The right tools for writing?

Pencils in Class (photo by author)

At the moment I’m doing some nannying work for 3 boys. Boy B had a writing assignment for homework which he left to the last minute and was struggling to come up with something to turn in. His topic was to write a news report on Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. Boy B had some good ideas emerging but was frustrated and bored during the editing process.

I worked with Boy B on some writing strategies such as getting into character and reading the work out loud. I also reminded him to check he had answered who, what, where, why, when and how. He then added in some adjectives and managed to construct a title which used both an alliteration and a pun. Pretty cool work for a year 6 student but more importantly I could hear Boy B’s voice shining through in his story.

When I asked him to reflect on his work he seemed more concerned about what his teacher might be angry about how his book looked than that he had plugged away editing his work until he came up with a great story. I also noticed that although Boy B was using google to check his spelling, he was handwriting story. I asked him why he didn’t just type his assignment and apparently he had towrite his piece by hand.

Is this what turns kids off from writing?

Being forced to used outdated tools and worrying  that their work doesn’t fit in between the lines at the expense of finding their voice.Writing is supposed to be a messy process!

Students need to go back and rehash sentences, move ideas around, expand and contract sentences, choose different words and recheck their spelling. This is so much easier for children to do on a word processor than on paper. Yet I’m guessing most kids are like Boy B. Still being told that they need to hand write their stories and then if they are lucky, they might get to publish their work on a computer if it is deemed worthy enough. This is entirely the wrong way around.

Everybody repeat after me three times: a word processor is not a typewriter.

I would rather let Boy B have a messy page, or better yet, use a computer to get his ideas out than have him worried about what his teacher might thing of his scribbling out. In fact I would rather have kids typing their stories then handwriting finished products if we must insist on spending hours drilling students on handwriting.

Of course the problem is that most schools don’t have enough devices to ensure each kid has a keyboard and the easiest way to allocate the resource for some teachers might be to let the earlier finishers get time on the computer. I would argue that the reverse is true. It’s the kids who struggle with the mechanics of handwriting who need to be put in front of a computer to get their ideas into written form.

Ah the purists say but students need to be able to hand write otherwise how will they learn how to write?

To which I wonder what is the real purpose of our writing? Writing perfectly formed letters or the ability to communicate ideas through words. Because the only time I have been required to hand write a document of any length in the last ten years has been for exams and teacher’s college applications.

And there in lies the problem.

Our education system still uses 19th century tools to assess 21st century students.  We pass these outdated methods of working onto our new teachers to inflict more misery onto young writers who have a voice but who might not yet have developed the fine motorskills to handwrite but could quite happily pound away on a keyboard except we won’t let them.

To quote REM withdrawal in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.

20 thoughts on “The right tools for writing?

Add yours

  1. I agree so far and look forward to some thought provoking comments to help me see all sides of the story. I had a very reluctant reader in my last practicum – no more that one line in the work book per attempt for the whole year. Being a student teacher I had the great excuse to pass him my computer and say go for it. He had over 100 words in the 15 minutes and for him that was a miracle. What is more important the ideas and the ability to communicate ideas or the handwriting. looking forward to furthering my learning .




    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for your comment. Putting technology into the hands of kids is important as I don’t think we know what we don’t know about how kids learn on computers.



  2. My son’s primary school teachers all insisted that not using the computer for writing exercises was because they wanted to be able to evidence the drafting process and this simply is able to occur when students were able to use the computer. I can see their point but I am still not 100% convinced. My son was harangued for years because when he wrote by hand he didn’t use cursive script. It was only when he was in the last years of primary school that I noticed he actually forms his letters backwards (i.e. he starts the letter where most people end it) and so it was impossible for him to write in cursive script. Thankfully now he is in secondary school (and a technology friendly and advanced school) he is able to use a computer to do most of his work (utilising word-processing, Prezzi and other programs).


    1. Hi Bri,
      This makes me a little angry. Most programmes have track changes on it which enable assessors to be able to see changes a student makes. Great to hear that your son has progressed out of the dark ages.



  3. Hi Bri, that is a true point, we do need to see evidence of drafting and thinking that has occurred to support further learning. I was wondering though if google docs could be used and changes recorded. So would it be possible to have the student write the first draft and then change into edit mode and look at the ‘revisions history’ to see the changes or perhaps save the second and pursuing drafts under a different name and then we can have a record of the process. Thanks you for highlighting for me a valid reason to consider.
    Cheers Sandy


  4. In Word there is actually an option to “Track Changes” and these can be shown on screen and/or on the printed document, so it’s no problem at all to follow the drafting/thinking process. (I’m not sure if Pages does this – I imagine it would though).
    As a teacher and the mother of a child with handwriting difficulties, I am a huge fan of encouraging children to draft on the computer. My son’s ability as a writer was often judged by the quality of the handwriting because some people wouldn’t make the effort to look beyond the scrawl, and notice the amazing ideas, advanced vocabulary and depth of thought contained in the actual writing.
    My son can touch type and has been able to do so from quite a young age so for him using a computer has been ideal. At one point in his Primary schooling his teacher and I had agreed that he draft on the computer and publish by hand in order to still practise the skill without it hindering his thinking. I felt this was a reasonable compromise because at the present time handwriting is still a skill he needs to have e.g. when having to do exams.
    An interesting observation I have made is that sometimes those children who find handwriting difficult actually don’t want to draft on the computer because they find that laborious as well. This may have something to do with lack of exposure, only knowing how to use the search and peck method of typing or just generally being totally put off the whole idea of writing – but is something to take into consideration I think. Would love to hear other’s opinions on this.


