Handwriting gives us a view into a student’s brain. I have found that ninety-seven percent of the time I can view a student’s handwriting, and almost immediately make a very close estimation of their grade—and I’m usually correct. Viewing a student’s handwriting gives us teachers insight into several aspects of how students’ brains function and the process by which the information transfers from their brains, through their hands, and onto the paper. If the writing is fast and sloppy, the students usually haven’t taken much time to process their thoughts or to write carefully, and it shows visually as well as in their written content.
Carefulness or Carelessness?
I have consistently found that my “98s” (my term for those careful, hard-working students who almost always make A’s—not necessarily because they are brilliant, but because they are careful and tedious) have neat writing. I have also found that the students who make Cs and Ds almost always have sloppy writing.
There are several very helpful suggestions we teachers can glean from these observations.
First and second grade teachers: please emphasize handwriting. Teach it, preach it, encourage it, and demand it. If you cement into students’ brains the importance of writing slowly and carefully when they are young and very impressionable, all the teachers who will have your students in the future will thank you—and the students should as well, because you will be instilling a process that will serve them well the rest of their lives. If they approach writing, and thus their assignments and school in general, with a slow and careful approach, they tend to have more of an “achiever” mentality. It’s instilling an attitude of “I’m going to do this purposefully and carefully,” versus a fast and sloppy “I just want to get this done as fast as possible” attitude—which is the default course for many students.
I remember at the very beginning struggling with my own imperfect writing until my kindergarten or first grade teacher gently placed her hand over mine and showed me how to press down harder and to grasp the pencil more firmly, guiding my hand and helping me write the letters correctly. It worked, and from then on, I knew how it was supposed to feel. I still do this for my own students, and just recently one of our kindergarten students was struggling to write the letter “H.” His teacher who is left-handed wisely called me over to help him with this exact technique because I am right-handed like he is. (Note: This should be done very appropriately and carefully, with only hands touching.) If a student does write sloppily, erase it, and have them do it again. With my younger students, I will often have them tell me the answer for the first written word on the page, then I will write it on the blank for them, modeling neat, careful, slow writing. I will have them write the next word on their own, erasing any sloppiness, and encouraging them to stay in the lines before sending them back to their desks to finish the rest on their own. This way they have begun the page neatly—setting a precedent for that assignment—and will hopefully finish it that way. If needed, I do this daily all year long with my first graders to instill the process.
Teachers from third grade up: Make neat handwriting a priority. Remind your students often (I sometimes do this hourly) to slow down and write neatly. When students slow down with their physical writing, it also often helps them to process their thoughts in a more deliberate manner, causing their work to not only look neater, but to be of better quality because of the thought processes used.
How Do We Make It a Priority?
I have found a few ways that I believe have helped students in grades 3-12 to slow down and try to have neater writing.
Other Handwriting Notes
Let students use their favorite pens or pencils. I allow my students to use whatever they prefer—pens, pencils, gel pens, colored markers—as long as the writing is neat, and the color is dark enough that I can read it. This adds to the “art” aspect of writing, I believe. Bic Cristal pens have been my favorites since I was in high school because they write smoothly and easily. Every year I give my students one of these pens to encourage them to find pens which they enjoy using. The only writing that I think can be allowed to be sloppy is when students have some great ideas and quickly jot down a fast little outline to get those thoughts onto the paper. But, as they write their essay, I expect legible, neat handwriting.
What About Computers?
Call me old school, but I’ve seen far too many instances of computers in the classroom being a distraction, a crutch, or a method for plagiarizing for me to believe that they need to be easily accessible for most real K-12th grade learning to take place. This is just my opinion, but I have seen greatly improved results when students use pen and paper for almost everything in school except for writing research paper rough drafts, which is about the only time I allow my students to use them during class. After a hand-written outline is written for other assignments, I don’t mind if students use computers to type their papers, but I very rarely allow laptops to be open on their desks while I’m teaching.
A Startling Perspective
In most of the schools in Germany, students after the third grade are required to use fountain pens—the kind you have to dip the tip in an inkwell or use ink cartridges—to write all of their assignments. Why? Because it makes them think more about what they are doing. The process of writing with these kinds of pens is much more conducive to students writing carefully and purposefully; and thus, results in better handwriting and thought processes. Even the kindergarteners usually learn to write using ballpoint pens, advancing to fountain pens around fourth grade when they are old enough to not make a mess with them. Some schools even have students complete writing booklets and award “fountain pen awards” when they have achieved a certain level of neatness in their writing.
If we as teachers emphasize neat handwriting, remind students about it, give them tangible ways to practice it, and expect them to fix any sloppy writing, we can indeed achieve a much higher standard of writing in our classrooms.
My favorite writing curricula: