Part 2 of the survey findings

In the last blog I finished with a question to get you thinking about handwriting and memory. The study I was referring to was conducted in Norway in 2015. Mangen, Anda, Oxborough and Brønnick tested a group of 19-54 year old volunteers. The task involved a comparison of how many words the participants could remember after writing them down. The participants were tested on a computer keyboard, a tablet and by hand. All of the study participants could remember more words that they had written by hand, than on the computer or the tablet. Fascinating!

[Mangen, A., Anda, L. G., Oxborough, G. H., & Brønnick, K. (2015). Handwriting versus keyboard writing: Effect on word recall. Journal of writing research, 7(2), 227-247. ]

Have you noticed how you can write a shopping list, leave it at home or in the car, and still remember most of what you wrote on the list? Did you study by writing things down by hand? Do you take notes by hand in meetings or on a tablet?  So why might we remember more that we write by hand? According to Kiefer and others (2015), it is

‘the meaningful coupling between action and perception during handwriting, which establishes sensory-motor memory traces’.

[Kiefer, M., Schuler, S., Mayer, C., Trumpp, N. M., Hille, K., & Sachse, S. (2015). Handwriting or typewriting? The influence of pen-or keyboard-based writing training on reading and writing performance in preschool children. 11(4), 136.]

This may also help to explain why learning to form or construct letters helps children to learn their letters.

Handwriting is more than a simple fine motor task. Handwriting requires:

  • performance in perceptual-motor skills,
  • motor planning,
  • visual perception,
  • visual-motor integration,
  • bilateral hand skills,
  • in hand manipulation,
  • kinesthesia,
  • sustained attention,
  • sensory processing, and
  • the presence of proper biomechanical components for posture and hand grip

[Lust, C. A., & Donica, D. K. (2011). Effectiveness of a handwriting readiness program in head start: a two-group controlled trial. AJOT: American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 560. ]

Handwriting is something that humans have engaged with since the 8th Century BC, although initially handwriting was largely a monastic discipline rather than a skill learned and applied by the masses. Scribes re-created books, usually religious manuscripts. Interestingly the invention of the printing press did not lead to the demise of handwriting – in fact quite the opposite happened. Today more people have the skill to express themselves by hand than ever before.

However, writing is not a natural extension of spoken language. We are not biologically predisposed to write like we are to communicate using spoken language. Writing must be taught, and learned, and perhaps in the future, handwriting will become part of our history rather than our present. But – in the here and now, handwriting is possibly the most portable and equitable form of written communication, particularly in Australian classrooms.  

Back to the survey. One of the questions I asked related to the future of Cursive Writing – or joined letters. Teaching Cursive writing is still a requirement on the Australian Curriculum. The descriptor for year 3 states:

Write using joined letters that are clearly formed and consistent in size.

Joined letters are also mentioned in the descriptor for year 4, although in years 5-7 the emphasis is on personal style, fluency, automaticity and by year 7 the ability to ‘write for extended periods’.

  • While 82% of retired teachers who responded to the survey indicated that cursive writing should still be taught in school, only 58% of current teachers agreed.

This finding suggests a shift in attitude in recent times. In a previous blog posting I discussed how Finland’s new curriculum, introduced in August 2016, no longer included Cursive Writing. However, correct letter formation and handwriting instruction is still explicitly taught in preschools (Capital letters) and the first two-three years of school (printing) with the aim of automaticity and legibility in handwriting.(Don’t forget, children in Finland start preschool the year they turn 6 and school in the August of the year they turn 7, which means they have explicit handwriting instruction from 6 -10 years of age as a minimum.)

There seems to be a commitment in Finland to teaching handwriting skills (printing) and keyboarding. Keyboarding is not seen as a replacement for handwriting, rather it is an extra skill necessary in contemporary times. The early years classrooms I visited in 2016 (Years 1 and 2) were mainly focused on handwriting with a little keyboarding experience (shared class sets of laptops and tablets). Interestingly, one of the year 2 classes had a class set of high quality laptops that had been bought by the local university. This class had been introduced to the laptops from the start of school (Year 1). The children were very familiar with the laptops, and the teacher was very positive and confident in her ability to support the students’ use of the laptops.

I asked the teacher to invite her class to do some writing for me as part of my research, and to give the children the choice of writing by hand or on the laptops. Only 6/20 of the children chose to write on the laptops. 2/6 had computer problems associated with their laptop or the server and the teacher spent considerable time sorting out these technical problems. One child lost most of her story. The remaining 14 students wrote their stories by hand.

