The lost art of handwriting

More than 150,000 students in years 11 and 12 at schools across NSW have a problem. Almost all are skilled users of computer keyboards. Most can easily outperform their elders when it comes to text messaging on their mobile phones.

But within the next year or so all of them will have to sit 15 to 20 hours of examinations for the Higher School Certificate, and the exams will be almost entirely handwritten. Unless they have a proven disability and cannot write on the day of the exam, the only acceptable exam paper is one handed up in an individual's handwriting.

The disjunction between the acquired skill of keyboarding and the need to handwrite exams has led some schools to incorporate handwriting lessons in years 11 and 12 as students find they have to relearn the art of using a pen and paper quickly - lost after years of using computers, laptops and mobiles.

The senior English teacher at Barker College, on the North Shore, Sue Marks, says she has had top students forced to do remedial courses to get their handwriting legible enough for HSC examiners to read.

Sydney Grammar will not accept typed essays in the later years of high school. The headmaster, John Vallance, says the school places a very strong emphasis on ensuring every student can write legibly.

The disjunction between the acquired skill of keyboarding and the need to handwrite exams has led some schools to incorporate handwriting lessons in years 11 and 12.

"Handwriting is an important expression of a student's personality, which is certainly not demonstrable through keyboarding," Dr Vallance said. "It's a skill this generation should not lose."

But inevitably there will be pressure for change. The NSW Board of Studies, which supervises the curriculum in all NSW schools - public and private - also sets and supervises the year 10 school certificate exams as well as the final year HSC.

Earlier this year it gathered 80 educators from across the schooling system and from the universities to explore issues surrounding the use of keyboards and computers in exams.

There is a limited use of computers in public exams: the year 10 school certificate exam in computing skills, for instance, utilises computers and teachers "e-assess" students using a multiple choice format.


So far the board has resisted a wholesale conversion to the use of computers in exams and for e-assessment. The general manager, John Bennett, said the board was not looking for immediate change. "It is unlikely computers would be suitable for exams in all subjects, but we anticipate that in five years we will see computers used for some parts of some exams."

But Dr Bennett said several matters were far from settled: which students had access to the technologies in schools and at home; how fair it would be to make it standard practice when some students from poorer households did not have easy access to computers; and guarding against cheating.

Whether the pace of technological change and the changing expectations of students and their parents will allow such a leisurely waiting period remains to be seen.

The urgency has been underscored by the determination of the Federal Government to lavish more than a billion dollars on providing a computer for every school student in Australia - a policy causing some heartburn across the system as the distribution hits the problem of who will pay for the training, networking and upkeep of millions of computers in 9000 schools.

One US study of students in years seven and eight suggested "state paper and pencil tests may be underestimating the abilities of millions of students annually".

The 2000 study noted one principal's fears that students who wrote regularly on computers lost penmanship skills that might lead to lower scores on a new state test.

But another, earlier US study noted an odd phenomenon: that exam markers seemed to have higher expectations from word-processed essays than for handwritten ones. The hypothesis was that examiners were more inclined to expect a fully polished product when it was word-processed, and tended to forget they were reading drafts written under time pressure.

In a separate study, when handwritten exam papers were transcribed into typed scripts and the papers remarked, they received significantly lower scores than the original.

While the cautious toe-dipping of NSW Board of Studies is mainly directed at issues such as equality and practicality, there are other concerns among senior educators about the onslaught of technology-driven methods on the very process of learning and thinking among young people.

Barker's Dr Marks said: "The process of writing - whether it be by hand, or on a computer keyboard - is closely connected with the process of thinking. Research points to the fact that thoughts are generated, not merely recorded, through the process of writing. So my fear, in relation to the rise of abbreviated forms adopted by many when emailing, text messaging and instant messaging, is that the capacity for deep thinking, fostered through writing, will be eroded."

Dr Marks said it was not that writing using these technologies was inherently detrimental to deep thought. "In my view, as society becomes more and more dependent upon technology, it will become increasingly important for clear and cohesive writing to be taught in schools.

"If this is not the case we run the risk of students' writing - and thinking - reflecting their text-messaging practices and becoming little more than a series of truncated ideas. Many of today's students are quite capable of sophisticated thought, but as grab-bites become the norm in modern communication technologies, it is vital that the skills involved in producing thoughtful, developed compositions, reflective of higher order thinking, are fostered in our schools."

It is a view shared by Roslyn Arnold, honorary professor of education and social work at the University of Sydney, whose original PhD was on school children's writing development. Professor Arnold argues that it is the act of writing that actually creates, not simply reflects, thought.

While keyboarding did not necessarily have a detrimental effect on writing, just focusing on the speed of communicating could rob a student of the opportunity of deep reflective composing, she says.

Students themselves are ambivalent about the issue.

Marianthe Varipatis of Hurstville, a year 11 student at Bethany College, says she almost always completes her assignments on her home computer and hands in typed scripts.

Most students at her school do the same, she says, but all her exams have been pen-and-paper affairs.

"Your hand starts to kill after a while in exams," she says. "I'm so used to writing in exams, but it would be good if something like that [computer-based exams] came up."