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Text and writing

September 25th, 2009

Tigtog at LP points to a study showing that involvement with Facebook, MSN and so on has increased the textual skills of young people, including not just “good writing” but the ability to adapt style to an imagined readership that varies in different context. I was banging on about this last millennium.

Tigtog finishes with a really last-millennium question? “Does anybody here still do lots of handwriting?”.

For those who don’t recall, “handwriting” was a method of producing text, popular in the second millennium, in which, rather than using a keyboard or pointer to produce letters, you used an ink-dispenser to draw each letter in succession. There was a version of this called “cursive” or “script” in which, rather than drawing the letters separately, they were all run together. This was much faster to produce, but, as I recall, almost impossible to read unless done by a real expert. I can still do a very inexpert version of the letter-by-letter method, which was called “printing” (nothing to do with real printing, but the result, done well, looked a bit like printed text).

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  1. Rationalist
    September 25th, 2009 at 22:19 | #1

    But do such skills help the people in question get jobs (you know, real jobs, unlike green jobs for example :P ).

    I still handwrite. It is useful, I can do it well but it is only employed when needed since typing is much faster however typing is not always more convenient.

    Just like having good spatial awareness skills. If you are on site and you need something specific, it is essential to have the spatial skills to sketch something on a scrap of paper. Detailed computer generated drawings are all well and good but for on site efficiency, the ability to function in the old fashion way is essential :) .

  2. September 26th, 2009 at 00:01 | #2

    I actually miss the tactile aspects of writing the old fashioned way, but since I’ve become so severely disabled all I can do is peck at a keyboard I’m really glad for the technology…

  3. September 26th, 2009 at 00:38 | #3

    I think handwriting is still used extensively in universities for testing and examination purposes.

  4. Martin
    September 26th, 2009 at 02:37 | #4

    Handwriting input methods? especially for Chinese characters.

  5. September 26th, 2009 at 07:34 | #5

    I know people who still insist on downloading and printing student assignments so they can insert cramped illegible comments in the margins. Their reason is the highly rational “I hate marking online” (these are people who manage to write books or a PhD thesis online).

    When I compare them to the old pensioners who refuse to use ATMs they get quite offended :) .

  6. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 26th, 2009 at 08:57 | #6

    When I was in high school my younger brother and I decided to take a TAFE course on the side which taught touch typing (on those old clunky typewriters). I had to get sign off from the school principal. He was quite opposed but in the end he gave permission. I’m so glad I learnt to touch type as it has been fantastically useful.

    Blogging has been great for my spelling and grammar which has always been a weak point.

    Handwriting is for post it notes and shopping lists.

  7. David
    September 26th, 2009 at 11:53 | #7

    I hardly hand-write at all, and as a result I’ve found that when I do it has become much more untidy. Also, my hand gets tired so quickly that I doubt I could attend a lecture and take notes, or write more than half a page without medical intervention.

  8. robert
    September 26th, 2009 at 12:01 | #8

    I am old enough to recall the days (schools during the 1970s) where it was considered freakish for males to learn typing at all (let alone to touch-type, as I learned to do). The idea was that typing was considered a girly thing. But curiously enough, a lot of girls ostentatiously refused to learn typing as well, on the specious grounds that if they acquired typing skills they would be “trapped” in jobs as secretaries after leaving school.

    In 2009 I couldn’t function for a single day without the ability to touch-type.

  9. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 26th, 2009 at 13:05 | #9

    When my brother and I did the touch typing course we were the only males in the class. The other students and the teacher were a bit bemused about what we were doing there.

  10. Alice
    September 26th, 2009 at 13:24 | #10

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Thats why my spellling is so “schocking”….the speed is no problem but I taught myself to type and I realise I just use two fingers…

  11. Alice
    September 26th, 2009 at 13:31 | #11

    @Ken Lovell
    Ken , writing online is fine but I have staunchly resisted any moves to mark online…Its boring, its tedious, its horrible. You can tick, cross and write comments in margins much faster than you can write online and insert…
    As well as that….do you realise where most volume subject markers mark? On the lounge, close to the fridge, comfortably…not sitting in an upright chair staring at the silly screen for hours and hours (days, weeks even) on end. If they bring online marking in I will quit instantly (and it takes longer).

  12. Alice
    September 26th, 2009 at 13:39 | #12

    I was taught modified cursive. It is sloped but I like the previous method used by grandmothers and Aunts where they looped the tail ends of gs and the top ends of hs and ds and rs and kept going. I can still read this better than I can read current students handwritings. One lecturer this week asked me if I could read an exam (one of her students). She couldnt, I couldnt and neither could three others. My solution was to get the student back in under supervision to retype or rewrite it before they get any damn marks.

