Digital Writing vs. Hand Writing

The ELA TAKS test is on the horizon.  Students will be taking it on February 18th.  As the test draws near I am reminded of a debate that often takes place between English teachers. 

Can students learn how to write digitally?  Can students write using a word processor and then turn around and take a test on paper and be successful? Can you teach literacy skills on a computer?

I think so, but many English teachers (and teachers in general) disagree.  In my opinion, it is the process that matters and not so much the logistics.  Regardless of whether a student is using a laptop or paper, there are certain skills that must be taught in order for one to learn how to write well.  I think this can be done digitally and/or on paper.  In fact, I kind of like a mix of the two.

I learned how to write logistically (my letters and such) on paper when I was in elementary school, but by the time I was in middle school and needed to actually compose papers, we had a computer at home and this is where I did most of my writing. I would write a draft, read through it and make corrections, and when I got it the way I wanted, I would print my final copy. Then I would go back and make errors in the paper and print it for my rough draft, and then I did my pre-writing.  Backwards, I know, but my planning and organization happens in my head, and I usually don’t start writing until I have it all organized and ready to go.  This process has always seemed to work well for me.

In fact, I have a really hard time composing things on paper. I can’t seem to get the flow of writing going until I have a keyboard in front of me.  Maybe many of our students feel this way too and this is why some teachers insist that they write on paper so they can get prepared to write on paper for the TAKS test.  I don’t know…

When I taught English, I liked to give the students the choice to either write digitally or on paper.  Most times they chose their laptop, but sometimes students preferred to write their essays out on notebook paper. Either option was fine with me.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I feel like we are doing students a disservice if we don’t allow them the choice to learn how to compose digitally.  I understand they need to pass the TAKS test, and they may need to practice the actual logistics of handwriting and using a “real” dictionary and thesaurus.  I understand this reasoning, but I hope that teachers are also giving students a chance to learn how to compose in a format that can be easily edited and altered so they can experience the fluidity of writing.

Writing should be fun and creative.  It should be a process of expression and reflection. It shouldn’t always follow a direct prescriptive path, but I am afraid that most students view writing as a chore.  It is a formulaic method of textual evidence, research, citations – all of which are important skills to know – I just hope that through the preparation for standardized tests we don’t extinguish students’ joy for writing.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the digital vs. hand written debate…

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5 Comments on “Digital Writing vs. Hand Writing”

  1. Keith Says:

    The largest concern I have (and I’m sure others concern as well) with the digital writing aspect is the spelling and grammar mistakes that the computer catches. With so many of our students being fairly new the English language, they won’t catch many of these mistakes with their own proofreading and with no one else to proofread it for them as well.


  2. Keith,

    Yours is the concern I hear voiced most frequently. I understand fear/concern that the spell and grammar checker are going to do a lot of the work in the students’ revision of their writing, but I think that is okay. I think the majority of adults use these features when they compose papers as well (I know I do). I certainly believe we need to continue to teach literacy skills like grammar and spelling because they are fundamental to effective communication (and let’s face it – spell and grammar check are not always accurate). The concern for spell check reminds me of the concern that students use calculators instead of doing the math themselves – these are tools to assist students and are not meant to replace the student’s personal knowledge.

    I also think writing digitally allows easier access for others to read and review someone’s work. When I taught English, I had students e-mail their documents to a peer (in or out of their class) and solicit at least three peer revisions using the editing features in Word… now it is even easier. Writing collaboration can be done with wikis, Writely and Google documents… it is pretty amazing.

    I do understand teachers’ concerns with spell check and collaboration because students will not have any of this assistance when they take standardized tests like the TAKS, BUT they have these tools in the “real world” so I hope they are not being neglected in the classrooms.

    Thank you for your input!

  3. kstringer Says:

    If I am not writing words or numbers on a board, on paper, or even in the air, I can have a difficult time getting words, to come out of my mouth. Often times I cannot even recall a word or words without doodling, writing, or drawing a picture. Its almost as if my hand has some type of memory system. Similar to Akeelah (from the Bee) tapping her hand or jumping rope to help her to spell. At least once or twice a week I find myself asking my students to wait just a sec, I need to get a pen so I can “think” how to explain a concept to them. I am curious now to know if there is any brain science data that supports handwriting over typing or vice versa and how it relates to literacy.

  4. Francis of Pa Says:

    From my own personal experience, I think using only the computer robs you of the tactile nature of writing by hand. Indeed, there is a marked drop in penmanship as students are schooled so much on keyboards. I believe you need to have the ability to quickly jot your notes and thoughts by hand. Let’s face it, a computer isn’t always handy or useful. Try interviewing a client with a laptop in front of you, typing notes away. It isn’t very effective, and can even be distracting.

  5. sfulmer Says:

    Until the TAKS test becomes electronic, my students will continue to practice writing TAKS essays on paper. I agree that it’s easier for most to get their thoughts down on quickly using a keyboard. I prefer to type than handwrite, but I have my high school diploma. I also agree that it’s important to teaching them both ways of writing. That’s why we the computer for writing assignments in the 1st, 5th, and 6th six weeks, but as the testing date nears, we begin simulating the “real” test environment. Unfortunately, most of our students cannot take concepts taught to them and interpret them another way. That’s why we end up teaching to the test. Our students need to practice the real test. My first and foremost goal is to help them pass so that they can graduate. If my students’ skills were where they actually should be then things might be different. I spend too much time teaching basic writing skills that were covered in 6th-8th grades. Why am I teaching theses same skills again to 11th graders?


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