by Je’anna L Clements
Did you know that there has been an ongoing lament that handwriting is a dying art– since 1935?
In South Africa today, schools still place a huge emphasis on neat handwriting – and those who struggle to achieve it often suffer as a result.
It is true that handwriting is a valuable thing to learn. Not only do you get a form of personal expression that you can be proud of, but there are all sorts of side-effect benefits. It’s good sensorimotor exercise, it’s a memory booster, it activates your neural circuitry and assists in your neurobiological development. Learning cursive can even help with dyslexia.
Let’s be clear – I’m not saying there’s no value in working on your handwriting. We make sure that writing materials are freely available, and most of the children make use of them. Many children in SDE do indeed put in the time and effort, entirely out of their own choice, and work to develop beautiful handwriting.
Is it really a problem if an individual child never fully masters handwriting?
Three cases come to mind from my own direct experience.
The first, is my own.
I spent twelve years in conventional schooling, working and working and working on my handwriting. As a result, I can write beautifully – for a few lines. Writing a birthday card, for example. I can make it look lovely.
You’d never guess, looking at that birthday card, that it’s not because I eventually mastered handwriting. I didn’t.
It’s actually, because I like to draw. When I have a small amount of writing to do, I don’t write. I draw the letters. It looks nice. And it’s very, very slow.
When I hand write at the pace required to, e.g. finish an exam in time, I scrawl. I’m as bad as your family doctor. (And, while we’re here, let’s pause to consider how that particular stereotype came to be. Many of our brightest achievers, have dreadful handwriting.)
Even if my first few lines are legible, I simply cannot sustain it. Within a paragraph, my writing deteriorates. By the end of the first page, you need to be a very gifted reader, to make it out. Let’s note: after twelve years of mainstream school torture, I still sometimes can’t read my own writing, even when I try my best!
Given that writing is my profession – thank heaven for keyboards!
The second case that comes to mind is a left-handed child of my acquaintance who was routinely kept in at break time to finish schoolwork – entirely because of slow handwriting. This child often went without lunch, and without time to play (which, for a child, can be even worse!)
The third case that comes to mind is a child of my acquaintance who suffers great shame and feels significantly ‘disabled’ due to having been publicly diagnosed with ‘dysgraphia’.
Yes – good, legible handwriting is a wonderful thing to have…
And, it’s interesting to note that, in SDE, you often find children spontaneously choosing activities that an occupational therapist might think to prescribe. Struggling-writers might be found tree-climbing today, and sewing with a fiddly little needle and thread tomorrow.
But let’s digress for a moment. Let’s consider horse-riding. Not so long ago you really couldn’t consider yourself decently educated if you couldn’t ride well, and there was significant kudos for advanced levels of horsemanship. Recent research suggests that horse-riding also has many wonderful side-effect benefits – including core muscle strength, confidence, introspection, the ability to moderate one’s ‘go/no-go’ choices. It can even have a positive impact on your ability to do arithmetic!
Why on earth don’t we insist that every child master horse-riding? Why don’t we label non-riders ‘dysequine’ and send them to special ed?
There are many, many wonderful things we can learn that give enormous holistic benefit: yoga, chess, belly-dancing, knitting…
There simply isn’t time for each and every one of us to do everything. Each of us must choose an array of activities that makes sense for us, personally.
Now that we have bicycles, cars, trains and planes, horse-riding truly is optional.
Now that we have keyboards and voice-to-text software, handwriting is just as optional, (even before the forthcoming neurolink technology that will make it possible to routinely bypass our hands and voices entirely.)
Yes, handwriting is a very, very nice-to-have.
But. Is it worth depriving a child of food and the right to play?
Is it worth whittling away a child’s confidence and sense of personal genius?
Is it worth wasting those children’s time pressuring them to become mediocre at what they will always be bad at; hijacking the time and confidence they could otherwise use to become brilliant at what they’re good at?
Is it worth me not writing this article for you, because, if I can’t type it, I can never do it in the time I can afford?
Horseriding used to be the only way to travel if you wanted to go very far.
Handwriting used to open doors, when you were judged by the look of your letters.
These days, we have other ways, to get around.
That’s why we really don’t stress if a child in SDE, ends up with handwriting like mine.