fewer opportunities for developing pre-writing skills, such as balance, hand-eye coordination and muscle control, which can themselves be critical in developing good handwriting ability as the child grows.

"Doing jigsaws, modeling clay or stacking saucepans inside one another helps to develop these skills, but time spent on such activities is decreasing in favor of more passive pursuits such as watching TV," contends Beverly Scheib of the Institute of Education, a special-needs consultant and handwriting specialist.

It is not only later in life, it seems, that technology is a threat to writing development. Indeed, as reading levels have improved in recent years, writing skills have not. The UK's Department for Education and Skills, which set up a National Literacy strategy in 1998, has noted that even though reading skills rose subsequently, writing did not until a concerted program was subsequently devoted to it.

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