Jordan: For most Canadian kids, yesterday was the first day of school, a new year, a new teacher, a new class and, for a lot of them, a new curriculum. There’s never be in a year that some parents in some province aren’t livid over what has been added to or subtracted from their school’s curriculum. Sex-ed, of course, is a common one. Art and music are always hotly debated. There is French, and there’s phys-ed, and that list goes on. But there is one skill that you probably spent hours and hours on in your own elementary days that has been vanishing every single year without much more than a whisper. It’s handwriting. My own handwriting is terrible and always has been, and I type everything on a keyboard or on my phone. I can’t remember the last time I needed cursive writing for anything except an unreadable signature. So I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we actually might be losing something that is critical to our kid’s development without even realizing it. I’m not going to tell you that, but our guest is. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story, Hetty Roessingh is a professor at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Hi Hetty.
Jordan: Hetty can you explain to me the kind of research that you do and how you ended up doing it?
Hetty: Well I was drawn into this a little bit by accident, I suppose. My first 29 years of my professional life I spent teaching English as a second language and mostly the high school kids students. Uh, then, um, in two thousand’s, almost 20 years ago, I, uh, switched him and, um became, um, active as an academic at Werklund School of Education. So it was initially writing, looking at vocabulary development over time. But then I began to realize that kids who had the vocabulary couldn’t get it onto the page. And when I really looked hard at that question, I began to see that it had to do with the belaboured look of the hand. That struck me about seven years ago I’d say, Ah, it took a little while to kind of bring that idea to speed. But my earlier publication started to come probably around 2016 2017 and my more recent work connects, um, the quality of the writing to the number of words, that approach that appear on the page to the quality of the thought. I want to have quite a robust approach, really, to working with the growing numbers of young kids who are missing the words they need to be able to engage with the demands of curriculum content starting from the earliest of ages.
Jordan: This is the first day of school that we’re talking to you. What is the state of handwriting in curriculums across Canada today?
Hetty: I would say it’s really patchy. Um, I would say as far as cursive handwriting, maybe only Prince Edward Island and maybe Saskatchewan make an emphasis of it. It might be mentioned here and there, but it tends not to be taught and absolutely is not assessed directly. So that’s where I think we’re at.
Jordan: Where were we on it even a decade or more ago? Cause I certainly remember, and I’m I mean, I’m old, but I’m not battle. But I remember getting graded on it on how neat my handwriting was in. And, you know, we had to do full workbooks of it or ah, or we’d be staying after class, and you know that’s not that long ago.
Hetty: It’s not that long ago. Well, I’m old. I’m 69. It’s decades ago that I was made, and that was part of the curriculum, usually in grade three, I would say around the 1980s and definitely by the 1990s when I look a teacher preparation textbook, um, that would be used to teach the English language arts. Ah, we have made a shift by then, there was a lot of emphasis on reading, and handwriting got hardly a mention at all. I think the thinking back then was that the hand would simply learn how to print and write as a byproducts or a consequence of doing fun stuff, like maybe writing occasion cards or whatever children were doing with their hands. The handwriting would just develop. I think that, um, we lacked the research at the time, so I think the pendulum is swinging mostly because I think newly evolving findings from the neural sciences is telling us how important the hands are everything we do, the centrality of our hands and making meaning and making sense of the world and reconstructing mental representation of the external world into the internal cognitive structure that lets us work in the world.
Jordan: So I’m going to get into that research with you in just a little bit. But first, what’s the rationale behind leaving it completely out of some curriculums now?
Hetty: Well, again, I think the misunderstood importance of it, maybe also the infatuation. The overpowering messages coming from the computer era of the idea, and Prince Qi comes to mind that this is getting to be an outdated, outmoded relic of an earlier generation that is just not relevant anymore in the 21st century. When we talk about 21st century literacy, there is a lot of emphasis on digital literacy and not very much at all in the importance of the hands we’ve forgotten the hand.
Jordan: So how did we come to figure out how important the hands and by extension handwriting were?
Hetty: I’m trying, and I think others are trying as well. The fact that the conversation article has received so much attention is telling me that our understanding and are read of the relevant neuroscientist, cognitive scientist, linguistic scientists, the developmental scientists is telling us that we have to hit the pause button a little bit. Um, I take a lot from the writing of Maryanne Wolf, who talks about the importance of the reading-writing brain, and her new book on Reader Come Home. It tells us a cautionary story, about going too far, too fast, too early into the computer era.
