The Importance of Spelling and Handwriting in a Digital Age

This article appeared in Awsum on 1 June 2017: 

It’s a fair question for parents to consider: Why should my child learn to master the skills of spelling and handwriting in a world governed by spell checkers and keyboards? Isn’t the mere notion of teaching these skills as archaic as attempting to master trigonometry without the use of a scientific calculator? Edublox reading, maths and learning clinic investigates the importance of handwriting and spelling in the learning process and shares some tips on how to identify problems that children may be experiencing.

Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed many technological changes in the educational landscape. Certain skills, like spelling correctly and being able to write legibly by hand, however, still remain universally relevant. Although spell checkers and autocorrect functions may serve as proofing tools in order to communicate clearer messages, it should not deter children from learning the skills in the first place.

Pens and keyboards bring into play vastly different cognitive processes. Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by intent. Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.

If children do not master these skills, their spelling is likely to suffer as a result. Handwriting errors can cause a word look like another word, where slow, laboured writing of letters may cause a student to forget the word they are trying to write.

The skill of spelling embraces many subskills, such as the ability to perceive the whole in its individual parts, auditory perception of letter sounds and auditory memory, and decoding skills. Together, spelling and handwriting are important foundational skills in the learning process.   

The problem with teaching spelling in a digital age is that good language and strong spelling skills have become optional in the way that we communicate on social media and through the various devices available to us. Search engines are also incredibly forgiving and simply suggests the correct spelling of search terms without even prompting the user to consider where they went wrong. Traditionally, spelling does not allow any room for ‘creative’ answers or ‘style’ – a word is either spelled correctly or it is misspelled. It’s important that parents encourage their children to learn to spell correctly and to use spelling applications and emoticons as secondary tools in the communication process.

If parents notice that their children are struggling to spell despite an effort to do so without the help of digital tools, there might be underlying shortcomings that a reputable learning clinic can help to resolve. If the problems are caused by poor handwriting, which includes illegible or exceptionally slow writing, a child might be struggling with dysgraphia (a Greek term that encapsulates symptoms like trouble with pencil grip, mixing up cursive and print, and inconsistent spacing between words).

Ironically, there are online programs that are wonderful tools in a reputable learning clinic’s toolkit when it comes to reading and consequently spelling. Parents should look out for programs that aim to resolve learning and spelling problems and not simply enable the child to manage them better. Search for something that is visually engaging and fun to work with and one that tracks progress so that parents are aware of the child’s improvement.

Proper spelling and neat handwriting have definitely not become outdated skills. Especially with the rise of the digital age, parents should pursue solutions if their children are struggling and value these ‘manual’ skills – without it, we may see language take a back seat in years to come.

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