I have had a number of conversations recently with teachers about the role of digital technologies in the teaching of writing. I spend a lot of my professional learning delivery around the teaching of writing with a focus on Māori and Pasifika boys through Spirals of Inquiry — looking at making changes in teacher practice to engage and enhance learning experiences for their learners.
I have a habit of saying that the changes that we make to our practice need to make enough of a positive change to warrant the time and energy for teachers to learn new things and strive to make things better for their learners. We need to ensure that our time is well spent as there is not a lot of it to go round.
Teachers with school entrants are telling me that children need to learn to write by hand first before engaging in digital technologies and that too much ‘screen time’ is bad for young children’s brains. The media bemoans that children no longer know how to hold a pencil.
And, those that I work within a secondary school argue that using digital technologies is somehow ‘cheating’. When doing assessments, students having access to the red squiggly line to draw attention to and correct spelling mistakes, use the right click for Thesaurus or Speech to text in Google Docs gives some students an unfair advantage somehow.
I would disagree — as you would expect me to, I suppose.
We have discussions in primary schools around when to start using a keyboard. I would say, as soon as children start school or before. I don’t think we are ready yet to completely do away with the need for people to be able to write with a pen or pencil, but I don’t think it needs to be given the emphasis that it once had. I acknowledge that watching a young child unfamiliar with writing digitally peck away at a keyboard can be frustratingly slow, but we can’t wait until they are seven years old to have them become familiar with the keyboard. That is passing the buck to someone else and leaving it too long.
For my students, I would give them a ‘get out of jail free’ pass if they could print legibly across the curriculum. They would then no longer have to participate in handwriting lessons and could do other more engaging things such as learning how to locate keys on a keyboard and touch type using the myriad of free typing websites and apps. On reflection, maybe it should have been the other way round — those who struggle to write legibly need even more access to digital forms of being able to write.
Learning to touch type would be nice, but again, I don’t think it is as important as it once was. Google Voice Typing, Siri, and other accessibility features make touch typing less important. We explored using Swype with my year four students and they picked it up really quickly. With Swype, you glide your finger over a mobile keyboard to form words. You get very fast at typing with just one finger.
We have discussions in intermediate and secondary schools around NCEA assessments and the way some institutions and practices are clinging on to ways of the past. I think many secondary schools are yet to embrace BYOD cloud-based platforms and accessing a computer suite a way of addressing digital needs of students like primary schools do. Primary schools tend to enable more ready access to devices throughout the school day and across the curriculum. I fear for more digitally capable students leaving primary schools and having limited access to devices as they mature through the education system.
I want all students to have access to the support of the digital technologies that I have as an adult:
- the ability to choose the right tool for the job — iPhone, iPad, iPad keyboard, Apple Pencil, Chromebook, laptop…
- the right-click to support accurate spelling, grammar checkers, thesaurus
- digital planning and editing tools
- the ability to publish my work and gather feedback from others as I am doing here.
‘I tell teachers about a year eight student who I showed how to use Voice Typing in Google Docs. Up to that stage he had only really ever written using Clicker7 throughout his primary school years and after all that time was still not a confident writer and still needed adult assistance. On my next visit to his class, he showed me an assessed Level Four piece of writing that he had done on his own, on a device that everyone could use. I had a small tear in my eye as he said he could see himself now as being a writer, which he never could before.’
If we were to just assess the finished writing sample, could he truly be assessed in writing at Level Four or do children have to have struggled with writing with a pen or finding letters on a keyboard and spell them correctly to say that they really are Level Four Writers? Is it the process or the product that is important at the end of a learning journey?
How often and for what purpose do you write with a pen? For me, I might scribe some notes as a ‘to do list’ that I want for a physical reminder and make an attempt at a Christmas card or two for elderly relatives — but that’s about it.
Think of our students’ lives beyond school.
Think of the world that they are entering — their futures — not ours.
When do you write with pen and paper? So why do we still put so much emphasis on that skill?
Feature image by the author