Changing writing

I can just remember the last two occasions on which I signed my name. The first, a fortnight ago, was when I validated a friend’s passport photograph and the second, only the other day, involved signing for a parcel – and for that I used a fingernail to scrawl my name on a handheld device. With the rise of card payment and the almost complete disappearance of handwritten letters and memos at work it seems like the signature is in terminal decline. Of course there are still some very important functions that signing fulfils, but they’re less common these days. Like other kinds of writing, signatures are changing. The point I want to make here is one that has preoccupied me throughout my research career. It’s quite simple. Writing is changing rapidly – and so is communication as a whole. And whether we like it or not, this is a challenge for educators at all levels.

In our recent book New Media in the Classroom Cathy Burnett and I tackle this issue by describing some of the creative ways in which early years and primary school teachers have encouraged children to use new forms of communication in the classroom. This is in full recognition of the popularity of Snapchat and WhatsApp, the ubiquity of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, and the rapid take up of hashtags and emojis. But what about writing your name, holding a pen or developing fine motor skills for a legible cursive hand?

When you profess an interest in the changing nature of writing, people seem to automatically assume that you don’t like pens, pencils or biros. But actually I’m interested in the whole rich tapestry of human communication from Roman clay tablets to Chinese typewriters; from the invention of moveable type in Korea (yes, Korea, not Germany as you may have thought) to the recent evolution of predictive text – not forgetting, of course the proliferation of YouTube channels – and that’s before you get to the SIoE blog and Twitter accounts! None of these have supplanted other means of communication. But yet full participation in social, civic and working life does always require a familiarity with the communicative tools involved. It’s not as if writing is dying out, it’s just that human communication is becoming more complex and more diverse.

The recent Guardian Roundtable on Handwriting was an attempt to get to grips with the implications of all this for schools. Should we be spending more time on letter formation or should we dump all that in favour of keyboard skills? Of course, the question itself over-simplifies the topic. Still the discussion had to pick its way between the rock of romanticism (the golden age of copperplate – wasn’t it beautiful?) and the hard place of futurism (speech recognition software will soon be so good that in five years time we’ll all be doing hands-free writing). In reality most of us still use pen and paper – we need those skills, but their share in the economy of communication is much reduced. I believe that children should have access to the full range of communication skills, and for those who for one reason or another find pencil control difficult, there are now other tools to choose from. At least for now you need to be able to sign your name as well as find your way around a keyboard. I’m very pleased about that, because as a teenager I invested considerable effort in perfecting a distinctive and marginally legible signature. At least I can still use it, from time to time!

Guy Merchant is a Professor of Literacy in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education