Is “The Pen” Mightier Than “The Tablet?”

I’m not a huge sports fan, but I’ve watched many people watch sports on TV before. There’s usually always somebody yelling at the screen. I’m often amazed by this: why talk to the screen? It’s not like the person’s going to hear you. Last night, I understood why people respond in this way though because I responded in a similar way — not to sports on TV, but to a Ted Talk on my computer.

Late last night, I saw a tweet and received an email from my new principal, Gerry, with this Ted Talk about “penmanship for the 21st Century.”

After a few minutes of watching it, some initial thoughts came to mind:

  1. I have no idea where I can find a pen at home. I’m not even exaggerating here. As I sat on the sofa viewing the video, I could pinpoint where I might find a marker and possibly where a crayon exists, but I honestly don’t think I have a pen. ๐Ÿ™‚
  2. The “summer of cursive” continues. This is like the debate that never ends, and this Ted Talk had me thinking about it again.

The truth is that my thoughts on this Ted Talk evolved as I watched more of it. At first I was upset. I thought about the students that struggle with fine motor skills. In a world of “the pen,” how are we preparing them for success? One thing that people tend to notice quickly about me is that my hands always shake. I have a familial tremor, and sometimes this shaking is far more noticeable than others. Writing with a pen is a huge struggle for me. I have to put a lot of pressure to hold it still, and over time, this additional pressure causes me a lot of hand and shoulder pain. The computer completely changed my school experience! I still don’t know how to type “correctly,” but with the use of my thumb, one finger on my right hand, and two to three on my left, I can type up to 80 words a minute. Connect my computer to a projector, and now I can keep up with the thoughts that the students share with me and want recorded for others to see. A small device, but a big bonus!

That being said, I think that students need to see the modelling of cursive writing and/or printing. While writing may be a struggle for me, 14 years in the classroom have helped me improve, and my printing and cursive writing are neat even if I am a bit slower. I probably write as many notes on chart paper as I do on a computer because there is value to having certain items available for students to easily access later โ€ฆ even when the computer is in use. And while typing works well for me, it doesn’t work for everyone. In this Ted Talk, Jake talks about the creative process that happens as you write. I’ve heard about this before, and the value in cursive writing for remembering as well as developing ideas. The truth is, I’ve never experienced this though. When I type things, I remember them. I can take a piece of paper and try valiantly to compose a blog post, generate ideas, or write a letter, but it’s not until I get on a computer and start typing, that my ideas start flowing. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Nothing would surprise me. ๐Ÿ™‚ Maybe it’s because I often talk as I write: in fact, I find my mouth moving now as I compose this blog post. It could be the connection between hearing the ideas aloud and viewing them on the screen that helps with writing and recalling. Maybe it’s that everybody’s different, and one way — be it cursive writing or typing — doesn’t work for all. That’s why we need to use and model many options, and give students the opportunity to find out what works for them.

I also wonder, if as educators, we need to re-examine the connection between cursive writing and visual arts. Towards the end of the Ted Talk, I saw what Jake created — not just as a writer, but as an artist — and I really “saw” the elements of design. I started to think about visual arts and poetry, and what a wonderful link we could make between Language and The Arts by exploring the stroke of a pen. In many ways, I think that I have such an emotional response to “cursive writing” because all that I think about are the worksheets and the writing booklets, where students are not “writing” but merely “copying.” They start to judge their work not by the quality of their ideas, but by the neatness of their penmanship, which is only loosely connected to curriculum expectations. Copying is not creating, and just like I’m not an advocate of typing programs, I’m not an advocate of printing or writing ones either.

You see, in my opinion, a pen, just like a computer, is merely a tool. The tool is not what produces change: it’s how we use the tool that matters. And just like with tablets, laptops, and Smart Phones, we need to help our students make good choices about when and how to select different tool options. I may never write a letter, essay, or story by hand (this option doesn’t work for me), but I do print notes to students, I do write feedback with a pen (when I can find one ๐Ÿ™‚ ), and I do write To Do Lists by hand (often with a marker ๐Ÿ™‚ ) — for there’s something about that personal connection and/or the act of “crossing things off” that makes a difference. So as a teacher, just as I “think aloud” as I generate ideas for writing, maybe I also need to “think aloud” as I select my best tool for the task. (I think that I also need students to understand that it’s okay that everybody has a different “best tool.”) Hopefully this will help the students see the value in all tools — not as items, but as creation opportunities! What do you think? What role does “the pen” play in your classroom? Let the #summerofcursive — or maybe just the #summerofthepen — live on just a little bit longer! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aviva

8 thoughts on “Is “The Pen” Mightier Than “The Tablet?”

