Wednesday, January 23, 2008

21st Century Writing Habits

Today is National Handwriting Day, and its sponsor, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, suggests we take this day to get creative, use a pencil or pen, and uniquely express ourselves through writing. Not a bad idea. After all, NCTE’s Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing note the obvious, that “People learn to write by writing.”

But, today, it’s all-together possible that many students are busy writing not with pens or pencils or even with crayons or spray paint or lipstick. They’re using computers or cell phones or message boards, they’re texting each other, and they’re posting to MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites. PBS’s Frontline program “Growing Up Online” notes that for some kids today, writing an email is as old-fashioned as writing by hand! These students show us that, in fact, how we write and the tools we use to get the job done are evolving--well…as I write. And, these students’ writing activities certainly must give us pause as we think about how we teach writing to our students.

While today some will decry the loss of readable script developed through the Palmer Method, others will acknowledge that for many of our students, learning to write means learning what to say in writing or how to say it, not how to form their letters with pen or pencil. We might join the teachers interviewed for the news article “Writing off cursive” to think about the meaning of handwriting to our students and to their ability to communicate in writing.

For me, writing in my journal still means using not only my hand and a pen, but a special sort of pen that flows across the paper as I hope my words will do. Yet, here I comfortably sit composing this blog on my computer, and enjoying, along with the consummate ability to create, move, and erase text, being able to insert hyperlinks to bolster my message. And, for all of us who’ve read stacks of student papers, of course, typed papers trump handwritten papers in terms of readability every time. More importantly, according to “The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002” as cited in NCTE’s 21st-Century Literacies – A Policy Research Brief,“digital technology enhances writing and interaction in several ways. K–12 students who write with computers produce compositions of greater length and higher quality and are more engaged with and motivated toward writing than their peers.”

So, today, let’s use this occasion to think about handwriting along with other ways of writing, and to consider just why we write and why we want our students to be writers, adept writers—always.


Anonymous said...

I still do write long hand from time to time. However, my 15 year old began keeping her journal in WORD a year ago. She feels totally comfortable with this. And I have to admit that I am moving more and more to using the laptop for most writing.

I am old enough to have endured the Palmer method and spent lots of time making loops and learning the correct way to form letters. Nowadays, my cursive is hardly exemplary and I tend to use a combo of cursive and printing if I am in a hurry to make notes.

Does handwriting still matter? It does in school. In the outside world, I am not so sure. I watch my teens text with great dexterity and think they are able to communicate succinctly when it counts. I wonder if we can tap into that and use it in the classroom?

Claire said...

Many of the walls in my home are decorated with the wonderful works of Susan Loy's "literary calligraphy." More than the art of handwriting--it is handwriting as art.

And I have poet friends who swear they can not generate the art that is poetry except by hand, and yet they communicate proficiently by email (yes, my friends--like me--are old enough to consider email "high tech) and do many other kinds of writing on their computers.

My eldest son, on the other hand, a 20-year-old software engineer with a masters degree, successfully living and working in the Silicone Valley--is a diagnosed dyslexic--who never learned to write cursive.

By the time his classmates were mastering the loops and swirls of the cursive alphabet, it was obvious to us that this "new" way of writing was just going to be one more frustration in his life--one more barrier to separate him from the the miracle that is "writing to learn"--and (perhaps equally important) writing to learn how we feel.

So he learned to keyboard instead. Keyboarding gave him access to the wonders of spellcheck; it allowed him to record his thoughts without struggling to remember how to form the individual letters and spell the individual words. It meant he could finish essay tests in not much, if any, longer than his peers.

It was a lifesaver, and not a day goes by that I don't give thanks for the wonderfully flexible teachers at his schools who understood that "good writing" and "good handwriting" are not necessarily the same thing.

My younger son, who is quite a good writer (really), received his lowest score on the "writing" portion our state's standardized test for 11th graders. When I asked him what the problem was, he replied with a question: "Do you know when the last time I had to write something by hand was? Probably 6th grade! I couldn't get my thoughts down on that paper!"

So, I think the point I'm trying to make is that we need to celebrate writing in all of its many forms. And we need to understand that writers--like learners--exist in great variety. The important thing for teachers to remember is that no single approach is "the right approach" for everyone.

Our 21st century student writers need as much freedom as possible to choose--not just their own topics, audiences, purposes, genres, and forums for writing, but their writing instruments as well!

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with the comment that students write better using technology. There is a growing consensus among those studying how our brains learn, and what this means in the classroom, that students who write rough drafts longhand, and THEN transfer that rough draft to the computer, demonstrate more creativity and critical thought than do the majority of students who simply sit at a computer to compose papers. Having spent over 30 years in the secondary classroom, I can attest that many of my students, when told this, try it, and discover their compositions are much better by the final draft when they have started with something they have done longhand.

Anonymous said...

I would be VERY interested in reading this research. Could you post bibliographic info for your sources here?

Or, if you'd rather communicate "outside" of the blog, I can give you my contact info somehow. (I'd have to figure out how, not being the world's most tech-savvy person!) Perhaps I can email you directly if I click on your nickname? I'll experiment!


Anonymous said...

emily, please post on this blog the source of your information regarding long-hand writing vs keyboard composition. I think a number of readers would be interested in this information.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Let me take a moment to get past being a virgin to the "BLOG". Writing,even for a 50 year old woman, has evolved like everything else in the universe. What makes writing powerful is so simplistic but constant... reading, reflecting -on so many levels- and writing your ideas to celebrate your "wow" experience. One thing remains, writing remains a spiritual experience in the exchange of ideas.

Claire said...

Yes, and ultimately, surely the important thing is to make sure students have a chance to experience the "wow"--whether they do it with a pen or on a blog. (And I LOVE the term "blog virgin"!)

Unknown said...

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