THE FACT that exam markers in Western Australia have highlighted illegible handwriting as a problem comes as no surprise. My own handwriting, once a source of praise from my primary school teachers so long ago, has deteriorated to such an extent that I rarely put pen to paper.
When I do, I have difficulty in reading it the next day. The keyboard is much more forgiving.
Without suggesting that I go back as far as the quill pen, I do remember sitting at a desk with a hole for an inkwell. My contemporaries and I used fountain pens – the biro was banned. As schooling progressed, we switched to the ubiquitous ballpoint pen but I would still list a new fountain pen on my Christmas or birthday wish list. There was something special about the feel of writing with a pen nib and the finished result was more stylish. And legible.
My teachers emphasised the importance of legible handwriting in exams where the construction of correct thought process could gain you marks even if the final answer was wrong. Alas, with a biro my handwriting deteriorated as the years went by. Much later, as a university lecturer, I must confess that the legibility of the exam papers in front of me could influence my mood, particularly when I was struggling to make sense of the 20th paper I was marking that night!
Exam markers in Western Australia are now warning again that indecipherable handwriting can cost you marks. “Illegible scripts inhibit the clear interpretation of content in responses,” said one. Many students were writing so small that it was impossible to read, even with magnification, said another.
Australia still insists on written exams while debate rages in education circles around the world about the merits of moving to the keyboard. On one side, experts argue that handwriting increases cognitive skills and that the act of writing notes helps understanding, analysis and memory. On the other side is the argument that we now live in an age of computers where we text, tap and tweet. Handwriting is dead, they say – just ask the Post Office!
Finland has already made the move. From this year, classes in cursive handwriting are no more, replaced by keyboarding skills. The UK may follow and many states in the US have declared that handwriting instruction in schools is not mandatory. On the other hand, the French have recently reintroduced cursive handwriting classes.
I fear that the keyboard route could lead to the point where we forget how to write and then forget how to read what is handwritten. Only the scholar can now interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics. Will my childish essay written with such care with my best fountain pen one day become indecipherable to my great-great-grandchildren?