Last year, after I had assigned our first in-class essay in English 11, I discovered I was teaching three boys whose handwriting was so appallingly bad I literally couldn't read it.
I already knew none of the lads was illiterate; we'd had several weeks of class by this time, and I'd read a number of their written assignments. Those assignments had been word-processed, however.
I accosted the Learning Assistance teacher. I said, "We've got to do something. These boys won't pass English 12 if the markers can't read their writing."
These boys had certainly been taught handwriting while in elementary school. Clearly the lessons didn't take, and they had nonetheless progressed all the way to senior secondary school without their problem being flagged.
That's a major difference between their generation and mine.
I learned my handwriting in British Columbia, using what was then the standard method, the "MacLean Method", of cursive handwriting developed by H. B. MacLean, once the principal of George Jay Elementary in Victoria. All through elementary school, I'd dreaded penmanship class, being one of those awkward boys with poor small-motor skills. Steel nibs and inkwells had, on more than one occasion, been my Waterloo. Fortunately someone developed the ballpoint pen in time for my first year at junior high, where penmanship skills were assumed but not taught. Unfortunately my handwriting had, in spite of all the instruction deteriorated to the point of near-illegibility.
When I was in Grade 9, my dad took matters in hand. "This won't do," he said. "You'll never succeed at university if they can't read your writing. You have to change." He provided an Osmiroid fountain pen with an italic nib, with which I was very taken, and I changed my handwriting in the course of a year.
So I understood where my English 11 lads were coming from. They, like me, had found learning to write legibly very difficult. Unlike me, however, they had been presented with another option: they had learned to keyboard. Since then they had been perfectly competent to deal with the written requirements of their courses. Their teachers had probably encouraged them to do their writing on computers. I know I would have.
More than five years ago, working in a new school with nearly one student computer for every four students, I started to notice that most of my students now had computers at home. I seized on this information with enthusiasm, encouraging them to write most of their work on computers and providing them with my e-mail address, so they could send their work to me electronically. I knew from my experience and the professional literature that students who write on computers with word-processing programs write more. Their written expression and structures are more sophisticated. Using the spell- and grammar-checkers, they write with fewer errors. Most important, from my point of view, I could get them to rewrite more readily and more frequently. It was the beginning of a brave new world of writing, and I was firmly onside.
In British Columbia, however, English teachers and their students are forced to deal with another reality, because in Grade 12, students collide with the past. We give them a provincial English exam that they must write with a pen (penmanship counts), in a relatively short period of time (no time to polish, never mind rewrite), without access to even a dictionary (spelling counts), on a topic that is sufficiently insipid that anyone can muster at least some cliches and no one can take offence (so much for style, personality and sophistication), and we turn the essay's audience into some faceless and nameless bureaucrat, whose particular writing enthusiasms can only be guessed.
Did I mention the exam is compulsory, and that access to higher education can depend on how well the student does?
There is evidence that the Ministry of Education in B.C. understands at least part of the problem with this model. For the first time this year, it is possible for schools to have students writing provincial exams in some subjects (English, science, and mathematics) do so on computers; however, the requirements for accessing this option are so restrictive that I doubt if more than a handful of public schools will be able to qualify.
There are very good reasons to believe that students in schools that do qualify will have an advantage, and that their advantage isn't all about handwriting. There is research that demonstrates people who write with word-processors write differently than those who write with pens.
They organize differently. They revise very differently, and much more frequently. Anyone who has switched from pen to computer can tell the difference, and most of us wouldn't go back for anything, even if we could: we'd have to relearn old ways.
Fortunately the story I started with has a happy ending. After we had spent a whole semester collecting evidence that these boys couldn't write legibly under exam conditions and then getting that evidence adjudicated, the school received permission from the ministry to designate such students as "special needs." This designation will permit them to write their exams this academic year on a computer.
In British Columbia, in 2006, if a student wants to use a computer to write the essays on his English 12 exam, he must be handicapped.
It seems a strange requirement.
I say bring on the wireless classroom.
Justus Havelaar lives in Campbell River, B.C.
Havelaar, Justus. "Johnny can't write - does it matter? Cursive versus keyboard: Old school up against new reality. What to do?" Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada] 16 Jan. 2006: A16. Popular Magazines. Web. 22 Dec. 2009.
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