For the majority of human history it seems, that most of the population writing and reading were not skills of the majority. It should come then as no surprise that it is not easy or natural for humans to acquire and master the skill of making coherent, legible and clear marks on paper to convey what it is they are seeking to communicate.
Of course it is the way of modern society that the written word is an absolute key part of how we disseminate information between ourselves. Whether it is between friend or foe it is the written word, in some form or other, that we use to communicate.
We should remember though that it was the invention of movable type in a similar period to the sparking of the birth of the protestant christian church in the time of Luther, Swingli and Calvin that was the catalyst for this abject change in society, which was until thin largely illiterate and functioned very much as an oral society.
The bulk email is perhaps a modern equivalent of the town crier of old.
This thoroughly modern incarnation of society has us all toddling off to school somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7 to begin the process of mass socialisation, coupled with the task of becoming literate and numerate contributing members of society.
The underlying attitude is that we can all, generally speaking, learn to read, write and rithmatic. Indeed it is these words that sparked the idea of learning the three RRR’s. Ironically of course only one actually does start with an R.
As we have built our knowledge since this monumental shift, we discover that this belief that all can achieve these skills, is found to be wanting. Words such as dyslexia, dyscalula, dyspraxia to name a few have become a part of our vocabulary. In this post I would like to consider just one of those words from a personal perspective. Dysgraphia.
The medical dictionary from Oxford Dictionaries is:
Inability to write coherently, as a symptom of brain disease or damage.
More helpful is the Wikipedia entry:
Dysgraphia is a deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence. Dysgraphia is a transcription disability, meaning that it is a writing disorder associated with impaired handwriting, orthographic coding (orthography, the storing process of written words and processing the letters in those words), and finger sequencing (the movement of muscles required to write)
My writing partner Tricia recently wrote a great piece on how this relates to her son. Mightier than the Sword. This piece will be more focused on my personal experience as a child and indeed it’s influence into my adulthood.
It’s February, 1981, Grade 6, Kareela Public School. Mr Hamilton’s class. Six years of primary schooling have gone by for me. In this my seventh year, maybe it will be a bit different. Handwriting class. Absolute horror time for me.
That’s not how you hold the pen Richard…
Hold that pen properly Richard…
You’re left-handed you will always be a messy writer…
Memories of those lines flood my mind as I open my fresh, new, pristine Modern Cursive Handwriting book. It’s a whole new character set. A new font, if you like, all in the class are in the same boat. Or so I thought.
We all sit ready, eager to learn, eager to successfully master this skill of running writing. I had endured being in years past, the only one still using a lead pencil when all others used pens. Not being allowed to use the pen because of my illegible scrawl.
I had endured the ridicule of teacher after teacher and the laughter of cohort of students after cohort of students, in all four of my schools to this point. I was even with all of this potent in my mind, ready, to give it my very best effort.
The school booklist has specified particular pens, pencils, erasers, etc that we children were all to be armed with for the new school year. My mother, surprisingly, had conformed with this list and provided it for me to the letter. I really believed I was in with a chance.
As I sit with my Pental Rollerball pen, doing my very best, to form my very best letters, I hear the roar of Mr Hamilton over my shoulder, declaring my work to be disgusting, messy, illegible, horrible. A ruination of my new and wonderful Modern Cursive Book 6 text book.
Devastated, I cringed, I cried, and I suppose in a sense I gave up ever believing I could be able to handwrite, whether in printing or running writing, in a legible fashion. Those Pental pens, so distinctive with their green barrels and coloured bands on the tip, and silver labelling, have never failed to bring this potent moment back to mind. It was if nothing else a pivotal moment.
But 35 years later, I ask, what does it matter about handwriting anyway. It really is a legitimate question. Hear I have tapped out around 800 words to this point all perfectly legible. Able to be consumed on a myriad of devices, Desktop computers, Laptops, Tablets, Phones, e-readers, or indeed printed on paper.
My issue with writing, was in reflection perhaps, a function of Dysgraphia. I’m not in a position to declare this with absolute confidence, but it seems to ring true for me. It has only been as I have written on electronic devices that I have discovered something of some natural skill with writing.
I am told reasonably regularly now that I am a gifted or talented writer. If those of you who have expressed this to me could see the broken little boy back in sixth grade and understand just how much those comments mean to me, you would perhaps see the lift in my spirit and confidence you have provided. I am ever so thankful for this.
But back tot he point.
I believed I was a hopeless writer. I believed this because I was so incredibly focussed in the seemingly impossible task of making legible marks on the paper in front of me that there was never a moment to even allow my mind to construct and develop sentences, paragraphs, stanzas and verses that could convert meaningful expression to the workings of my mind.
Over the years I have made many efforts to transform my handwriting to no avail. I have worked on correcting my pencil grip – fruitlessly. I have purchased and completed handwriting exercises in the hope that practice and repetition would win the day. It did not. I have adjusted the size from big, to smaller, to tiny in an attempt to improve legibility – again fruitlessly.
Over the last year, I have discovered that my issue, my failure to ever submit a passable piece of creative writing in my school career was due to the function of putting the marks on the page, rather than my writing ability. It has been somewhat of an epiphany for me. In reflection I have realised there was a bunch of things working against me:
- Fine Motor Skills – I just didn’t have good enough skills to make legible writing.
- Pencil Grip – Holding the pen with the correct grip was extremely uncomfortable, even painful and when doing I found it physically impossible to form the letters. Holding it in my unique unorthodox grip enabled me to at least form the letters even if virtually illegible.
- Strength of Grip – I held the pen extremely tightly resulting in quick fatigue and reduced dexterity of movement.
- Pressure of pen to paper – The pressure applied to the paper was significantly greater than others it seems, but trying to reduce this would result in spidery marks that didn’t clearly show on the paper.
- Left-handedness – The act of dragging the arm across the page covering what had been written added to illegibility, particularly when a pen that smudged was used.
I’m sure there are others I may have missed but those five are a good representation of the difficulties I had. Whether it is technically dysgraphia or not, is not a huge concern to me. I’m happy to say I had a real issue with handwriting that was never recognised properly by the educators responsible for me. Perhaps the time was such that not much could have been different. But this is not the case today.
There are so many options for alternate methods of producing the written work required of students that any issue such as dyspraxia simply should not be something that hinders the learning of children. It really shouldn’t. There really is no excuse for alternate methods not being available.
And let’s face it. What’s the big deal with handwriting anyway. How often do you actually need, in modern society, to actually pick up a pen or pencil and handwrite something. There are a couple of things we need to be able to do.
- Sign our names, though the legibility of that is largely irrelevant.
- Fill in a form
- Write a to do list
I can’t think of many other times we are actually required to use handwriting outside of these. Sure there will be times we choose to but not many we are actually required to.
And we see more and more forms becoming filled in by electronic needs and even if we need to physically sign them we print and then sign the completed version, such that the only pen used on them is perhaps the signature, along with, possibly, the date.
We must stop hindering the education and positive outcomes of those in our care by insisting they be proficient in what is fast becoming an archaic skill.