Friday, February 3, 2017

Handwriting Matters

Have you ever had the experience in which you couldn't read someone's handwriting? Perhaps it was a note from your spouse, or maybe even a note from your boss. Hmmm. You're at the grocery store and you have to pick up... what?

I've even had the experience where I couldn't decipher my own handwriting. (I sometimes get up in the night and write notes to myself, like this one. In the morning a few of these scribbles appear to be hieroglyphics.)

One of my favorite scenes in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run involves poor handwriting.  The hapless Virgil Starkwell, played by Allen, attempts to rob a bank. He hands a note to the teller. She has trouble deciphering it. "You have a gub?" He tries to explain that he has a gun. She disagrees and calls another teller over. "Does this look like 'gub' or 'gun'?" The second teller says it looks like "gun" ... "But what does 'abt' mean?" And so it goes.

Because handwriting matters, I included a chapter on this topic in my new book, Writing Exercises: How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else. Here are a few points I made there.

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Good handwriting is becoming lost in our modern society. With the advent of online news forums and digital books, print and concrete handwriting skills may seem unnecessary. Computers and other devices are replacing the pen.

Developing good handwriting, however, is still important for a variety of reasons. Good handwriting shows courtesy toward those reading what you write. It’s also something of a necessity when filling out a job application. And, if the teacher can’t read the pupil’s work, then there's going to be a problem when going over it together.

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Since the beginning of literacy, handwriting proficiency has developed and changed in lockstep with changes in society and technology. Some forms of handwriting are artistic, such as calligraphy or graffiti. Others are more utilitarian, such as the near-illegible scrawl used in a doctor’s office. All handwriting, being the medium in which a message is conveyed, is affected by both the writer and the reader. For example, a dinner invitation written in pristine calligraphy will be received differently than one written in a sloppy scrawl. Each note will elicit a different response. While one note may imply a formal dinner with suit and tie, the latter indicates that jeans and a t-shirt will be adequate. In this way, it is important to be aware of handwriting and the affect it has on others.

Furthermore, it is courteous for handwritten messages to be easily legible to the recipient. Your student will likely one day secure a job in which written notes may be a necessity. Handwritten notes are still an important form of communication in most employment settings. For example, you may be a boss scribbling written corrections on a proposal. If your notes can't be accurately interpreted, the proposal may end up conveying misinformation with the result that your company loses an important contract. Developing good handwriting throughout an academic career could be very important in future careers.

Developing good handwriting is also useful in developing linear thinking. When using a computer, it is easy to edit the format of sentences and whole paragraphs with a series of clicks. Word order is entirely flexible. Conversely, handwriting with pen and paper requires the mind to sequentially order the thoughts and plan further ahead when writing, sharpening critical thinking skills. This type of brain development is not present when solely typing on a computer. In fact, it turns out that current brain research is affirming that writing by hand is important.

At the same time, maintaining good handwriting forces students to be disciplined in writing out their ideas. While computers maintain pristine uniformity with absolutely no effort on the part of the writer, precision in handwriting requires both attention and discipline. (This is not to imply that good writing using a computer is effortless. It only resolves the legibility issue.)

In these ways, it is easy to see that handwriting is an important skill to develop in the student. Here are a few tips to help improve handwriting:

1. Practice. Begin when your students are young. Our writing exercises here assume the student has already developed a certain measure of legibility. If not, have the student make a conscious effort to improve this skill.

2. Develop good handwriting muscles. The muscles that should primarily be used in handwriting are muscles in the forearm and back. Too much finger muscle use in handwriting will produce small, cramped handwriting as the writer painstakingly draws each letter individually.

3. Strive for uniformity. The key to good handwriting is consistency. If the student really needs help in this area it may be necessary to have a separate notebook for the students to practice each letter until they can easily maintain a uniform shape for each. I know it sounds tedious and boring, but there’s a lifetime payoff.

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The book was written to help homeschoolers become better writers, but much of the content applies to all kinds of schooling. And if your student has absolutely atrocious handwriting even after working at it, you may take this as a sign that he or she has a future in medicine. For sure, don't encourage them to go into bank robbing.

Meantime, life goes on... Read any good books lately? 

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