  13. Paul Foord
    September 26th, 2009 at 16:20 | #13

    Nonetheless, expensive pens are still given to some people to celebrate significant birthdays and life transitions. I recently received a nice shoulder bag for one such. I was told the alternative under consideration was a pen/pen set. I actually have a fancy Cross biro/fountain pen set – its only use has been for short personal notes. Some people do collect such things. My cursive is legible, with my ‘printing’ the letters run into each other. My typing is much more legible. I wonder if SMS at times replaces the short notes we sometimes left for others (in addition to its many other uses).

  14. September 26th, 2009 at 16:34 | #14

    Heh Alice you’d be out of a job at my place already then if you had been in the business faculty. I quite like the idea that students can read my feedback, which was always in doubt with my hand-written scrawl. Track changes lets me write extended comments about the unit content and a few of them actually learn something. You’re correct though that it takes more time.

  15. Donald Oats
    September 26th, 2009 at 16:39 | #15

    Interesting how second millenium skills have atrophied to this extent. Reminds me of our wonder at learning that the holes in the school desks were for inkpots/inkwells, and that students somehow wrote cursive using the nib pen (a pencil like stick of wood with a metal nib at the end.) without smudging or spilling a drop – both crimes punishable by cane or the strop.

    I’ve actually written passable cursive using such pen and ink contraptions, and while it is a lot of fun to do as a laugh, no lefthanded kid would have found it funny – imagine holding the left hand away from the writing area so as not to smudge it. In any case, lefthanders were encouraged by cane to move to righthanded writing. The fountain pen was a huge leap forward in technology, and the biro was a godsend.

    Goodness knows how the generations before the nib pen got on, using a quill (as in the quill of a feather, quite literally) to write cursive.

    Personally I have a fond regard for cursive and I write in a notebook most days of the week, rather than use a computer, largely because of chronic pain from the upper back and neck. Writing at a desk allows much more opportunity to change posture regularly, whereas computer typing is more restrictive. In addition, when taking notes and wanting to do quick diagrams as part of the note taking, I find paper still beats tablet and stylus. I’m good for up to about 10 cursive pages in a day, but not on a daily basis.

    To show my prowess at cursive, I’ve written this post in it :-)

  16. Donald Oats
    September 26th, 2009 at 16:59 | #16

    One place where the disappearance of cursive has been a great step forward is with the doctor writing a script instead of using a computer to print it. Who knows how many people got the wrong medicine in the days of doctor’s cursive.

    Back to the big match.

  17. charles
    September 26th, 2009 at 20:04 | #17

    Ask any student having to write a university exam, they will know all about it. The rest of the world has moved on but not our learned institutions.

  18. nanks
    September 26th, 2009 at 20:42 | #18

    I can’t see why people have been opposed to texting and other variations on English (just referencing English coz that is the language of this blog). However the link in the OP doesn’t actually lead to any evidence supporting the proposed value of texting etc. The Stanford study looks interesting but – going by their website – is not yet at the point of generating solid conclusions. The idea that people are better at ‘code switching’ their written language makes sense, given that people now write more and in more varied contexts. But I didn’t come across any deep study showing that.

  19. Alice
    September 27th, 2009 at 11:08 | #19

    @Ken Lovell
    Thats OK Ken, I dont mind being out a job in your faculty…we test ran it in ours and markers, without exception, hated it. Did you ask them ken? 1400 students so everyone has huge marking loads and of course no extra pay when it takes longer to mark on line by the time you call up the paper, type, insert, submit, call up the next paper (and whos computers is your school using Ken? and whos internet connection ? and who pays for that? Or do you get the tutors in and chain them to trhe screen? (save on pick up and dleivery costs, tolld, parking and petrol? Who pays for that Ken?…Im just about ready to quit anyway after they increased the class sizes and no extra pay…to hell with economies made by schools out of lecturers and markers. There is no prestige in this occupation any more…have you thought about getting the markers straight out of McDonalds yet and training them Ken??
    That would save even more.

  20. Alice
    September 27th, 2009 at 19:00 | #20

    @Ken Lovell
    Oh and Ken…its nice you want to keep track of your excellent feedback to students…and the construction of a lovely system to do so…but can I ask how many you mark, compared to your tutors? In my experience, a lot of lecturers mark a “token” amount (where they can afford the leisure of giving really good feedback, the e methodology of which they devised and get some sort or teaching and learning kudos for), with these nice time consuming student friendly systems..

    Good one.

    Its just a shame the morlocks are having to carry the majority load of such systems at more time and without a dollar more in pay isnt it?.

  21. Jill Rush
    September 27th, 2009 at 22:51 | #21

    I do a reasonable amount of handwriting as I find it a very portable and user friendly approach to every day life. I use cursive and loathe linkscript for its ugliness and inefficiency.

