Handwriting, Writing Skills and Laptops

27 10 2008

There has been much debate about the use  technology and  the effect it may have on writing skills. 

Recently Naplan results were published and as a result questions were raised about the writing skills of “up coming” year 7 students. Below is a response to this debate and indeed one which is echoed  by a few of our leading technology schools in NSW.

The Armidale School for example has published the following statement.

The nature of school and state wide testing continues to dictate that students are required to take the bulk of tests by hand rather than with their laptop. With this in mind, it is school policy that handwriting skills and handwriting activities will remain as regular activities across the curriculum. This is particularly the case in senior years as students prepare for the external exams of the School Certificate and HSC. However, this is not to say that the use of laptops for writing tasks causes a deterioration of handwriting skills. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, research from a very large scale study (Silvernail and Gritter, University ofSouthern Maine, 2007) of the impact of 1:1 laptop use on writing skills in the US state of Maine over a five year period has found that laptop use has a positive impact on writing skills. It is argued that as students learn to take advantage of computers for writing, their writing strategies change. Revisions of drafts become easier and accepted as a normal part of the process, improving the overall quality of writing. The study concludes that using laptops for developing and producing writing helps students to become better writers both when using a laptop and when writing in longhand. 

The research report may be found at:


Ready access to on-line resources provides students with a wealth of material to assist their writing. At the same time it has focused attentionon problems of plagiarism across NSW and education on this issue is a part of the curriculum. This occurs at all year levels and in Year 10 all students complete the compulsory ʻAll Your Own Workʼ unit before commencing HSC studies. Students are expected to approach writing tasks using their laptop with the same attention to spelling, grammar, text type and format as they do when handwriting. Spelling and grammar checking functions on the laptop are important learning tools as they provide students with immediate feedback on their writing.


 regards John Coppola





4 responses

29 10 2008

From what I have read, the potential for improving writing or any other skills you are hoping to improve in regards to using laptops comes down to the way the laptops are used in the classroom.
If you are aiming to improve writing skills but setting tasks where students simply cut and paste information from the internet then I would think it is unlikely their skills are going to improve. Setting tasks where students are creating and publishing their own writing for others to read, and where they are being critiqued by their peers, and critiquing others, is far more likely to have students being careful about what they write and putting more time and effort into the writing process. The peer assessment/critiquing could also help motivate and encourage reflective practice by students which also has the potential to improve their writing skills.
The laptop as a learning tool is as good or bad as we let it be.

25 11 2008

We are in a process of change. Teachers struggle with understanding and developing the potential that the computer offers as a tool. The computer does not do the teaching, the class teacher and the educational relationship they have with their students becomes the spring board for learning. The environment needs to be rich with What if ? questions. Let’s investigate possibilities, publish answers and evaluate responses, processes and outcomes as a team of learners.

1 02 2009
Andrew Cosgrove

Perhaps the most powerful yet most overlooked advantage of a computer in developing writing skills is as a glorified typewriter. It waits as a blank page which can be written upon, corrected neatly, proofread, edited, added to and rearranged with a minimum of effort, and without rewriting. It allows an approach to teaching writing that is impossible with a pencil and paper, and may have its greatest impact in the earlier years of school.

It is important not to be distracted by technology, and get carried away with multimedia, interconnectivity and internet access. The keyboard and screen can be used to empower children to master the written word, and produce written output at a level necessary to cater for their learning needs. It can be used to teach sentence construction, grammar, punctuation and spelling, the mundane but essential building blocks of written literacy, without being dependent on good handwriting skills which may be slower to develop.

Production of written output is essential to the learning process in school. A child who cannot write cannot learn effectively, so one of the first tasks of school is to teach the child to write. Writing is a complicated process requiring the simultaneous execution of several difficult activities. There is the content, there is the sentence construction, there is remembering to go across the page from left to right, and remembering what shape the letter “e” is. There is the physical movement of pencil on paper. The coordination and complexity involved in handwriting has been compared to that involved in driving a car.
Up until now, all these skills had to be taught simultaneously, and were deeply dependant on how quickly the handwriting skill developed.

It is no wonder that some children are slow to develop adequate handwriting skills, which retards the whole of their school career. Teachers are aware of students whose written output does not match their intelligence, comprehension or verbal language skills.
This can be because their handwriting skill is not adequate for their learning needs.

A keyboard and screen allows the middle order writing skills to be taught in isolation to handwriting. Handwriting must still be taught, but it is no longer the limiting factor. Handwriting skills may develop with maturity and practice, so that when a student is required to produce handwriting for an exam, not only do they have handwriting skills, they also have something worth writing.

Middle order writing skills include such things as sentence construction, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Sentence construction can be broken down into discreet steps, and leverages from a child’s verbal language skills. When they start school, children already use extensive language skills. They do not know the technical terms for the parts of a sentence, but they certainly know how to use them. The “Davidson Method” of sentence construction uses the advantages of a keyboard and screen (any computer with a text editor) and scaffolds a child’s existing verbal skills into the written form.

Davidson Method for Sentence writing

1. Choose an action word, a verb.
A verb is an –ing word
e.g. chasing

2 Ask who or what thing is doing the action. (noun,object)
dog chasing

3. Ask who or what thing is the action being done to. (noun, subject)
dog chasing cat

4. Describe the things (adjective, phrase).
black hairy ferocious dog from next door chasing mangy yellow cat

5. Ask when or where or how the action is happening (adverb, phrase).
yesterday afternoon black hairy ferocious dog from next door quickly chasing mangy yellow cat across the park

6. Check that the tense of the verb matches sentence. Does it sound right?
Modify verb (auxiliary verb, compound verb)
yesterday afternoon black hairy ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing mangy yellow cat across the park

7. Add words to make it sound right.
yesterday afternoon the black hairy ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy yellow cat across the park

8. Add commas and full stops. (Punctuation)
yesterday afternoon, the black, hairy, ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy, yellow cat across the park.

9. Add a capital letter to the first word.
Yesterday afternoon, the black, hairy, ferocious dog from next door was quickly chasing a mangy, yellow cat across the park.

This method allows a sentence to be built logically rather than sequentially, the screen holds the parts in place rather than trying to juggle all the pieces in memory while attempting to write neatly.
It is easier to choose a letter from a keyboard than try to remember the shape of a letter.
Correction is neat and does not require the whole page to be rewritten.
Spelling can be checked as a separate step.
The sentence can be copied by hand to paper when complete to practice handwriting, and it is relevant to the child because it is their sentence with their ideas. There is no need to print the sentence.
There is no dumbing down of the ideas in the sentence to match writing or spelling skill.
Proofreading and editing are taught as an integral part of writing.

It should be emphasised that this does not replace handwriting. Handwriting must still be taught in the normal way. It does make handwriting more effective by allowing some ideas to be taught and practiced in isolation, thereby increasing focus and effectiveness.

It should also be emphasised that we still need a competent and dedicated teacher to lead the child, to encourage, to nurture. The keyboard and screen is just a different writing tool, with features that a good teacher can use when required.

Computers can be used to increase learning outcomes in KLAs –here-now-today in ordinary classrooms, and bring relief to children who are struggling or giving up because they cannot write fast enough or neatly enough to produce the written output required to cater for their learning needs. Avoid the temptation to reinvent the school system and philosophy of education in order to justify spending money on ICT. Instead look at the problems that are in our classrooms and see if technology can help a competent and dedicated teacher find a way forward.

2 02 2009

Thanks for taking the time to post Andrew. Certainly a detailed and constructive look at the issue and plenty of food for thought for teachers.

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