independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

The missing ink – do kids still need to learn handwriting?

When it comes to learning, the pen is still mightier than the keyboard. Kim Bielenberg reports

Ageeth Hup working with a pupil at Raheen Woods Steiner NS in east Clare. Photo by Liam Burke

In the age of the computer, the tablet and the smartphone, many parents wonder whether their children need to spend hours learning to write by hand.

In many states in the US, children no longer learn joined-up, cursive handwriting. Having learned how to write basic letters, they may concentrate on keyboard skills.

In everyday life, there is no doubt that handwriting has declined in importance. Most adults write letters rarely, and the ornate scripts of our grandparents, written in fountain pen, are the subject of dewy-eyed nostalgia.

It may seem that the pen is no longer mightier than the keyboard, but writing still plays a crucial role in a child's development, according to handwriting therapist Ageeth Hup.

The Clare-based occupational therapist and former primary teacher helps children with writing difficulties.

"Writing and using a keyboard are now both important life skills," she says.

"If you look at the way kids develop, handwriting ability precedes keyboard skills. Writing plays a role in teaching kids how to read.

"Research shows that when you are forming a letter with a keyboard, you are not getting the whole multi-sensory experience of what a letter looks like.

"If they have traced it and copied it, or perhaps made it in Play Dough, they are more likely to recognise it, and that helps with reading. They can then move on to using keyboards later."

The decorous love letters and elegant thank-you notes may belong to the era of Pathé Newsreels, but good writing still plays a crucial role in education and adult life, according to Ms Hup.

The importance of this was underlined recently when an airline pilot landed at the wrong airport in Kansas, because he could not read his own handwriting.

"Good handwriting is still necessary to go through the Irish education system," says Ms Hup. "You still need smooth, legible and fast handwriting for state exams.

"It is still needed for note-taking and homework."

So do children still need to learn cursive handwriting?

The decline of joined-up writing in the United States has caused controversy. It is no longer mandatory in the Common Core Standards curriculum, which has been adopted in many states, and teachers are devoting much less time to it.

"There is a reason why children learn cursive writing," says Ms Hup. "It speeds up writing because children do not have to lift up the pen so much.

"Words appear as units. So the spacing can be clearer."

As well as improving fluency and speed, there is common agreement that joined-up writing improves spelling ability.

However, the cursive script may not suit all children, according to Ms Hup.

"There is a definite advantage to using cursive. But for some children who have difficulties in forming letters it may be too challenging.

"If children find it very hard to learn and it is obvious that they are going to keep struggling, there is no point in frustrating the child.

"In these cases I would advise against cursive writing, and emphasise the importance of keyboard skills."

Ms Hup frequently works in schools with children who have handwriting problems.

She says the causes of these difficulties can vary from one child to another. They could be caused by posture, and the child having difficulty in holding the pen properly.

"There could be a visual, perceptual problem – they are not aware of the size of the letters or how they sit on the line."

There may be language problems like dyslexia. Some children may have a combination of these difficulties.

Irish children learn handwriting early by international standards, according to Ms Hup.

"Children are starting to write letters in Junior Infants. I come from the Netherlands, and there they only learn writing when they are six. In Scandinavia they start at seven.

"There is no evidence that starting early helps. On the contrary, it could do more harm than good, because if the child is not ready they can pick up bad habits that can be hard to correct."

Most national schools in Ireland continue to emphasise good handwriting even in an age when online forums are becoming increasingly popular as forms of everyday communication.

Every year for the last two decades, the INTO has organised and run a national handwriting competition for children. Primary pupils are asked to write a piece of prose or a poem and are judged on the quality of the writing, not the content or spelling.

The popularity of the competition has grown over the years.

INTO spokesman Peter Mullan says: "The skill and art of handwriting will remain important in the digital age where most written communication is now done through social networking sites and mobile phones."

Details of Ageeth Hup's work in handwriting support and assessment are at candokids.ie

Irish Independent

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