  1. I’ve never been a fan of using one thing exclusively over another. It does limit the possibilities. For all my personal geekyness, I always have access to a writing utensil and paper where I go. I’m currently at a conference and I had my tablet with me for taking notes. Sitting theatre style, it’s tough to balance and use to keep up with notes. I love my Evernote but it just didn’t work for me so it was back to pen and paper which worked quite nicely. It’s one of the reasons that we went with round table seating at the ECOO Conference, BTW.

    The old adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like nails” really applies with notetaking. I think you do a disservice to students if you don’t give them all of the options and then, there comes a time, when they make a choice which works best for them.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! I totally agree with you here, and I think that your example is the perfect one for why choice matters. In addition to giving all of these choices, I think that we need to model the use of all of them as well. Just because we, as teachers, prefer certain ones to others given different situations, doesn’t mean that our students will as well. And with younger students especially, they’re often heavily influenced by what we model, so giving “real choices” becomes especially important (i.e., if we say print, write, or use a computer, but only ever model the use of a computer, it’s questionable if printing or writing are “real choices”).

      This is a topic that I think will continue to be discussed for many years to come! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Aviva

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, Aviva! I recently tried taking notes on a tablet at a presentation and realized the futility of quickly synthesizing what I was listening to into something coherent. So cursive is the best tool for me in a listening situation. I scan written notes into Evernote. Since learning the skill decades ago signing my signature is about the only other use. Doug is right on in that we ought to provide students different writing tools and allow them to make the choice that meets their needs.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe! Like you and Doug, I think that choice is key. It’s important for students to realize that these choices may also change given different circumstances as well. And in a world where technology allows us to quickly photograph and share almost anything in mere seconds, even our cursive notes can be easily “saved” on a tablet for review later. As mentioned in the Ted Talk, “technology” and “the pen” do not need to be at extreme sides of the spectrum — they can exist together!

      Aviva

  3. Handwriting matters โ€” but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    More recently, it has also been documented that cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or language of students who have dyslexia/dysgraphia.
    This is what I’d expect from my own experience, by the way. As a handwriting teacher and remediator, I see numerous children, teens, and adults โ€” dyslexic and otherwise โ€” for whom cursive poses even more difficulties than print-writing. (Contrary to myth, reversals in cursive are common โ€” a frequent cursive reversal in my caseload, among dyslexics and others, is โ€œJ/f.โ€)
    โ€” According to comparative studies of handwriting speed and legibility in different forms of writing, the fastest, clearest handwriters avoid cursive โ€” although they are not absolute print-writers either. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all: joining only the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive still matters โ€” but reading cursive is much easier and quicker to master than writing the same way too.

    Reading cursive, simply reading it, can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes โ€” even to five- or six-year-olds (including those with dyslexia) once they read ordinary print.

    There’s even a free iPad app teaching how: called โ€œRead Cursiveโ€ โ€” appstore.com/readcursive
    Given the importance of reading cursive, why not teach this vital skill quickly โ€” for free โ€” instead of leaving it to depend upon the difficult and time-consuming process of learning to write in cursive (which will cost millions to mandate)?

    We donโ€™t require our children to learn to make their own pencils (or build their own printing presses) before we teach them how to read and write. Why require them to write cursive before we teach them how to read it? Why not simply teach children to read cursive โ€” along with teaching other vital skills, such as a form of handwriting that is actually typical of effective handwriters?
    Just as each and every child deserves to be able to read all kinds of everyday handwriting (including cursive), each and every one of our children โ€” dyslexic or not โ€” deserves to learn the most effective and powerful strategies for high-speed high-legibility handwriting performance.
    Teaching material for practical handwriting abounds โ€” especially in the UK and Europe, where such handwriting is taught at least as often as the accident-prone cursive which is venerated by too many North American educators. Some examples, in several cases with student work also shown: http://www.BFHhandwriting.com, http://www.handwritingsuccess.com, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/09/08/opinion/OPED-WRITING.1.pdf, http://www.briem.net, http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com, http://www.italic-handwriting.org, http://www.studioarts.net/calligraphy/italic/hwlesson.html, http://www.freehandwriting.net/educational.html )

    Even in the USA and Canada, educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers across North America were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37% wrote in cursive; another 8% printed. The majority โ€” 55% โ€” wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
    (If you would like to take part in another, ongoing poll of handwriting forms โ€” not hosted by a publisher, and not restricted to teachers โ€” visit http://www.poll.fm/4zac4 for the One-Question Handwriting Survey, created by this author. As with the Zaner-Bloser teacher survey, so far the results show very few purely cursive handwriters โ€” and even fewer purely printed writers. Most handwriting in the real world โ€” 75% of the response totals, so far โ€” consists of print-like letters with occasional joins.)
    When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why glorify it?

