Whenever I can have my students do work on paper, I do. Paper is less wrought with temptation than a Chrome tab is; it requires no battery charge; you can move it around between people and places without copying a link or clicking a button.
I’m no Luddite, but I love the simplicity of paper.
The trouble with having students write things by hand, however, is that there are always at least a handful amongst my ninth graders who have significant struggles with writing legibly. As in, what they transcribe may as well be cuneiform.
Here’s what I've done that helps.
Teach the mini-lesson.
“All right, students, today before we dive into some knowledge-building, I want to teach you something that you might not think on much but that’s true nonetheless. Let’s get out spiral notebooks and label a fresh page just as I am up here on the camera: How to Improve Your Handwriting.
“Now, I know that for some of you, this isn’t a thing you need to do. Some of you write more clearly than the font you type with on Google Docs. I don’t know how you do this. I don’t know if you’re actually a cyborg in secret. I just know that you’ve got your handwriting down. But even for you hand-typers, listen: I think you might be able to take some insights away from this very brief lesson.
“All right – have you got that page labeled? Let’s go ahead and break this down.”
[spiral notebook example]
- Every time you write something = a chance to practice handwriting. Every hour in your day in which you’re given a chance to write something by hand you are also being given a chance to practice your handwriting.
- Handwriting is like [a skill or hobby you’ve gotten good at over time]. Think of handwriting like a learnable skill, such as playing an instrument or throwing a ball; some of you aren’t so good at playing an instrument – but all of you could be, with enough good practice and feedback. Handwriting is like that, too. You can all improve at it. Human beings are improvable creatures.
- Slow yourself down a bit. Lots of times if you just think, “I’m going to write a bit more slowly and carefully right now,” you’ll be able to focus on your skill and improve it a bit. That’s key for practice. So throughout your day, periodically think: “I’m going to write more slowly for the next five minutes.” And then, do it.
- Pick one letter to improve. Think of someone in class who you know has better handwriting than you. Pick just one letter in the way that they handwrite. Draw it as carefully as you can someplace that you’ll see it frequently – e.g., on the back of your hand, on an index card, in your binder – and then try to mimic it as best you can each time that you write that letter.
“Class – this is really it. These basic things will make you a better handwriter – not a handtyper, but a handwriter. And that’s all that we’re after with this little mini-lesson. Improvement: that’s it.”
In my experience, small Woodenizations like this can make a very big difference.
PS Here are some helpful thoughts from our colleague Sara Flores:
This is so true. I teach AP English in addition to English 9, and reading some hand written times student essays is simply NOT POSSIBLE. There's at least one kid per year in AP like that. So I give them “the talk” but I always say “pick one letter to work on” which I did myself as a high school student (my cursive “r” looked like a lump, so I worked on “r” until I got what I wanted, then wrote “a” like the computer for a while.
The other thing I do for AP is tell them to find a pen or pencil that helps improve their penmanship. A good or awful pen makes a big difference. Using a standard Bic stick produces sloppy handwriting from adult teacher me. But a smooth sharpie pen produces smooth, legible annotations for my kiddos to see on the doc cam.