Friday 18 August 2017

How the pen is mightier than the emoji

Even in an era of keyboards and touchscreens, handwriting and writing remain essential skills.

All the write moves: Georgia Hughes (7), Sonny Abbasi (9) and Kiera Blakemore (7), second class pupils at St Raphael's National School in Ballyfermot, practise their handwriting. Photo: Damien Eagers
All the write moves: Georgia Hughes (7), Sonny Abbasi (9) and Kiera Blakemore (7), second class pupils at St Raphael's National School in Ballyfermot, practise their handwriting. Photo: Damien Eagers
Grumpy emoji
Writing matters: Alison Farrell of Maynooth University
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

If an emoji depicts 1,000 words, what does the future hold for writing, and indeed, handwriting? Throw in a few LOLs, and it could be said that technology has made the art of communication simpler.

If an emoji depicts 1,000 words, what does the future hold for writing, and indeed, handwriting? Throw in a few LOLs, and it could be said that technology has made the art of communication simpler.

So why, in a world where the widespread use of digital devices means that babies are swiping touch screens before they lift a pencil, does writing, and handwriting, remain as relevant as ever? For starters, and with a nod to Valentine's Day, who wouldn't prefer to read a handwritten 'I love you' rather than the internet slang, 143?

Handwriting, as in penmanship, and writing, as in composing text, are distinct, though inter-connected, skills; research shows that the mechanics involved in the first lays important foundations for the second, as well as bringing many other benefits.

While the focus on maths proficiency may grab the headlines, it is just as important for students to hone an ability to write well. Apart from impressing examiners with well-marshalled and well-expressed thoughts, nowadays, employers may put graduates on the spot to write on a topic when they turn up for a job interview.

Technology gives children and students options around keyboard use, but a 2012 US research report, 'Handwriting in the 21st Century', says that teaching keyboarding, in lieu of handwriting, can leave students at a disadvantage.

It says if handwriting isn't learned and practised, especially for young children, students don't get to experience the related benefits, such as increased brain activation and higher academic and professional achievement.

The case it makes for handwriting includes how it influences a student's ability to write words, thereby improving their ability to transform ideas into written language by constructing multi-word sentences. It cites research that found that students who used handwriting wrote more words, wrote faster and expressed more ideas than those who used keyboarding.

The report states that while keyboarding is necessary in a technological era, that should not influence a teacher's decision to minimise or eliminate handwriting instruction.

The implications for students not exposed to writing include difficulties with spelling, interpretation and extracting meaning from texts or a lecture.

Apart from supporting literacy skills, a link has also been drawn between handwriting and improved brain function.

Teresa Walsh began teaching 10 years ago and has taught a range of classes at St Raphael's Primary School, Ballyfermot, Dublin, where she fostered a great interest in penmanship. She is currently working as a regional development officer with the National Induction Programme for Teachers.

She is particularly interested in handwriting instruction and its benefit to pupils' cognitive development and academic achievement: "It improves speed and fluency which, in turn, assists written expression. It means that children can spend more time on higher level skills, such as comprehension and analysis."

In the digital age, she says handwriting is very important because it allows a child to have multi-sensory experience around forming the letter, or a string of letters, and seeing what it looks like, rather than just hitting a button on a keyboard.

In guidelines to schools, the Department of Education's Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) highlights the importance of good written expression. The guidelines include comments from the reports of examiners who oversee the marking of the Leaving and Junior Cert exams. In 2013, a geography examiner wrote that students should be encouraged "to develop their responses beyond simply statements through explanations, descriptions and the use of examples."

Another, for English, stated: "Adopting a process approach to writing, whereby students learn to research, plan, draft, re-draft and edit their writing would be of significant benefit to all students of Leaving Certificate English."

It is in the transition from one stage in the education system to another, or from education to work, that gaps in writing skills can become evident. Third-level colleges are paying more attention to their role in supporting students to craft well-written words. In the same way that maths support centres have become commonplace in higher education, writing centres are emerging.

Maynooth University (MU) opened one in 2011, offering free and non-judgemental writing support to any student, undergraduate or postgraduate. It attracts students of all abilities, with different needs, and from all disciplines.

Dr Alison Farrell, Teaching Development Officer at the MU Centre for Teaching and Learning, and head of the writing centre, says the centre sees its purpose as helping students to become better writers: writers who are competent, flexible, fluent and enthusiastic, and, yes, who enjoy writing. She says: "Through writing, we can learn to make meaning. We can use writing to find out what we know and to discover the gaps in our knowledge."

Students moving up from second-level may have some writing processes and dispositions that transfer well, and others that don't. According to Dr Farrell "they may have a good sense of the importance of 'purpose' in writing but their processes may not be a good fit, particularly where they neglect drafting and revising. We need to help students to realise that good writers often write several drafts of a piece, that they revise, that they read their work aloud, that they peer review other writers' work, that they seek feedback on their efforts and that they talk about their writing."

In the MU centre, PhD candidates and post-doctoral tutors help students to organise their thoughts pre-writing, reinforce the need for drafting and revising and stress the need to edit and proof. Tutors share the techniques and approaches that good writers use. Dr Farrell says, in their work, they distil frequently their message to developing effective processes and encouraging students to 'mind the GAPS' - Genre, Audience, Purpose and Stance. "It's about addressing these four things before and during the writing."

Dr Farrell is clear that their efforts are about working "with the writer, and not the text".

The centre also collaborates with staff, complementing how they support students in their writing. "We work with colleagues to encourage the integration of more writing for learning. We have good examples of lecturers who ask their classes to complete short, in-class writing for learning.

Maynooth took the initiative a step further in 2014, when it started a week-long summer writing course for teachers across all sectors of education, to meet, share good practice and learn more about writing and the teaching of writing. This year, doctoral researchers established their own writing group on campus.

Putting pen to paper

With a closing date this Friday, thousands of primary and post-primary pupils are dotting the is and crossing the ts on their entries for the annual An Post/INTO handwriting competition. As many as 65,000 students enter every year.

Originally an initiative of the INTO, which represents primary teachers, An Post came on board as sponsor three years ago, and with good reason.

An Post deals with 1.7 million customers each week, and every day its staff come face to face with people who need extra help in filling out forms, or having products and services explained to them due to literacy and numeracy difficulties. It estimates that one in five of its customers has low literacy levels.

The company's corporate communication manager, Aileen Mooney, says its interest in handwriting and its place in education and learning is a further development of An Post's work to support literacy in the community.

The handwriting competition gives access to lots of curriculum-linked activities, all of which are based on Irish life and business. Students write about a topic - this year, life in Ireland in the early 1900s for primary pupils and a history of Ireland in 100 objects for second-level - and enter their best handwriting.

Pupils may complete the competition in English, Irish or any other Latin-based language taught in the school.

Irish Independent

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