    Believe it or not, some of the adults who themselves write in an occasionally joined but otherwise print-like handwriting tell me that they are teachers who still insist that their students must write in cursive, and/or who still teach their students that all adults habitually and normally write in cursive and always will. (Given the facts on our handwriting today, this is a little like teaching kids that our current president is Richard Nixon.)

    What, I wonder, are the educational and psychological effects of teaching, or trying to teach, something that the students can probably see for themselves is no longer a fact?
    Cursive’s cheerleaders (with whom Iโ€™ve had some stormy debates) sometimes allege that cursive has benefits which justify absolutely anything said or done to promote that form of handwriting. The cheerleaders for cursive repeatedly state (sometimes in sworn testimony before school boards and state legislatures) that cursive cures dyslexia or prevents it, that it makes you pleasant and graceful and intelligent, that it adds brain cells, that it instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or that it confers numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of the human race. Some claim research support โ€” citing studies that invariably prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident as soon as others examined the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no source (and no source is provided on request)

    or, almost as often,

    /2/ when sources are cited and can be checked (by finding and reading the cited document), the sources provided turn out to include and/or to reference materials which are misquoted or incorrectly represented by the person(s) offering these as support for cursive,

    or, even more often,

    /3/ the claimant correctly quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    Cursive devotees’ eagerness to misrepresent research has substantial consequences, as the misrepresentations are commonly made โ€” under oath โ€” in testimony before school districts, state legislatures, and other bodies voting on educational measures. The proposals for cursive are, without exception so far, introduced by legislators or other spokespersons whose misrepresentations (in their own testimony) are later revealed โ€” although investigative reporting of the questionable testimony does not always prevent the bill from passing into law, even when the discoveries include signs of undue influence on the legislators promoting the cursive bill? (Documentation on request: I am willing to be interviewed by anyone who is interested in bringing this serious issue inescapably before the publicโ€™s eyes and ears.)
    By now, youโ€™re probably wondering: โ€œWhat about cursive and signatures? Will we still have legally valid signatures if we stop signing our names in cursive?โ€ Brace yourself: in state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
    Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.

    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual โ€” just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That is why any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    SOURCES:

    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. โ€œA Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.โ€
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. โ€œThe Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.โ€ JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    /3/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. โ€œDevelopment of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.โ€
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Handwriting research on cursive’s lack of observable benefit for students with dyslexia/dysgraphia:

    “Does cursive handwriting have an impact on the reading and spelling performance of children with dyslexic dysgraphia: A quasi-experimental study.” Authors: Lorene Ann Nalpon & Noel Kok Hwee Chia โ€” URL: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/234451547_Does_cursive_handwriting_have_an_impact_on_the_reading_and_spelling_performance_of_children_with_dyslexic_dysgraphia_A_quasi-experimental_study
    and
    http://dyslexia.yale.edu/EDU_keyboarding.html

    ๏ปฟ
    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at http://www.hw21summit.com/media/zb/hw21/files/H2937N_post_event_stats.pdf

    ๏ปฟ
    Ongoing handwriting poll: http://poll.fm/4zac4

    The research most often misrepresented by devotees of cursive (โ€œNeural Correlates of Handwriting” by Dr. Karin Harman-James at Indiana University):
    https://www.hw21summit.com/research-harman-james

    ๏ปฟ
    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:

    A BRIEF HISTORY OF CURSIVE โ€”

    TIPS TO FIX HANDWRITING โ€”

    HANDWRITING AND MOTOR MEMORY
    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) โ€”

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, the World Handwriting Contest
    CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    handwritingrepair@gmail.com

    • Thank you so much, Kate, for such a comprehensive comment and sharing all of this research. I haven’t read these links before, and I will definitely be exploring them. You are giving me a lot to think about!

      Aviva

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