The Medium For The Message: Is Handwriting Out Of Date?

When was the last time you used a pen or pencil? To prepare the shopping list for the supermarket, compile a list of your appointments for the day, add a few comments to a friend’s birthday card? More likely, it was none of these. The Guardian journalist, Rin Hamburgh, has admitted that even for such basic tasks, he tends to revert to his “iPhone notepad function”. In an article titled “ The lost art of handwriting”, he declared that “too much texting and computer typing has caused many of us to neglect our penmanship”.

On the rare occasions Hamburgh abandons his keyboard for the “old-fashioned method”, the result is “at best sloppy and more often than not illegible”. He quoted the results of research conducted by the online stationary company, Docmail – namely that  “a third of us can’t even read our own handwriting, let alone anyone else’s”. Also cited by Yahoo! and the “Mail Online”, it concluded that, due to technology, writing down reminders or putting them on a calendar has become “redundant for most of us”. The statistics indicated that  “the average time since a typical adult last scribbled was 41 days”. More than 50% of those questioned were “ashamed of their handwriting”, 40% “rely on predictive text”, especially for their spelling, and 25% regularly use abbreviations such as LOL (Laughing out loud), U (You) and FYI (For your information). One-sixth don’t even think that handwriting should be taught in schools.

Andrew Brown (also of the Guardian) considers that “handwriting as a mode of communication with other people is almost dead”, which (presumably) is why “Swedish schools are considering whether to stop teaching it altogether”. His colleague Harriet Green, however, still “loves sending and receiving handwritten letters and thank-you cards” and expressed some concern (May 10th) that “her brain has seemed to stop connecting to her pen”.

If modern technology is really “destroying the art of handwriting”, does it matter and can anything be done to reverse this trend? David H. Baker, Executive Director of WIMA (Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association) in the USA, is convinced that “nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word”. For him, “Fonts lack a personal touch”. He points out that, “throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace,  freed slaves, created movements and declared independence. WIMA sponsors America’s “National Handwriting Day” every January 23rd.

Graeme Paton, the “Daily Telegraph’s” Education Editor, however, took a somewhat less sentimental approach in an article on 15th May. A study commissioned by the stationary company BIC (he observed) has indicated that “students may be missing out on vital marks in GCSEs and A-Levels because of a significant deterioration in handwriting skills”. The figures have shown that “almost 64% of teachers admit to marking down students’ work” due to “illegible writing”, a third of them had also seen “emoticons” (facial expressions normally inserted into mobile phone text messages) in exam answers or coursework and 82% believe that students are losing traditional skills such as handwriting and mental arithmetic “due to over-reliance on technology.

The hand-writing expert, Margaret White, told Paton that “Lack of practice – when you aren’t using a pen and paper to take notes on a regular basis – means it’s easy to slip into bad writing habits, such as gripping the pen too tightly or applying too much pressure on the paper”. It’s thus “unsurprising that nearly half of students tell us they suffer from aching hands or pins and needles after lengthy exams; 15% even mention getting blisters”. A recent ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) “Examiners’ Report” has emphasised that “good clear handwriting” is essential in answers if candidates want to be awarded “professional grades”. A previous Guardian article by Paton featured a”YouGov” survey suggesting that “10% of young people had never written a letter, rising to 13% among boys”.

In the opinion of Amanda Mcleod – a committee member of the NHA (National Handwriting Association), lecturer in touch-typing and the NHA’s Media Liaison Officer – pupils need both handwriting skills and computer technology: “All exams up to university level have to be handwritten: Until this changes, we can’t give up handwriting”. Another reason is that students “learn more thoroughly and deeply when they are handwriting rather than typing”. The skill “isn’t just about forming letters: You need to have good core muscles, hip and shoulder stability, upper & lower arm, wrist and index finger strength and be able to sit up straight” – factors she feels many young people lack these days due to their “less active life style”. She noted with evident approval that the Government “has put handwriting back into the National Curriculum” – resulting in the NHA’s guidance being sought more frequently by schools realizing that (as from September 2013) they have had to teach handwriting again.

Amanda Mcleod is also well aware of the notoriously bad handwriting associated with doctors and surgeons. Clearly, there can be serious consequences if the diagnosis attached to the end of a patient’s hospital bed is illegible. According to the “Daily Mail” columnist, Beezy Marsh, the General Medical Council (GMC) “will no longer tolerate prescriptions which are impossible to read”. This will ensure that “pharmacists and practitioners administering medication will be able to do so safely and effectively”. It had been discovered that 30% of doctors investigated didn’t use capital letters and 19% “didn’t use the approved names for many drugs, including painkillers, antibiotics and pills for blood pressure”. Furthermore (as an example of the problem), that 60% of doctors’ signature on 560 prescriptions issued at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, Scotland, had proved to be illegible.

Filed under: Society | Posted on June 17th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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