Monday, June 9, 2014

Losing Marks Because of Poor Handwriting

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How's your handwriting? Source

Losing marks in exams due to bad handwriting

"Sir, I can't actually lose marks because of my bad handwriting, right?" I remember this infamous question last year while teaching one of my Year 7 English classes in London. Years ago, I would have lightly jested that "of course you can't lose any marks. Unless the person grading your test cannot understand a single word you are writing because your handwriting resembles a doctor's scribble." However, on that particular day last year, I had a different answer for my student.

According to a recent article by Graeme Paton, Education Editor at The Telegraph, research is suggesting that "digital technology is having a major impact on pupils' handwriting skills, with teachers unable to read exam scripts and emoticons creeping into students' work." This naturally affects their marks as teachers penalize them for illegible writing. And that's two-thirds of teachers who have admitted doing so, according to the figures. Admittedly, I wasn't too surprised when I then read that more than a third had also seen emoticons in exam answers and coursework (35% of teachers found them in exam answers). You think students would know when it is appropriate to use emoticons, but apparently this isn't the case - I have seen this myself, by students even in Year 11.

Paton also writes about the great number of students who "were being left with blisters and aching hands after being forced to write for long periods because of a lack of practice." Who could ever forget that feeling of marathon writing back in the day? Thinking of my current students, I frown with deep concern when one of my pupils complains about his hand aching with pain after writing a single page of paragraph writing that comprises his essay response. It is definitely a concern, especially with the over-reliance on ipads and other technology at school and home. But that's a topic for another time.

Paton further points to previous research that suggested that "children who struggle to write fluently devote more brain capacity to getting words onto a page during tests - interfering with their ability to generate ideas, select vocabulary or plan work properly." I have seen evidence of this numerous times over the past few years. You can see it in the disorganized writing of many students, their work unplanned and conveyance of points and vocabulary scattered.

Fortunately, because the student I mentioned above is only in Year 7, he and his classmates still have time to improve their handwriting. At the time, I already had a collection of specifically designed pens that helped improve my students' writing. I used about 4 per class, I recall. But that was not nearly enough. The same chance for improvement can't be said for many of my Year 11 students who have developed their own style of writing for years - many unique yet not legible. This poses a particular problem for them as they might not be as willing to work hard to improve their writing.

As an old school 'handwriting person,' I understand when other teachers scoff or severely criticize students for these "travesties" in English writing, but I also know that it is not a simple issue that can be remedied easily. There are other things to consider as well - for example the situation and viewpoint of the student. They've grown up in a society that embraces and overuses emoticons. Yet, it's part of our language now, how we communicate with each other. At one point last year, I was also teaching the use of technology in English classrooms to my Year 9s. We watched a very entertaining and interesting TED Talks video on the use of text messages and how the 'decline of handwriting' has been talked about for millennia by many. The speaker, John McWhorter, believes that there is much more to texting, both linguistically and culturally (see video below).

This deterioration in handwriting skills has been predicted for many years by countless traditional English language standard bearers. I remember reading articles commenting on the decline of handwriting skills back in 2008 (see similar articles below). It's definitely tough to see kids who struggle with handwriting, especially if they have not had enough practice over the years and have settled for simple scribbles to get their answers across on a piece of paper. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, but it needs to be a conscious and assertive effort from parents, teachers and especially students. They need to understand the importance of good handwriting in order to be successful in Primary and Secondary school, as well as University and College. It is vital. I can't even begin to think how I would have survived so many of my exams without my ability to hand write cursive quickly and legibly.

Going back to Graeme Paton's article, he mentions that the UK Government has "now pledged to improve standards, with handwriting playing a bigger part in a newly revamped National Curriculum...Schools are required to hold 'frequent and discrete' lessons in handwriting for five- to seven-year-olds, with pupils being expected to hold pencils properly and form letters correctly and confidently." This is certainly a step in the right direction.

However, it shouldn't stop there. The solid practice of handwriting needs to continue for students into their teens. Anyone who has ever taken notes in high school or during lectures knows how important handwriting is in the retention of knowledge: "The fluid motion of writing and rewriting notes helps to instill the data in the mind more efficiently than the process of typing, making it an effective revision tool which aides information recall."

The last statement is a keen observation and fact that currently holds an advantage over technology. This is true for both complex passages and historical facts, as well as simple, basic English or Math formulas. For students that have difficulty achieving high scores on spelling quizzes in my classes, I always suggest they write out the words 10 times each as they prepare for a quiz. Once they apply this old and extremely simple method, I find that there scores are nearly always flawless once they write the test itself. Again, the underlying point here is the use of handwriting to practice, not typing words on a keyboard.

Still, there is hesitation and low motivation from many students who themselves scoff - in return - the very mention of handwriting. As Paton sums up at the end of his article, "Some 89 per cent of those responding to the poll said they now revised using laptops and computers, while more than half deemed the 'traditional method of note-taking with a pen and paper outdated.'"

The debate surely continues.

Vital Links:

the-principal.com article - Link to the actual article from 'The Telegraph' by Graeme Paton

TED Talks - John McWhorter: Txting is killing the language. JK!!!

5 Reasons to teach spelling and handwriting

Pupils with poor handwriting 'do less well in school tests'

Pupils' handwriting 'increasingly illegible' 

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