Handwriting is still an important skill

January 22, 2015

Published in the National Post.

Many progressive educators believe that handwriting is obsolete in the 21st century. It isn’t hard to see how they came to this conclusion. Computers are everywhere and an increasing number of schools expect students, even those in grade 1, to do their work on handheld tablets. So why bother teaching students how to handwrite?

Unfortunately, much of the debate about handwriting tends to dwell on minor issues. For example, supporters and opponents of handwriting argue about how often students will find themselves in situations where computers are not available. They squabble over whether handwritten signatures on legal documents will eventually be replaced by electronic signatures. Finally, they differ on the need for students to read historical documents in their original, handwritten, form.

However, as important as these questions seem, they miss the bigger picture. The more important issue is whether learning how to handwrite helps students to master important skills such as reading, and whether writing words on paper is better for learning than typing them on tablet. If the answer to these questions is yes, then it makes sense to keep paper and pencils in the classroom.

Fortunately, research gives us a clear answer. Dr. Hetty Roessingh is a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and an expert in the field of language and literacy. She has found that making students print letters by hand, particularly before the end of the second grade, plays an important role in their reading development.

According to Roessingh, printing creates memory traces in the brain that assist with the recognition of letter shapes. Typing on a keyboard does not have the same impact. In other words, handwriting helps students move information from their short-term memories into their long-term memories, while typing does not.

When students practice printing by hand, they learn how to read and write more quickly and more accurately. Contrary to popular myth, repetition is not a bad thing. Only by committing foundational skills to long-term memory can students move on to more advanced tasks. Students who get insufficient practice in printing letters by hand invariably develop weaker writing skills than students who regularly practice the skill.

In the upper elementary grades, it is still important for students to learn cursive writing. Roessingh notes that connecting letters together in a script makes it possible for students to write more quickly and this contributes to the quality of the writing outcomes. “When writing by hand becomes both legible and fluent, reflecting a sense of automaticity, the writer is able to generate more text. Precious, scarce working memory spaces becomes available to select better vocabulary and get it into the page in interesting, organized ways,” explains Roessingh.

The importance of automaticity is strongly supported by cognitive psychologists. As Drs. Jeroen van Merriёnboer and John Sweller note in the June 2005 edition of Educational Psychology Review, our working memory has a very limited storage capacity. In order to make proper use of it, we need to transfer information to our long-term memory. We then organize this information into various “cognitive schemata” that help us solve more complex problems. Thus, students who handwrite fluently can engage with more challenging text than students who still struggle with basic vocabulary because more information has been transferred to their long-term memories.

Learning does not come automatically. For most students, it is genuinely hard work as our brains are not naturally wired for the foundational skills of reading and writing. To achieve mastery, these skills need to be explicitly taught, regularly practiced, and constantly reinforced. Learning how to write individual letters and words by hand, and doing so fluently, is essential to entrench reading as an automatic skill.

In contrast, primary grade students who do their assignments on keyboards and tablets miss out on this valuable skill development. Instead of training their brains to memorize particular letters each time they painstakingly print a word, they simply press a button to get the letter they want. Often the spell-checker feature supplies the correct spellings so students never learn how to independently spell more challenging words.

Far from being obsolete, handwriting remains an important skill in the 21st century and beyond. Paper and pencil may not be as flashy as the latest handheld tablet, but it will help students learn a lot more. Sometimes the simple things really do work best.

No-zero policies just as misguided as ever

January 14, 2015

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s, NL)

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea, especially in education. The no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is a prime example.

It’s been almost four years since the former Eastern School District officially implemented a no-zero policy. Teachers were no longer permitted to give zeros when work never came in, deduct marks for late assignments, or penalize students caught cheating on tests or assignments.

Despite widespread criticism from parents and teachers, school district administrators held firm to this bad idea. The neighbouring Western School District quickly followed with its own no-zero policy. Now, with the recent amalgamation of all English language school districts into a single province-wide school board, a de facto no-zero policy appears to be in effect across the province.

The philosophy underlying no-zero policies is quite simple. Proponents believe teachers should always separate behaviour from achievement when grading students. Since cheating on tests, handing in late work, and refusing to submit assignments are all examples of behaviour, they should not affect students’ academic grades. Instead, they argue, teachers should correct poor behavior in other ways.

Like many other education fads, this one sounds great in theory but quickly falls apart when implemented with real high school students. Once students find out about their school’s no-zero policy, it doesn’t take them long to conclude that assignment due dates have become mere suggestions. Without the ability to seriously penalize tardiness, teachers end up pleading with students to hand their assignments in.

No-zero policies became popular because they have been promoted by assessment consultants who lead professional development workshops. Ontario-based assessment consultants Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper are two of the best-known advocates of no-zero policies. It should come as little surprise that both men spoke at education workshops in Atlantic Canada shortly before Eastern School District’s no-zero policy was formally adopted.

No-zero policies have also appeared in other provinces. In 2012, Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired by his school board for disobeying his principal’s no-zeros edict. Dorval went public with his concerns and steadfastly refused to budge from his position that the no-zero policy was a very bad idea.

Things did not go well for no-zero supporters. Not only did Dorval receive overwhelming public support for his stand, the Alberta Board of Reference recently ruled that his termination was unjust. In other words, Dorval had the professional right to challenge his school’s misguided policy.

Shortly after Dorval’s case became public, I analyzed the arguments used to support no-zero policies. The case for no-zero policies turned out to be very weak.

For example, Ken O’Connor regularly argues that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning and, to back up this claim, cites an article written by Thomas Guskey, an American education professor. When I looked up Guskey’s article, I found that he uses only one research study to support this argument — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy.

In their article, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in a mainstreamed classroom.

These students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks. While this might be true for the students in this study, it is patently absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the whole student population.

Clearly, parents are right to be skeptical when assessment gurus claim that “decades of educational research” support no-zero policies.

It should come as little surprise that regular classroom teachers are some of the strongest opponents of no-zero policies. They know what it is like to work with real students, and they are not beholden to theories concocted by ivory tower academics.

Fortunately, there is a way for the English school board to extract itself from the no-zero quagmire. It should simply allow teachers to use their professional discretion when dealing with late or incomplete assignments. Sometimes students deserve an extension and sometimes they don’t. Since teachers are trained professionals, they are capable of making these decisions themselves.

No-zero policies are just as misguided now as they were four years ago. It’s time to end this province’s failed experiment with them.