  22. September 28th, 2009 at 01:01 | #22

    I do a reasonable amount of reading from a computer screen, but I find that I am able to engage more with the text more when written on paper – preferably in typing, not handwriting.

  23. Colin
    September 28th, 2009 at 11:25 | #23

    I’ve shifted on my own to marking papers via track-changes. (I do all my own marking!) It’s better for students because they get papers back faster (no carrying papers around to hand back) and they can read my comments. I comment more ’cause I don’t have to worry about space in the margin. I can even paste in references. It’s helped me shift toward a more formative, helpful style of commenting — I can look back at the end and say OK, what will this student think as s/he reads over my comments, and adjust my message.

    You do need a good online submission system, though. If you have one available to you, it’s a lovely change from having to collect and keep track of pieces of paper.

  24. Alice
    September 28th, 2009 at 13:05 | #24

    Colin, this would be fine if there is not too many students enrolled in the subject. It would also be fine if, where there are large volumes of students and large volumme marking loads, for some of the efficiencies gained by universities to be paid accordingly to markers who are using their own private technologies and taking extra time to do the job as Ken above notes. But mostly what I find is, there are iniatives to keep the entirety of electronic marking cost savings within unis to themselves at the expense of markers. Thats what I object to. Inadequate pay for longer, more arduous marking that involves the use of privately owned technologies for which the uni does not pay anything. Marking by hand does not require computers or interent connections or electricity that is not paid for by the university.

  25. September 28th, 2009 at 14:17 | #25

    @Ken Lovell

    Although I am younger than that, I refuse to use ATMs for what seem to me to be sound reasons:-

    - I strongly suspect that Banks only test their information systems on criteria that are material for them, and not to levels that would be adequate for customers (e.g., when a certain bank twice lost my money, they claimed it wasn’t lost, just misplaced – which means that my problem accessing funds wasn’t a priority for them).

    - As I am not the only person in Victoria with my first name, last name, middle initial and date of birth (and a few other near misses) I have occasionally been caught by faulty data matching which has been hard to sort out, so I prefer to avoid a method that has less of a physical paper trail.

    As for handwriting, I have a physical problem that makes it awkward (I even cannot sign some forms, if the space provided is at the bottom right). I needed special physical training to help with it at school, and I could never – physically – write at speeds sufficient to do proper essays in the time provided and still focus on the topic. I could never do justice to them, and at the time I didn’t acquire the thinking skills essay writing was supposed to provide. This steered me away from those subjects.

    Incidentally, the Skinner’s Company that was involved with my Public School (Tonbridge) awarded pens as leaving prizes, a Gilt Pen (gold), Parcel Gilt Pen (silver and gold), and a Silver Pen. I still managed to get the Parcel Gilt Pen.

  26. Crispin Bennett
    September 28th, 2009 at 14:39 | #26

    So, out of interest, does that mean that the use of Microsoft Word (whose ‘track changes’ I guess is the facility you’re referring to) is mandatory for your courses?

  27. Jim Birch
    September 30th, 2009 at 12:46 | #27

    Umberto Ecco recently wrote a short article bemoaning the loss of handwriting arguing that the problem actually started with the ballpoint pen. It’s no longer available at the Guardian but eproduced at


    It’s a fairly writerly piece but his point about hand-eye coordination is backed up by recent advances in brain science, where the archaic practice of repetitive tracing of copperplate letters has been revived in the successful for treatment of learning difficulties and brain injury.

    In Switzerland, and maybe other European countries, handwritten job applications were fairly recently preferred by employers, to get an intuition of the personal qualities of the applicant. I’m not sure if this still applies. It would at least reduce CV spamming.

    Typing is faster and computable – and of course for many people the only real chance at level one readability – but I’m fond of my own handwriting, particularly the letters f, q and t. I can remember “lifting” some of my handwritten letters from particular people.

  28. Alice
    September 30th, 2009 at 13:09 | #28

    @Jim Birch
    I lifted mine too Jim – from older people. I liked their writing…my father was an artist and could write all those lovely scripts and his own handwriting was so elegant. It is starting to be a lost art now.

  29. msH
    October 4th, 2009 at 22:42 | #29

    I still handwrite quite a lot, but mostly things where I am the main or the only intended audience. One advantage is the high degree of privacy. Portability is another. I also often illustrate my ideas and arrange them freely on the page in such a way that I can find or express conceptual relationships that aren’t yet at the point where I can explain them in words. I prefer to handwrite annotations to difficult documents, and to handwrite first drafts or notes of anything that’s conceptually difficult or new to me. Touchtyping is physically faster, but that doesn’t matter in the kind of situation where writing time is trivial compared to thinking time. I also handwrite postcards whenever I go abroad.

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