Is Hand-writing Necessary?

The Washington Post has an article about handwriting, apparently for some university entrance exams in the US 85% of students write their essays in block letters. The article claims that students who have poor writing skills demonstrate lesser ability to construct sentences – and claims that this indicates that there is a link between hand-writing and mental processes.

While the article didn’t cover the evidence in much detail I was left wondering whether there were any tests of teaching students to touch type and then assessing them on the same tests. I suspect that increasing the ability to record text in any way would increase the sentence length and the use of long words. While students who can only write slowly will have an incentive to write more briefly.

My handwriting is quite poor, I was never able to write quickly or particularly legibly and since completing university I have had little incentive to improve my writing skills. When laptops became cheap enough for me to own one (in 1998) my hand-writing skills decreased and when I started seriously using a PDA about a year ago they decreased again.

I don’t believe that my writing skills (in terms of conveying ideas and instruction to other people) have declined during this time. In fact the steadily increasing amount of writing that I have done has improved my skills a lot.

I think that children should be taught cursive writing, but it shouldn’t be regarded as especially important – or more important than touch typing! Then there’s the issue of the Dvorak keyboard. If the government wanted to improve the efficiency of the nation (which is what they claim to be doing) then maybe teaching all students touch-typing on a Dvorak keyboard and subsidising the purchase of such keyboards for everyone would be better than some of the current ideas in education. Dvorak keyboards would certainly be better than flag-poles!

News reports indicate that hand-writing skills are decreasing dramatically in Japan due to word-processors – and a significant number of students are never learning how to write any significant portion of the Japanese letters. But the sky doesn’t seem to be falling on them either.

Mark Greenaway writes about having bad hand-writing and is apparently considering some sort of remedial course. I have to wonder how good Mark’s touch-typing skills are and whether he would benefit more from improvement in that area.

15 comments to Is Hand-writing Necessary?

  • Alex

    Being able to write is like being able to perform long division – many adults don’t often find a need to do it, and it’s generally impractical, but it’s still worthwhile.

    It seems like the only reason written language is hanging around is because computers can’t communicate verbally yet. When that happens, I have little doubt humanity will become illiterate again – vast numbers of us are basically innumerate due to computing and calculators already.

    It will be interesting to see how archaic a skill touch-typing will seem in thirty-fifty years’ time. I doubt speed of data entry will save it.

  • etbe

    Alex: I agree with your point. But I have to note that most adults who are good at maths are quite poor at long division.

    I can do long division, but not quickly. Generally I’ll either estimate the result in my head (if precision doesn’t matter) or use a calculator.

    I disagree with your prediction that humans will become illiterate. Text allows presenting ideas in ways that can not be managed verbally. Maybe some people can become illiterate, but everyone who earns more than the average income will probably have some sort of job that requires reading and typing skills.

  • etbe

    Also why do you think touch-typing will be archaic? The more you type the more you want to type FAST!

  • Alex

    I think people over-estimate the speed of typing, generally. I found this article pretty interesting (though not directly relevant):

    While there is no doubt you can enter data quickly with a language keyboard, in general a fast typist isn’t going to get much more than 100 wpm. But we speak much faster than that – depending on the speaker and what they’re saying, it could be double that. And it’s probably more or less the limit at which we can communicate – virtually everyone who writes, types, whatever, is actually just recording their internal monologue or some other speech.

    Stenographers are about the only people who can keep up with human speech, and that means either short-hand writing or something specialist like a stenotype.

    So, unless there are some great advances in data entry, I don’t see why touch-typing would stick about when speech entry systems are available. They simply don’t compare in speed.

    As for numeracy/literacy – I don’t see why you’d need to read or write if a computer could talk to you. Right now, numeracy suffers much more because we need it less: the long division point is obvious, but it’s not alone. People have trouble multiplying, subtracting, let alone any kind of division. They don’t understand interest rates. Statistics has suffered hugely, because it’s about understanding numbers not performing calculation, and global business is virtually completely reliant on MS Excel.

    Literacy is only needed right now because that’s how we talk to computers. But people read many fewer books these days, especially children. If (when) computers talk and listen, reading will be much less necessary. When they can answer questions, and can speak answers – reading will be unnecessary on a day-to-day basis.

    I don’t think it’s as far off as it sounds, personally ;)

  • Ralph Aichinger

    I disagree: My handwriting is very bad (probably for simliar reasons to the ones you mention), and I often wish it was more legible and pretty.

