Thursday, August 11, 2011

Literacy through Mouse or Quill?

  A few weeks ago there was a tiny flutter in the media as a "research" project was published that purported to show that children gain better written literacy when they learn to write with a pen, having to form the letters themselves, than when they type on a computer. The one little trouble with this piece of research was that it was backed by a company that makes pens. OK, calm down pen guys. Even those of us who do most of our composing on a keyboard still have plenty of use for pens. And yes, handwriting can be a very satisfying art. Platoons of calligraphers cannot be wrong.
   It is kind of intriguing to note that pens of the very sort I was obliged to write with in my school days are being sold today as calligraphy pens, not fountain pens as they were called in my youth. I think that name came from the way ink would cascade in fountains over your fingers, or your books and your lunch when they leaked in your bag. Very satisfying to write with, but I wonder if they have fixed that little anomaly.

   Way back in the 1980s, when typing text was just about all you could do on a computer, school teachers were going through a bit of a crisis in the teaching of literacy. They claimed that children got all traumatised if their written work was corrected, so they didn't. There is a generation out there that can barely spell or punctuate. It seemed impossible to convince most teachers to let the kids use these new computer thingies to type their compositions, because they could correct them and end up with clean copy. One teacher of my acquaintance who did use a computer this way claimed that the kids got huge satisfaction out of it, but in those olden days the one class computer had to be severely rationed among the class.
   Now that computers can do practically anything and kids wander round with thumb drives on tapes around their necks and every classroom has a smart board, the one thing they do not seem to do is use them for straightforward compositional writing. My granddaughter is a terrible speller, and she was amazed to discover that she could produce a perfect assignment by correcting the spelling on the screen. They can google, they can email, they can rip MP3s, they can edit photos, they can even produce beautifully formatted text work in amazing fonts with clip art, but they don't use the technology simply to help them spell or punctuate.
   In the middle ages they recognised that there was a difference between reading and writing literacy. There were people who could read but not write, like Charlemagne and many women. There were scribes who could painstakingly copy out letters and words without much comprehension. That is why they made so many mistakes.
   Today we demand high levels of competency at both aspects of literacy, so it would make sense to make use of all the tools at our disposal: pens for learning letter forms and wiring our brains for understanding them; computers for developing fluency, correcting mistakes and encouraging original composition. It couldn't possibly be the case that both sides of the debate could be right, could it? 


H. Doug Matsuoka said...

Yes, absolutely! Another take on this is suggested by Daniel Chandler (Aberystwyth University). His paper, “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand,” describes the differences between writing by hand and writing by keyboard. On one extreme of the continuum, “Planners” who write by keyboard know what it is they want to write and just need to set it down. Handwriting “Discoverers” write by hand to find out what it is they are thinking.

I was an early adopter of writing by keyboard in the early 80’s and hadn’t written by pen until 6 years ago when I took up the pen again. In the beginning, I couldn’t write a coherent paragraph by hand. It was as though my and brain weren’t connected. But I think Chandler is on to something. I use the pen to “write through” problems, to think something through by writing about it. And I take my pen out for a write every morning without knowing where it’s going and it usually takes me somewhere interesting.

To continue slightly OT, I think we are asking the wrong question when we ask, what should kids learn to make them better cogs in the modern machinery of society? Yes, being able to type quickly with your thumbs is an important skill at the moment. But maybe we should be asking, what should kids learn to make life worth living? For themselves, for their community, and even for humanity. If we ask this question, we might find a greater importance in learning about art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, and all those other things so intimately human.

Link to Chandler's "The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand"

Dianne said...

Yay Doug! I entirely agree on that last paragraph. Perhaps they would be less inclined to burn cars and break windows if they had something enthralling to engage their minds.

Anonymous said...

Aw, this was a really nice post. In idea I would like to put in writing like this additionally - taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means seem to get something done.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I can type out Anglo-Saxon all day and doesn't seem to sink in. But if I write it out by hand, I seem to retain the words better.

But the key either medium is probably is whether I'm copying or actively writing it.

Regardless, writing it out by hand seems to help me.

medievalpaint said...

I was working with someone once, who said that it was possible to tell if someone had produced a manuscript or a typescript of their written work. Something to do with the speed of writing that typing gives over writing.

I probably use a quill more often than I use a pen for writing, but use a keyboard 90+% of the time.

My writing is neater with a quill/fountain than a ballpoint.