There are many pointless skills that people learn in life, skills that when abandoned should not cause any amount of public or private grief. Examples might include: cheese rolling, extreme ironing, professional pet food tasting (yes, it really does exist) or learning Klingon. Oh, and taking selfies (especially using the filters in Snapchat), of course.
But writing by hand is not one of them.

When was the last time you sat down and wrote a sentence? A paragraph? An email? A letter? An essay? A report? When was the last time you did each of these BY HAND? For many of us it was a while ago, but for some of us it’s so long ago we can’t even remember…

While it might not make a great deal of difference for us oldies, improving young people’s legibility and penmanship develops a profile of important skills that transfer across so many dimensions of their life — far more, it seems, than those skills gained by typing. That’s not to say we should treat typing with disdain and relegate ‘digital literacy’ to the writers’ waste-bin. It’s just that with the current tide of digital media and communication moving so quickly and with an ever-increasing amount of communication between young people, whether written or spoken, happening through the medium of a digital device (e.g. WhatsApp, FaceTime, Facebook), it’s important to at least consider what they might be losing if we allow Handwriting to become ‘the Cinderella of the ball’ and be bullied into the background by the two not-so-ugly sisters: Digital and Media. In an era where rapid developments in voice recognition software threaten to eliminate the need for writing at all in certain instances, reminding ourselves of the many important benefits that writing words on paper can bring seems pertinent.

So, what are some of the benefits of writing by hand? Well, given the limitations of this article I can’t include too many, but here are three of the top contenders:

  • Writing by hand requires complicated, subtle muscle movements and, therefore, more actively stimulates the motor cortex of the brain, which increases motor function in general;
  • Writing by hand promotes memory retention at all ages; therefore, it helps to combat mental ageing;
  • Writing by hand enhances focus, as when writing on paper you are not inches away from the endless stream of potentially distracting internet entertainment…

It makes sense that if we are going to encourage students to write more frequently by hand, then we need to think about how to wean them off their digital devices. My Year 12 English B class were delighted that I recently gave them the opportunity to experiment with this idea by relieving them of their smartphone (and other digital devices) for a week. Their reflections on the experience were very insightful and interesting, as were the ‘break-up letters’ they wrote to their telephones prior to the ‘digital detox’. For your reading pleasure, I have included parts of Lorena Leicht’s emotional letter to her device. It’s truly heart-wrenching (and clever) stuff:

To my dearest friend and my deepest love,

I will always remember the day we met …

Thank you for the long, warm and beautiful summer nights we spent outside laying on the cold grass and listening to music together. Thank you for always listening to me, caring about my problems and treating them as if they were yours. Thank you for keeping my secrets and my memories. I know that this is a really hard thing for you to do due to your storage problems, but thank you for trying so hard over and over again. Thank you for sharing my worst and best moments. Thank you for always making me smile on rainy days by showing me that there is going to be sun again …
With you, things were easier than they seemed. But things change fast … We both know that things have changed between us … I can clearly see you running out of energy. I think that at the moment, we are just holding on to each other because we are used to it. We do not really know how it is to be apart from each other for more that eight hours…

I have to be honest with you: Sometimes you make me feel insecure. You make me compare myself to others and you make me ask myself if I am enough for the world. You are distracting me from things which are really important. I guess I need time… Time to think about this… Time to think about us …

Maybe we can get back together later on in life, when we are slightly older and our minds less hectic. But right now you are chaos to my thoughts and I am poison for your heart.

Lorena

At the risk of sounding completely biassed, using digital devices and media for, say, the construction of essays, has some obvious benefits: paragraphs can easily be moved about, text can be easily highlighted and irrelevant materials deleted without a trace, leaving a pristine clutter-free text. It’s also obviously true to say that when we look at literacy as a whole, we can see that digital devices have significant currency in the modern world. We must also acknowledge the great benefit that typing and digital devices can offer to students who have certain needs.
I suppose the realistic question to ask is: is there a happy medium, one which allows students to reap the benefits of writing by hand whilst also enjoying the power and convenience of digital technology? The answer may well be ‘yes’, if we acknowledge the rise in electronic stylus that can be used on a variety of digital screens, as well as some of the other advancements in this area.

In this respect, I suppose they can have the best of both worlds…

*As a postscript vaguely related to this topic, I recommend the following book: ‘How to Break Up With Your Phone’, by Catherine Price.

Richard Kirkland
Head of EAL