    While you *can* use computers for everything, typing love letters or greeting cards,
    or most other very personal or event intimate texts seems very wrong to me.

    Handwriting is useless in the same way that horseback riding, drawing/painting or sailing is. Giving it up makes our daily lives less rich, less directly linked to the world around
    us, even though there are certainly replacements.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you; I can write cursive, but I don’t bother except for signatures. I can write non-cursive quite a bit faster than cursive, and I can type several times faster than either.

  • Most of my writing is done on computers, but I do often find myself needing to write things down for other people (passwords, URLs, command sequences) and for myself (quick notes). I also spent some time taking notes for a couple of committees.

    I got interested in improving my handwriting after I found myself puzzling over notes I’d written to myself. After all, if I can’t read it, what are the chances that other people can?

  • etbe

    Claire: Cursive is bad for passwords, URLs, and command sequences. Anything where there are semi-random characters will not work with cursive. Cursive only works because of the redundancy in written language, miss a few characters and the meaning will still be there. Miss a single character in a password and you can’t login. Miss a single character in a Unix command and all sorts of fun things might happen… ;)

    My PDA has removed the need for writing notes to myself. PDAs are getting cheap, you might want to consider buying one.

  • etbe

    Alex, the article you cite is interesting, but it referrs to out of band writing (control operations).

    There have been some experiments on input methods other than the keyboard, one that I saw (but which I can’t remember the name of or find a google reference for) involved showing boxes containing letters sized according to the frequency of those letters following the last entered letter. It was possible to use a stylus on a touch-screen to rapidly enter letters, while good for PDAs I doubt that it would compare with a keyboard.

    In regard to speaking being faster than typing. In the space of one hour I could probably write a fairly reasonable summary of one of my talks about SE Linux (a topic that I have presented on many occasions and know well). In a lecture my speaking speed is lower.

    For communication between two people I think that speaking will remain the most efficient method until we develop telepathy (which is probably less than 10 years away). For communication between one and many writing is the best way of conveying detailed information (such as anything that is best written down) and lectures are best suited to an overview (and only work because of the different ways that humans process data that they receive).

  • Alex

    Well, I did say the article wasn’t directly relevant :) I think it helps show that people tend to overestimate their speed using keyboards, though, and I don’t think the “pushing buttons in various orders” input method is ever going to rival those we’re naturally endowed with.

    The input method you’re thinking of is Dasher. I wouldn’t be so sure that the speed wouldn’t be keyboard equivalent assuming that it’s prosaic input; the predictive system ought to reduce input requirement sufficiently to make up for the inefficiency of input. I don’t know if anyone has trained on it long enough to see, but I could well imagine you can get very high speeds.

    I would disagree telepathy is either near or a text replacement. Telepathy might be a replacement for speech, but literacy has different use cases. Reading and writing is traditionally used to communicate with someone temporally removed, and books have been very good at that: the author can speak to you over centuries. But literacy is just one way of recording our communications, and I’m not sure it’s particularly the most natural.

  • etbe

    Kate: I’ve observed a three year old teach himself to read cursive. I don’t think that there is any doubt about the ease of reading it (if it’s written clearly).

    In Australia laptops are currently price competitive with desktop machines, and all the really cheap machines on sale are laptops (I just bought a $300 NetBook – there’s no way I could buy a new name-brand PC for that price). So it’s safe to assume that people can keep using computers for at least two hours after mains power goes out – and maybe as much as eight hours!

  • etbe

    I deleted Kate’s comment. Her web site had a loop that caused Iceweasel to crash. As a quality issue I am not going to leave links on my blog that do bad things to random readers, so if your web site loops then don’t expect any comment which references it to remain on my blog.

  • > My PDA has removed the need for writing notes to myself. PDAs are getting cheap, you might want to consider buying one.

    Are they still cheap once you eliminate the ones that don’t run a free software operating system?

  • etbe

    Ben: The iPaQs that I bought for less than $1000 about 6 years ago run Linux nicely. I’m pretty sure that you could get some 38xx or 39xx iPaQs really cheaply if you spent some time polling ebay.

    64M of RAM and 32M of flash is all you really need for a PDA. After 24M of flash is used for the OS the remaining 8M is an immense amount of text! JFFS2 also supports compression.

  • I doubt that there is a causal relationship between handwriting and thought process. On the one hand, for centuries MDs and pharmacists have become known for their poor handwriting. I notice that my handwriting has declined over the last decase due to increased use of keyboards, however, as far as I am aware, my mental faculties have not declined.