Does handwriting still matter in the digital world? A recent New York Times article describes the importance of handwriting as a tool for learning and memory, and argues it should be taught to kids on a regular basis. This, the authors claim, is because handwriting activates a neural circuit in the brain that involves the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the posterior parietal cortex, facilitating the capacity to generate ideas and recall information.
While, no doubt, some students can improve their memory through writing by hand, there's also a large group of kids for whom the process of handwriting is so laborious that they can't adequately or effectively express their thoughts on paper. Many of these kids are characterized by sloppy or illegible handwriting, short written responses to homework and classroom assignments, or a tendency to rush through or avoid written work. Their parents and teachers say, "If they only took their time, they could write neatly." This may be true, but the problem is that "taking their time" means that a 10-minute homework assignment for their peers may equal 30 minutes of homework for them.
There are other students who generally display legible handwriting but require excessive amounts of time to complete their written work due to the slowness of their penmanship. As these students move into early elementary grades, they begin to notice that their peers complete work much more quickly than they do, and they may begin to feel inadequate or "stupid" because they simply write more slowly than other students. Perhaps the most damaging impact of the struggle to get information onto paper efficiently is the level of frustration and negativity these students express about their own academic abilities.
Students diagnosed with dysgraphia, a disorder of written language, may simply have difficulties with fine motor issues and a tendency to produce written work in a very slow and methodical fashion. Difficulties getting ideas onto paper is also seen frequently in kids diagnosed with ADHD and executive function disorders. For many of these kids, the best strategy may be to bypass pencils and paper and go directly to talking out their ideas with dictation devices.
Obviously, becoming a good writer requires far more than quick and legible penmanship. Teaching writing skills to kids who simply can't write their thoughts onto paper may be putting the cart before the horse. Fortunately, dictation tools such as Dragon Dictation and Siri can help kids as young as 8 years old speak what they want to say and then very quickly see those words in print. Even if dictation tools are used only as an opportunity to blurt out the ideas a kid is thinking, they can prove to be a helpful way to start the writing process.
Educators and parents can't simply give kids technologies like Dragon Dictation or a smartphone with dictation abilities and expect them to dictate effectively. In order for these talk-to-text tools to truly be helpful with writing skills, students will need to learn to speak in prose and combine dictation with word processing tools to create sentences, paragraphs, and entire drafts.
As a teacher or parent, you don't need to be an expert in dictation to help kids learn how to use it effectively. Because dictation isn't easy to master, your first job is to help kids find the motivation to learn the skill. Here are a few simple strategies:
1. Prove that dictation is faster than writing. Engage students in a brief contest in which you dictate two paragraphs while the student attempts to legibly copy the same text through handwriting. Use a stopwatch to see how long it takes you to complete your dictation versus the handwritten approach. Students will quickly see how much time they can save by learning to dictate rather than writing by hand.
2. Help kids learn to speak clearly and articulately. Dictation tools are still not perfect and work best in a silent room, with words spoken at a normal rate and volume. Particularly for young kids, it's very important that the dictation device be trained to understand their voices, and that they use words whose spelling they will recognize. Teach kids some very basic dictation rules (such as "new line," "new paragraph," or "scratch that") to help them with simple editing and formatting tools.
3. Show kids how dictation can quickly get their words onto paper. Encourage kids to simply blurt out individual ideas, separating them by line, and help them recognize that this will result in a list that they can add to or edit.
4. Teach kids to dictate in prose. Before teaching kids this skill, demonstrate what conversational English looks like in dictation by talking to them (while dictating/recording) about something that you experienced earlier in the day. (Make sure to add some "you knows," "ands," and run-on sentences.) Then contrast your conversation with a written paragraph. The best way to do this is to take something students have already written, or an example of a well-written classroom assignment, and have them dictate the assignment with periods and paragraphs. This will help them learn to speak clearly and to consider how prose is different from conversation.
5. Help kids pay attention to sentence structure while dictating. One strategy is to ask kids questions and teach them to respond in complete sentences by mimicking your question. For example, ask, "Who was your favorite character in the book?" and teach kids to respond, "My favorite character in the book was..."
6. Connect dictation skills to word processing and editing. Dictation initially should be thought of as a tool to create drafts (which is exactly how this post was developed). Using dictation as an opportunity to overcome slow handwriting or difficulties in getting thoughts onto paper can help students to become competent writers; it may even keep a few students engaged in schoolwork who might otherwise have given up in frustration.