While in Finland they seem to start with handwriting and then add keyboarding,  the findings from my survey indicate mixed understandings of whether or not handwriting proficiency is necessary before a focus on keyboarding skills

  • 61% of teachers, 61% of retired teachers and 42% of parents think this is not necessary to teach handwriting first, although 21% of teachers, 22% of retired teachers and 48% of parents believe children should be proficient at handwriting before being introduced to keyboarding instruction.

However,

  • Most teachers (66%), retired teachers (62%) and parents (57%) suggested that keyboarding should only be taught in upper primary school. That leaves a lot who do not agree.

We know that from quite a young age children can spend up to half of their school day involved in some kind of writing – across disciplines. So, to expect them to use keyboards or tablets from the start of school means:

  • that all children would need access to working, up to date computers (and for small children these would need to be suitable for small hands and fingers);
  • the technology would need to be combined with appropriate furniture so that children can sit comfortably for long periods of time looking at a computer screen (my Osteopath tells me he sees lots of young adolescents who are having neck and shoulder problems from spending so much time looking down at screens – phones and tablets);
  • all schools would have the funds to provide the ongoing IT support to do the trouble shooting to ensure the computers are trouble free;
  • all schools would have up to date software and the funds to continually replace technology that is often out of date not long after it comes out of the packaging;
  • all teacher education courses would be given the time, equipment and staffing to provide teacher education students with the skills they will need to teach touch typing and keyboard use; and
  • all teachers would have the necessary skills and ongoing PD support to teach ‘touch typing’ and efficient keyboard skills.

When I asked about some of these things in the survey, these were the responses in regard to availability of computers or tablets in Australian classrooms:

  • Only 37.6% of teachers who responded to the survey, said they had enough computers for each child in their class; a further 10.4% had enough computers for most children and a further 14% had computers for half their class. That means that 38% of teachers who responded could not provide even half their children with computers. 14.8% claimed to only have 2-3 computers in their rooms. Some who said they could access a class set of computers, said that these computers were in a computer lab, shared by other classes. Often they were timetabled to visit the computer lab only once per week.
  • While 56.7% of teachers said they felt they had the skills to teach keyboarding skills – that means 43.3% do not.
  • Only 40.8% of teachers said they liked teaching keyboarding skills which means 59.2% do not.
  • Only 2.7% of teachers said they had received any PD relating to the teaching of keyboarding skills in the past 5 years. Mind you, only 9.9% had received any PD related to the teaching of handwriting in the past 5 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons teachers are so unsure about this important topic.

So let’s be practical: I am quite torn to be honest. I think we should teach our children both handwriting and keyboarding skills, because I know how I use both skills every day (and I wish I had been taught to touch type).

Our children need to be able to write efficiently, as there is strong evidence to indicate that writing is the literacy skill of consequence in the 21st century (Brandt, 2015).

Brandt, D. (2015). The rise of writing: Redefining mass literacy. Cambridge, UK: University Printing House.

However, unless there is a massive amount of funding (ongoing – not just a one off) for computer technology and teacher PD it is crazy to think that teachers are going to be able to have their students doing all their writing on computers in the near future.

In a study conducted by Connelly and others (2007) they found that without specific keyboard instruction, children were faster at handwriting . . . in addition they found that the quality of written texts from children in years 5 and 6 were poorer than their handwritten ones but postulated that it was due to fluency and would thus be improved with more keyboard instruction.

[Connelly, V., Gee, D., & Walsh, E. (2007). A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 479-492.]

In the meantime, we must continue to teach students how to write efficiently and automatically by hand, so that they can express themselves meaningfully in written language and fully engage in the learning opportunities provided at school (as per the requirements of the Australian Curriculum). While we want children to also learn how to use computers efficiently, particularly as a resource for information, we just don’t have the resources for keyboarding to be their only system of writing at this point in time. That means teachers and teacher education students need to receive a clear message about the importance of continuing to teach handwriting to young children.

Early literacy development has been shown, through a series of neurological experiments, to be facilitated by handwriting or tracing letters as these contribute to the kinaesthetic gestural memory of word and letter recognition.

[Bara, F., Gentaz, E., Colé, P., & Sprenger-Charolles, L. (2004). The visuo-haptic and haptic exploration of letters increases the kindergarten-children’s understanding of the alphabetic principle. Cognitive Development, 19(3), 433-449.]

To finish off this blog with another teaser, ‘How do we even know that we will be using keyboards in another 10 years, perhaps we will see ‘voice recognition’ or ‘digital ink’ (which requires handwriting) as the system of choice or something we haven’t even thought of yet? So what is ‘digital ink‘? Do you use it?

If you find the blog interesting, please share the link with colleagues, friends, a teacher you think may be interested, parents of young children or even your local school. Noella

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