Jordan: So explain to me how this works practically. How this how writing teaches our brain?
Hetty: Well, I think what it’s doing it is, um, training the muscle memory much like ice dancing or riding a bicycle or anything like that. You need to train the muscles and you almost have it. Skills have to be over-learned to the level of automaticity when they have become automatic. What happens is that the effort of all of that move from working memory into long term memory. Working memory is really scarce. Cognitive real estate. And if you’re hands are not automatized and and your writing is very belaboured, your brain does not have the capacity to look for vocabulary, to organize your thoughts on the page, to edit your work and so on. So the reason why fluency of hand becomes very, very important in the grade 3-4 year is because our expectations are increasing so quickly in the grade 3/4 year in terms of curriculum content. So we’re asking children to grapple with far more complex ideas. Um, to put them organize them thoughtfully, to be able to persuade, convince, debate, offer an opinion, all of that. And in order to do that, you have to be able to think. And so those elements that have to do with handwriting have to be automatized and fully under control.
Jordan: How do you do that research? What does it look like?
Hetty: Well, I do a lot by taking in writing samples. Box loads, box holds box loads starting in grade two. And I think I can meaningfully get the first insights with what children could do with their hands. So I start looking at grade two, grade three, grade four great six, grade nine, grade 12 and so on. And start to, um, score them. First of all, for the look of the handwriting on a scale, really of 1 to 4. But, you know, four minus three plus and so on. Is it belaboured? Does it look legible? Does it look like it’s under control? And does it look like it has a push or? Does it look like it’s becoming fluent? Ah, then I, uh, score and my team scores for the quality of the written piece itself, the quality of the ideas, the way they’re organized, the reach of rare and sophisticated vocabulary. We digitized all those writing samples and with online vocabulary profiling tools, I’m really interested in how children mobilized academic words over time. And the grade 3/4 year becomes a year where there’s an explosion of vocabulary on the page that we can see that relates to, oh, say the topic was, Ah, what would you do as the empty space behind a school yard? All of a sudden, kids want to design or create ah, playground that has structures and equipment for the safety and protection off young kids who come to play. So that’s a far shift from grade two when they might try and say, my playground will have monkey bars. My playground will have swings, my play– and so on, and I hope it will be fun, and I hope you’ll come to my fun playground.
Jordan: And so how does handwriting factor into that as opposed to, say, making typing automatic. Would that free up the same amount of mental resources to allow these kids to think like, Should we just be giving them all tablets with keyboards and letting them automize that?
Hetty: Well, a tablet does not leave the memory trace to the brain or have the same neural circuitry. It doesn’t develop the neural circuitry in the same way that your hand does. So there’s a very intimate connection between your hands and the thinking brain. For me, in order to own a word, it has to be in the brain. And so how did it get there to begin with, your hand and your muscle memory conveyed through the neural circuitry into the brain? When you touch a D on a tablet, it doesn’t leave the same memory trace that actually having printed a D. So the reading writing connection is very important in the early years, when children are trying to recognize shape of letters on the page, if they can produce that shape in their hand, they’re likely to recognize it on the page. And they do. Um, also, I would, when children become good writers they transition to their tablets much better. So if they’re good spellers already and good writers, they will transition. Say it the grade four year. There’s also a latent period, so in grade four their hands before then, their hands are a bit too small to have the reach on a keyboard, and to become automatic on a keyboard also takes time. So in that window of time we need we need some way of being able to put our thoughts on the page.
Jordan: What’s the difference between cursive writing and printing in terms of getting the information to your brain?
Hetty: So I really like that question. I think when people think of cursive, they think of loopy, twisty, turny styles that were awfully hard. If you look in that original posting, there’s a piece of handwriting that’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and it’s very embellished and loopy that, and that’s the kind of stuff I needed to learn as a little kid. And maybe you, too. That’s hard on the muscles, muscle memory, and it’s hard on the visual memory. So every time a little hand has to make a backward loop or a twist backwards, that’s hard so the way to try and make that a lot easier is to strip it right down and have something that looks a bit almost like an italic print right, But it’s connected. So it’s important that kids be taught how to make the connections because it’s in establishing the neural connections that you can develop fluency and speed. So we want something that’s legible. We want something that’s fluent fast, easy to teach, easy to learn and gets us going with it. This tasks of school, because don’t kid yourself and I’m not kidding myself. The digital world is also tremendously important and holds huge potential for learning. But not yet. We’re getting there.
