Some years ago, during the interview for a role as Head of English in a secondary school, all the candidates were asked to speak about what we would prioritise if we were to get the job. I have no memory of what I said, but I vividly recall one of the other candidates saying he would focus on improving students’ handwriting. My bland inanities resulted in me getting the job; he didn’t make the cut and was sent home after lunch. How we laughed.
At the time it struck me that focussing on improving students’ handwriting as a secondary English teacher was an absurd waste of time. After all, who cares how neat their handwriting is? Why on earth should it matter? As with many things I used to believe, I have now changed my mind.
The two main arguments in favour of improving students’ handwriting are automacity and legibility.
Essentially, anything that occupies our attention reduces our capacity to think. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses that fact that the effort required to maintain a walking speed above 14 minutes a mile makes it almost impossible to perform mental arithmetic. If someone asks us to think about a complex problem when we are walking we will, most probably, stop in order to give the matter our full attention. This is the same logic that leads us to turn down the volume of our car radio when reverse parking; if music is sufficiently loud it occupies too much of our attention to be able to safely complete the manoeuvre.
According to Nelson Cowan, we can only complete a cognitive task if we have sufficient ability to hold onto information as it is processed, and most people are only able to concentrate on between 3 to 5 ‘chunks’ of information at any one time. When a student is writing, some thought will be given to content, some to style, and some to accuracy. All of this burns through working memory. If students are also having to give conscious attention to process of writing, they will have less attention to attend to more important matters.
According to Tucha et al, being able to write smoothly using legibly formed, joined up handwriting enables us to write with the least amount of distraction, whereas printing – writing each individual letter separately – leads to a greater portion of our limited working memory reserves being used to concentrate on the process of writing. They say:
The automatic production of strokes, letters and words frees up mental resources for the process of composing or the understanding of the content of texts or lessons. Therefore, the consideration of fluency or automaticity of handwriting in national curricula appears to be necessary if not mandatory. (p. 154)
The other reason for focussing on improving students’ handwriting is legibility. It should be obvious that if no one can read what you’ve written, all attempts at automacity are wasted. All teachers will have experienced the frustration of having to struggle through shockingly bad handwriting, and this places a strain on our patience. I would always try to ensure the books of those students whose handwriting I knew would make reading their work a chore at the top of the pile, when I was at my freshest; after an hour or so spent marking I’d have little energy left for deciphering spidery scrawl.
It turns out that handwriting casts a halo effect. We tend to assume that people with well-formed, easily legible handwriting are also cleverer. Although handwriting never features in GCSE or A level exam rubrics, the effects of handwriting bias are well established. When we read the work of students we know, we bring our knowledge of them to the task of assessing their work. If our experience suggests that a student is able, we’ll tend to overlook poor handwriting. But, if nothing else is know – as in the case of examiners marking the work of anonymous candidates – we may be biased by students’ handwriting. The effects might only be small, but if an examiner assumes a student is brighter they’ll look first at the upper bands of a mark scheme, and if they intuitively decide a student is less bright, they’ll begin with the lower mark bands.
The difference between being awarded a 4 or a 5 in the new GCSEs could be a little as on mark. It could be that some students will not get the grades they deserve simply because their handwriting isn’t up to snuff.
So, if both automaticity and legibility are important, what should we do?
In this excellent article, secondary English teacher, Sarah Barker talks through her efforts to teach handwriting automacity to her students, based on Sassoon and Briem’s book, Improve Your Handwriting. Barker showcases some quite dramatic examples of the improvements in her students’ work, and her blog is well worth a read.
How likely students are to handwrite with automacity is somewhat dependent on the way they’ve learned to hold and use a pen. Some grips actively make it more difficult for students to write, and, ideally, we should use the tripod grip to hold a pen; anything else is likely to be sub-optimal.
Obviously, you can automatise writing with various other grips but these are likely to lead to hand strain, less writing resilience and, ultimately, more distraction.
One possible solution to improving the automaticity and legibility of students’ handwriting is the Anti-Ballistic pen. Some time ago, Dutch handwriting experts Astrid and Ben from Schriftontwikkeling – The Foundation for the Development of Scripture – got in touch to tell me about their new invention.
Essentially, it’s a normal ballpoint with an additional plastic moulding to which a little bell is attached.
Here’s what they say:
When we write, the pen tip moves over the paper. However, the speed at which it moves is irregular. We call this ballistic displacement. Writing speed falls when forming curves and is quicker when forming straight parts of letters. It’s very difficult to make people aware of this. That is why this auto-feedback pen has been developed. The pen immediately emits a small sound as soon as it moves irregularly. The goal is to write silently!
This anti-ballistic way of writing has a rapid and positive effect on the quality of handwriting. When practicing with the AB pen, movements are performed more economically. The movement deflection is reduced and so is the sentence length.
In order to for good handwriting to be effortless, students need to hold a pen using the tripod grip. Sadly, many students have learned to write using grips which actively make it harder to write easily.
In order to improve the common ‘thumb over’ grip, the AB pen has a ‘splitter’ attached. Because the correct grip has to be applied automatically, students find handwriting much easier.
Obviously they can’t promise perfect handwriting, but they do guarantee a visible improvement in handwriting quality in all cases.
They warn that writing speed decreases dramatically the first time the AB pen is used, but, with practice, students will regain speed, and, as they become used to the process of gradual pen point displacement, pace can be slowly increased.
I’ve trialled the pen in with a number of students in some of the schools I work with and, so far, impressions have ben very favourable. Some students love using the pen, and, while others initially hate it, all do seem to improve. Used in conjunction with the techniques outlined in Barker’s blog, this could make a real difference to the automaticity and legibility of students’ handwriting.
As far as I can see, the only downside to the AB pen is cost. Currently, Schriftontwikkeling are charging £18 to ship one of their pens to the UK. This might sound prohibitive, but they do make clear that the AB pen should not be used in a group, or without supervision. The pen is intended to raise awareness of the process of handwriting and to retrain students’ habits during one to one intervention. After intervention, they suggest that students should imagine their regular pen has a bell and strive to prevent the imaginary bell from sounding.
If you’re interested in getting hold of an AB pen, let me know by email. I’m currently negotiating to see if I can reduce the costs, and, if enough people are interested, we may be able to get a better deal.