It’s been many years since neat, fluent and fluid handwriting was considered a top priority at school, and if you compare the handwriting of English adults with that of adults from other countries around the world you’re likely to find that on average we fall well short as a nation. Nonetheless, until a few years ago it was quite rare for children to underperform on their GCSEs because of their handwriting. Sadly this is no longer the case.

There has been a rapid increase in the number of teenagers who, as they approach their GCSE exams, find themselves unable to write an essay under exam conditions – not because they don’t know what to write, but because they are unable to control the pen for long enough to produce an essay that the examiner can read. They lose their fine motor control after 50 or 100 words; their fingers jerk and spasm; and they get painful cramps in their hands. Meanwhile, more and more younger children are refusing to write at all except under great duress, and the trauma that results is leading more and more parents to consider it an impossible task and give up the idea of handwriting practice.

This article addresses two questions: why is it happening, and does it matter?

Does it matter whether children learn to write?

Taking the second question first, many people are starting to argue that children no longer need to learn to use a pencil because they can use a computer or a tablet, but my opinion is that this is a short-sighted and harmful approach – and the scientific research that says as much is mounting.

One critical thing to realise is that although standards of handwriting have been declining for a long time, the exponential increase in illegiblehandwriting didn’t coincide with the introduction of computersinto the home. It coincided with the introduction of smartphones and tablets – in other words, touchscreens.

As a species we have used writing tools for millennia, and our evolution from hunter-gatherer to civilised modern human is inextricably linked with writing. From cave paintings to cuniform to heiroglyphs, from quills to fountain pens to biros, humanity has had a writing tool in its hand the whole way. And these writing tools all have something in common: they connect the writer to the phsyical world, as he or she makes a mark on a wall, a notch on a stick, or a line on a piece of papyrus, parchment or paper.

Touchscreens, on the other hand, have not only been around for just a few years, but it’s also easy to forget that whereas a pencil and a piece of paper are real three-dimensional objects that can be picked up and turned around, a screen is just a two-dimensional representation of reality… and therefore very hard for the developing brain to correctly interpret and learn from.

With this context in mind, ask yourself this: why do we expect our brains to be equipped to develop themselves from healthy infancy through thriving childhood to productive adulthood using input from a touchscreen? Wouldn’t it actually be nothing short of a miracle if it worked?

But even this is only part of the picture. After all, it doesn’t automatically follow that the existence of a touchscreen should result in children not picking up a pencil… so what else is going on?

Why are so many children not learning to write?

As babies grow into children, they acquire the ability to be self-critical. This is crucial to their development. It enables them to look at what they have done, compare it to what they were aiming to achieve, see the difference, and try again. It is perfectly normal and natural for children to try something, judge their efforts, find them lacking, and try again many, many times before they lose interest or even show any signs of frustration.

Learning to use a pencil is not easy. It is hard to control it with just the right balance of tension and release, just the right size of movements in just the right direction, and just the right amount of pressure. It takes an immense amount of practice – and until recently, this was practice that most children were more than willing to do, because they could see that the practice paid off. The harder they tried, the more their colouring or writing improved – and that made them feel good and encouraged them to keep trying.

But if you put a tablet in the hands of a child, suddenly the amount of practice that it takes to learn how to control a pencil feels enormous. The tablet makes the child much more powerful than just a pencil and paper. Suddenly he or she can produce impressive results every time and take no time at all to achieve them: colouring in a picture with just a fews taps, never going over the lines; answering questions by dragging and dropping, with no risk of untidy lines or spelling mistakes.

When the child sits down again with a pencil and paper, the world feels a very different place. How can he or she compete with the perfection of the tablet? Why even try?

And this, I believe, is at the root of the increase in the number of children who can’t write. It’s not that they don’t want to learn – I’ve never heard a child deny that they would like to be able to write neatly and quickly, and temper tantrums are notevidence of not wanting to learn something. Quite the opposite in fact. If handwriting practice leads to a temper tantrum, you would probably be safe to assume that your child dearly wants to be able to do it, but is terrified of failure. (If this is something that you’re facing, you may find some helpful tips in Teaching Your Own Child.)

Instead, I think that it’s the comparative ease of using tech which makes the challenge of controlling their own muscles seem impossible to young children, and so they give up trying too soon.

What can be done?

This new trend away from writing, and from the endurance and resilience that learning it requires, is a wake-up call to which we should all listen. Technology is embedding itself into all aspects of our lives, and rather than thoughtlessly letting it happen we need to start consciously choosing what, where and when we use technology.

What is a harmless tool to an adult can be inhibiting and damaging to a child, and in general from a developmental point of view it is best to keep tech away from young children for as long as possible, instead relying on the tried and tested tools of childhood: lego, puzzles, boardgames, books (paper ones!), colouring, and anything else that encourages fine motor skills and interaction with the real world!

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