Jordan: As an adult my handwriting is now worse than it was when I learned in elementary school. Is there any benefit to me? Neural cognitively, ah, working to improve my handwriting cause I don’t have a ton of time for it, and like at this point, it is painful for me to do it because I almost never do it. But But is their benefit to be gained? Or is it while your brain is developing?
Hetty: Well, no. And and there is research indicating that it’s never too late. Um, it even in grade 6/7 and I realized they’re older than that. But even as an adult, I learned at the age of about 30 I took calligraphy lessons, and that made a huge difference in how I put my printing onto the page. So I think calligraphy lessons hold hope and they’re fun. Um, you know, treat yourself to a moleskin notebook and and start to make an effort. You know, those as adults who can sketch and take jot notes and can plan their ideas and make a thought web and so on by hand, I think have the benefit of retrieval of memory, of being able to organize your thoughts a bit better than you can directly on a on a computer. And not only that, if your computer is invaded by a virus or suddenly shuts down, guess what? You still have your hands.
Jordan: How come we don’t see as much of a hue and cry over this and the way we, uh, examined so many other changes to our curriculum? I mean to your point. It’s just kind of been vanishing, and nobody’s really raised an alarm except you.
Hetty: I think it’s coming. I honestly think it’s coming and the research has been there. I would say, if you look at the work that Stephen Graham and Virginia Berninger have have committed a lifetime to, its decades of work, they are neuropsychologists. That works stayed very siloed. So you know, oddly enough, and ironically enough, it’s the digital age that’s allowing us to disseminate research much more quickly to to make these connections across disciplinary boundaries and and to connect with our colleagues who do interesting work that relates to the work we do in education that decades ago would have been hard. I’d also say that some of the work that I’m doing is more interested in the ecological validity. So I work directly in classrooms, and I’m interested in translating clinical kind of measures into something that is much more recognisable to a grade two or to a grade three teacher. So rather than, ah, dictation test or a letter copying test or the big brown, the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How many times can you write that in two minutes? I’m much more interested in the idea of fluency on an authentic type task that really does interest kids and engages them in something that they’ll focus on for maybe 45 minutes. Then I get a much clearer insight into what the hands can do to find the words to, to endure a little bit over time. 40 minutes is quite a long time for a little one in grade three to put it on the page. But when I see from those who are good writers is delightful, I just don’t see enough of it. So by the grade four year, finding that probably 50% or more are not up to speed enough to put their ideas on the page.
Jordan: So what would you suggest for ah teacher who’s starting her class today, who you know has less time and more students than ever before? And, you know, can’t avoid teaching digital literacy as well as everything else that’s in the mandatory part of the curriculum. What can they do to work on this in the limited amount of time they’re gonna have?
Hetty: Well, beginning early. It doesn’t have to take a ton of time, so printing can, ah, those who have looked at printing in grade one and grade two have had good results, including some stuff that is linked in that article that I did with some grade two teachers, 20 minutes a day for 40 consecutive days made such a big difference. And these were gifted kids who were so frustrated otherwise and being unable to put their ideas on the page. We thought these kids would be bored. Um, but they weren’t. In fact, gifted children of all kids were have a need for perfection. And they have so much in their heads, so many big ideas that they want. Um, initially, you know, when I was asked to work with these teachers, there were also indications of pushback from the reluctance of writers, the avoidance behaviours and some of that settled when kids got their little printing booklets and just were so involved. And, uh, so what it does take is direct and explicit instruction. Ah, I would say from a programmatic, systematic approach that is developmentally appropriate. Um, it’s nice if children here the same language and great to great regret for about stroke direction and, you know, ah, an approach to the printing and handwriting program that that is recognizable over time, Uh, so it doesn’t need to take a ton of time. I would say investment early on pays off big time over the long run in the great two year, I think, or great and great three children can start to be making the connections. Um, that is shown again in the I chose the basic Swiss German, um, hand that I’ve found that I thought very nicely illustrated the easy connection from print to connected italics script. I don’t think it’s huge, and I think that the quality of what we see on the page over time would be sold much better, that it’s well worth the investment of that little bit of time.
Jordan: Thanks, Hetty.
Hetty: For sure.
Jordan: Professor Hetty Roessingh of the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. That was your back to school edition of The Big Story podcast. You can find more of us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can hit us up on Twitter. You can only type to us, @thebigstoryfpn. And you can find us and all of our brother and sister podcast here at the Frequency Podcast Network wherever you get them, that’s Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify or just go to frequencypodcastnetwork.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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