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The Writing on the Screen

February 11, 2012

Originated some 5 thousand odd years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, our handwriting evolved from the classic cuneiforms —by way of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek alphabet and (Roman) Latin script— to the shapely cursives we know today. Ironically our writing started out as a simple accountancy tool before it became the tool of choice for scribes and poets and the art form of monks. Reserved for the educated few, good penmanship meant power and prestige.

Has Good Penmanship become an archaic skill we couldn't care less about?
Has Good Penmanship become an archaic skill we couldn’t care less about?

Some time ago The Washington Post published an article, in which educators warned against handwriting becoming a ‘lost form of communication’. A similar story appeared recently in The Guardian, the Belgium and the Dutch press where students complained of writer’s bumps during their written exams.

Let me clarify. Writer’s bump is a common known problem noted among the digital natives; due to excessive texting, tapping and typing and moderate to no penmanship skills whatsoever.

Apparently, the former gift of gods is now reserved for the ‘disconnected few’ who choose to disregard social media or the latest gadgetry and apps craze. Makes you wonder; is handwriting turning into an archaic skill we couldn’t care less about?

The Value of Handwriting

It’s true. The way we use handwriting has changed. Notwithstanding, you can’t ignore the fact that handwriting has shaped human culture throughout the ages and I believe it still shapes us on a personal level today. To name a few, here are 7 ways handwriting shapes you and adds value:

#1. Enhances Learning
Children —as well as adults— learn the most by looking, smelling, listening, tasting and touching. Especially tactile contact plays an important role in learning as it’s how we literally explore and enrich our learning experience.

Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay pose in their research Digitizing literacy: reflections on the haptics that “human cognition […] is closely intertwined with and mutually dependent on both sensory perception and motor action.” They call it embodied cognition.

Mangen and Velay go on to explain that learning and cognitive development is all about how we physically interact with our environment. Handwriting stresses the “action-perception loop” we need during a learning process. Thus handwriting movements contribute more to memory and retention than mechanised writing.

#2. Nurtures Thoughts and Ideas
Creating Better Readers and Writers focuses on work by various researchers, among them Virginia Berninger. According to Berninger, who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities, “writing is a written language process” and not mainly a motoric one. Like texting, tapping and typing is.

When we handwrite, our sequential finger movements activate parts of our brains that involve thinking, language and working memory. This is the same system we use for temporarily storing and managing information. During the writing process, Berninger continues, “Memory space is freed up for higher level composing processes; allowing us to better reflect on ideas and to structure our thoughts.” As a consequence when you handwrite, you’re more creative and better at composing thoughts and ideas.

#3. Hones Fine Motor Skills
Mangen and Velay also believe that the handwriting process is an integration of our visual, motoric and perceptive parts. Our perception allows us to remember the shape of the letters, while our sight and motor skills enable the writing.

Handwriting movements are slower, more elaborate and focussed when compared to using either a keyboard or a touch screen. Corollary handwriting improves our fine motor skills when practised regularly.

#4. Sharpens the Ageing Mind
As we grow older, our cognitive skills tend to fade. Living healthy and remaining physically and socially active are ways to stay sharp as we age; as well as training our brain.

Recent studies show that picking up handwriting on regular basis —as for example writing a journal— is a wonderful cognitive exercise you start with any time. The act of writing stimulates parts of the brain you may have been neglecting.

#5. It’s Personal and Exclusive
Not only has so much of world history been handwritten; but also a lot of our own. Whether it’s the records of our ancestors or letters from loved ones living; the personal authenticity of the handwriting makes it a very intimate experience. Because handwriting is slower and more elaborate that typing or texting, when someone takes the time to write to you, the underlying message is “I care enough about you to do this.”

More than with other modalities, handwriting discloses our emotional state. The graphic shapes and rhythm of the letters we write down are subtle —or maybe not so subtle— visual telltales. Making our handwriting very exclusive and special as it captures our lives on many levels.

#6. Reflects Character and Credibility
Never underestimate the effect of our handwriting on the reader. Whether we’re aware of it or not, handwriting is perceived as a reflection of one’s character. And we expect a person who has character to take great care, pride and effort to communicate well.

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown learnt the hard way about this insidious side of good penmanship. In accordance with official policy, he sent a letter of condolence to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. What was supposed to be a personal heartfelt note became a sloppy written proof of cold indifference and disrespect.

The mother, insulted by the Prime Ministers’ seemingly hastily and misspelled scribble, took it to the press. And Brown was forced to publicly apologise and do damage control.

Thanks to Gordon Brown, we’re reminded that if you take the time to handwrite; Do it right. For people will judge your character and credibility based on the quality of your writing.

#7. It’s Accessible
Contrary to wired and mobile devices, a pen and a notepad don’t cost an arm and a leg. It’s independent of any form of feed or battery and in comparison needs very little effort and know-how. And in most cases it’s less fussy and the most portable.

Long Live Handwriting

So has texting, tapping and typing made handwriting obsolete? In my opinion; “No.” Should handwriting continue to play an important role in our learning curriculum; “Yes.” Undoubtedly there’s a generation growing up who’ll never ever touch a pen and paper again after leaving primary school. Therefore we will be handwriting less. But I’m convinced we will continue to do so; even if only in other formats.

Believing that handwriting enhances learning more than mechanised writing, researchers are building handwriting recognition-based intelligent tutoring systems. The application’s interface is based on the learners’ handwriting and it’s designed for students learning Math.

What we’re also seeing are devices that simulate and record handwriting like LiveScribe. For touch screens there’s WritePad, an app that converts your own handwriting to text; with spellchecker and all. And let’s not forget the educational games, teaching you how to write like abc PocketPhonics, ABC Tracer and iWriteWords.

In the long run, when all is said and done, connections may be faulty or unavailable; computers may get infected or even crash; and battery-life may run out. Isn’t it then nice to know that in such unforeseeable circumstances you can always fall back on your good old pen and paper?

(Source image used: Wikimedia Commons)

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