In an increasingly digital world, where keyboards and tablets are the tools of choice, there are fears that handwriting is a dying art.
Depending on who is listened to, between one in five and one in three children could be leaving primary school unable to read or write to the expected level.
Sarah Wright, a creative director from Tunbridge Wells who runs digital marketing company Higgles, has thrown her weight behind Start-Bee, a new initiative that aims to tackle this problem head-on.
Mrs Wright said: “In the digital age there’s an impression we just need to learn to type. Yes we need to learn to type, but if we don’t learn to write first, our ability to comprehend things can only go so far.
“You’re at your most creative when putting pen to paper. And forming a letter by hand creates neural pathways that allows children to read it better, and process it faster, than pressing letters on keyboard.”
Mrs Wright’s passion for the issue has led to her joining forces with Melanie Harwood, a concerned mother who has formulated her own method for teaching handwriting.
The method is taught in one-hour weekly classes, with instruction ranging from the basics of holding a pencil to using unique letterform scripts.
Mrs Wright said: “Start-Bee is Melanie’s brainchild. Her daughter was refused entry to a private school because her writing wasn’t good enough. She couldn’t write her name and she’s not alone in that.
“After a few weeks of these handwriting exercises, she was in school and top of the class. The school adopted her methods and Start-Bee grew from there.”
Mrs Wright was brought on board primarily to develop the digital side of the project, and has looked to her own childhood for inspiration.
She said: “When I was a child I loved pop-up books. They fired the imagination by bringing to life imaginary worlds at the tweak of a cardboard tag.
“I wondered how I could use mobile digital technology to breathe new life into books. How could technology be used in a way that would keep children entertained as well as educate them?
“I remembered those pop-up books of my childhood, and from a pop-up book, I created the ‘Pop APP Book’.
“It looks like an ordinary book, but hover your smartphone or tablet over the page and a 3D cartoon image pops up in front of the screen as if by magic.”
Mrs Wright explained that if the smartphone is hovered over a letter A, an apple tree appears, Isaac Newton sits beneath it and an apple falls on his head.
She explained: “This not only helps associates words to letters, but expands vocabulary, improves spelling, and teaches children about a related historical story.”
Start-Bee launched a crowdfunding campaign on September 8, hoping to raise enough money to mass-produce the Pop-APP Books and handwriting kits, and to film lessons.
How does writing aid development?
It may be quicker for a child to learn to hit the right keys on a keyboard than to learn to form letters with a pen, but a large number of experts believe handwriting plays a crucial role in learning.
■ Virginia Berninger, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, explains how
the movements involved in handwriting activate large regions of the brain involved in thinking, memory, and language.
■ A study by Berninger found that children aged between seven and 12 wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than the group which learned to type them.
■ Researchers at Aix-Marseille University conducted a study on children aged three to five. The group that learned to write letters by hand recognised them better than those who learned to type them on a keyboard. The same result was achieved with adult participants.
■ A study conducted on more than 300 students at Princeton and the University of California found students who took longhand notes were better at answering questions on the lecture than those using a laptop. This is attributed to the fact those writing by hand rephrase information as they write it, a process of preliminary comprehension usually absent in typing, which often results in near word for word transcript.
■ A study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience revealed that adults learning a new language remember its characters better if they write them out by hand than if they produce them with a keyboard.
Obstacles of the digital age
The director of Bright Young Things tuition centre in Tunbridge Wells believes the digital age has put new obstacles in the way of children developing their reading and writing.
Arthur Ponsonby believes it can be ‘very difficult’ for children to find quiet spaces in which to practise their reading and writing.
He said: “In my experience, children just aren’t as stimulated growing up as they used to be. There’s a lot of screen time, through televisions and iPads, and children aren’t as adventurous.
“They’re exceptionally busy, being whisked off to football practice and dance classes, but in terms of immersing themselves in a book or finding a quiet space to do some homework or engage in developing their language and literacy, they aren’t being adventurous.“
Mr Ponsonby believes a range of other factors contributes to the literacy problem, from lowering of expectations within the education system to growing class sizes.
But he believes increased access to supplementary education is cause for optimism.
“Tuition used to be the preserve of the very wealthy,” he said.
“But that is not the case any more.
“Thanks to more affordable rates, childcare vouchers and scholarship schemes, we are thankfully taking 90 to 95 per cent of our students from the state sector.
“There’s a lot of synergy between our approach to education here and the approach being taken by Melanie Harwood at Start-Bee. It’s a wonderful initiative I wholeheartedly support.
“Every child is different and a lot of children struggle with handwriting, often down to the very basics of holding a pen correctly. The later you leave something, the harder it is to amend and deal with.
“It is a hugely important thing. If you find it tricky and uncomfortable to hold a pen, you’re not going to be motivated to pick one up.
“If you can just get children on the right path from early age then you stand a far greater chance of improving literacy in this country.”