On 18 February this year on the Chilean Teachers of English Facebook page, Arlenne Fer posted five reasons why reading from the printed page might be more useful than from a screen. Three years ago, in Saudi Arabia, a fellow teacher argued long and hard that writing with pen and paper was cognitively more powerful than tapping away at a keyboard.
In this post, I would like to look at these interrelated claims and examine their relevance to current practice in schools.
In 2013, the US Common Core Curriculum no longer dictated that all schools should teach students to use cursive script - or as we used to call it at school "joined-up writing". Printing individual letters by hand and keyboard skills remain obligatory though. This move followed by ten years the French government's decision that all primary schools should teach cursive script, rather than leaving it to secondary schools.
What could possibly explain this difference in opinion? The US position seems common sense: most adults rarely pen anything longer than a shopping list these days. Even minutes of meetings are usually recorded on tablets or mobile phones. Why, then, go to all the trouble of getting kids to write attractive joined up letters that often appear different in cursive script to the single printed versions?
Compare and J, for instance! Why burden kids who already have more than enough homework with the extra task of mastering a redundant skill?
France responds loud and clear. There is a great deal of evidence that framing each letter by hand improves kids' ability to recognise them (or even different versions of them) later. It doesn't matter whether we are kids or adults: it seems that the wide range of motor skills necessary to pen letters and words means that we bring a broader variety of cognitive skills into play, rather than when we repeat the monotonous and identical tapping of keys on a PC, ipad or phone. What's more, reading and writing cursive script enables us better to learn blocks of letters as sounds when young: -'tch' is a 'ch-' sound. This, of course, improves spelling of languages which are not phonetic and recognition of these letter combinations while reading.
Does that mean game, set and match to France?
The evidence for reading the printed page being more useful than reading from a screen is not so clear cut though. Although it's true that several studies have found reading paper-based texts improves our memory of them, the reasons why this is so remain elusive. It may be that the interactive features of the latest e-books distract the young or that readers have different expectations of what a written text has to offer than they do of a traditional book. In other words, we do not retain information as well or analyse what we read as incisively when we read from a screen as from the printed page not because looking at pixels somehow makes us stupid but because we don't expect stuff that we read on the Internet to be as serious and therefore to require as much attention as what we read in physical books.
Perhaps, then, we should return to the task of getting kids into reading in whatever format, rather than worrying about the respective merits of the printed page over a screen of whatever description.
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Images used in this post
Computer keyboard - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATastatur-deutsch-DSCN1783.jpg - by Mathias Bigge (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cursive script - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATreatises_On_Natural_Science%2C_Philosophy%2C_And_Mathematics_-_Mensuration.jpg - by unknown medieval authors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonssi
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