    1. An interesting last question Kirsten. I think part of the problem is that while we have books and books on teaching kids to handwrite typing is still left to the ‘lap of the gods’ so to speak. Will be interesting issue to explore next year for sure.



  5. Hi Kirsten and Stephanie. I went to a school the other day and in the classroom there was this gigantic old chalk blackboard, just about from floor to ceiling and about the same from door to wall. I remember from my playcentre training the importance of scribble and straight away my ideas and excitement perked up at what a wonderful scribble board this would make. What I am thinking of at the moment is the learn through play concept, the time allowed to experiment and doodle, we can do the same with the keyboard and the computers/ electronic devices. I think that with writing the pressures to get it ALL right, handwriting, spaces, spelling, ideas structure ect has been embedded into the learning, I see the keyboard and computer as a way of helping ease some of those pressure. My 12 year old has trained my computer to recognise her voice and takes great delight in using that tool. So perhaps we can still use devices to support writing without the absolute need for the handwriting skills, whether they be pen and pencil or keyboad typing.

    Thanks- and my next thought why do we use pencils anyway, what is the reasoning and logic behind this??


    1. Hi Sandy,
      I’m hoping to have my own ‘scribble’ area by using whiteboard paint on a blank wall. Great idea!

      The reasoning behind using pencils is 1. Kids don’t make a mess of themselves (though I still have my hands covered ink when using pens). 2. Pencils can be erased therefore kids don’t make a mess of their books and chew through paper.



  6. Writing is one of educations “sacred cows” and the teachers who take to task the sacred cows …… well there are appraisal systems to take care of them!!!!
    Any revolution and paradigm shift requires leaders and in the history of revolutions there are casualties…….
    now consider, salary, mortgage, and the nature of fear.
    Yes things will change,and it is for the young teachers, and the youth to promote this change ….. oops now consider adding career prospects and traditional authority.


  7. Students need to learn how to read and write…. this can not be replaced by computers…. or by any other means… yes word processing can be an activity along side publishing but all good writers draft their writing and then go on and change and add content to their writing…. I think some traditional forms are good for the children… we have so many good things from out system, some of those things need to come back… we had taken out phonics from our system, seaseme street was removed from our tv programe… and saw that children were struggling with literacy in general. I am new teacher but I believe that some of these old stuff are still goood and they need to remain here….
    – Show quoted text –


    1. Hi Steffeny
      Thanks for dropping by. I’m curious when you say that writers need to draft their writing, changing and content that using a word processor is some how mutually exclusive to this activity. If anything it makes that process a lot easier.



  8. I have a really bright, gifted child in my class who is great at maths… he is year 3 but working at a year 5 level… his reading is of very high standard according to the national standards PM Benchmark Level 30, however he is a reluctant writer. messy handwriting, he is so low… when it comes to writing….. now I have said to him ” Look I know that you don’t like writing but, if you could give me your best writing, I will not look at the mess, but only your ideas, sequence and grammar.”.. He improved straight away… took him a while- half a term but I think he wasn’t interested because in the past other teachers have judged his writing, yelled at him to write neatly and that has had a negative effect on him… now he gets to publish it on the computer.. before anyone else he he writes and finishes in time…. as a reward ! I think with boys we need to make things a little interesting ( and girls- it should be any different)… it can be a boy thing at times…but as teachers we need to know our students, what is motivating for them as individuals… every child is different and tick in different ways!!


    1. Hi again Steffeny
      I find it a bit dangerous to make assumptions around gender in anything but especially education so as you are right you need to know your students.



  9. Variety is the spice of life! On occasion, we still need to write messages, scribble down notes, computers are not always available – especially in a power outage! I believe it is important for children to learn using a variety of tools whether it is a computer, dictation or a pencil, using all different techniques accommodates different learning styles.


  10. Hi Stephanie

    Yes, I thought someone would pick up on the gender issue however, I read a reading at university that talked about how we could raise achievement within boys and the the implications for teachers…. and that reading kind of made sense to me… I will try to look for the reading and will post the link on this web… just give me a few days…. and you are correct it is dangerous to make assumptions… but you know I find that most of the teaching staff are women and in most cases boys do need a good role model if they don’t have one at home…. there’re just some things that a man can teach boys! And again, this is a assumption, or my personal belief as well… I will try and locate that reading that I talked about before! thanks….

    Writing- there is something special about holding a pencil and putting your thoughts down on the paper…very important skill for a child to have and it starts early on as young as 2 or 3 years old… I have no theories to support this thought at this stage. its just my personal observation & experiences in teaching junior classes and my many years in the teaching sector ….. however, thank you and I appreciate your views…


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