Saving the written word from the pandemic’s assault
Educators, handwriting experts and occupational therapists say that two years of online classes have taken a severe toll on children’s handwriting. A survey published last year also said that the handwriting of around 75% of the students in the country had been adversely affected.
When Jyoti Arora, principal, Mount Abu Public School, Delhi, decided to inspect classrooms after schools reopened last week, what she saw worried her. “Students were reluctant to take notes despite teachers repeatedly asking them to do so. I checked some of their notebooks and their handwriting was simply illegible,” says Arora. “Students seem to have forgotten how to write during the two years of the pandemic since they mostly attended classes online.”
Not just Arora, educators, handwriting experts and occupational therapists across the city say that two years of online classes have taken a severe toll on children’s handwriting. The All India School Education Survey, by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), published last year, also said that the handwriting of around 75% of the students in the country had been adversely affected during the pandemic as students were focused on listening to teachers rather than taking down notes during online classes.
“While we have discussed the effects of the pandemic on children’s learning, there has not been any discussion of its adverse effect on their handwriting, which has emerged as a serious issue. It has to do with the fact that a majority of students just stopped taking notes, and the teachers could not do much as most students preferred to keep their cameras off during online classes,” says Tania Joshi, principal, The Indian School, Delhi. “Students have to submit their notebooks to teachers during in-person classes, so they used to be conscious of their writing, but not so during online classes,” she adds.
Joshi says her school teaches the cursive writing style, and has always focused on students’ handwriting. “We will soon organise handwriting workshops for students of classes 10 and 12 who will be appearing for the board exams, which will be held in the traditional descriptive format this year. So, they cannot afford to have bad handwriting,” she says.
In fact, many parents, worried about their children’s handwriting, are also hiring handwriting coaches. Take, for example, Dheeraj Batra, an IT professional. Last year, he saw a sharp deterioration in the handwriting of his daughter, a student of Class 6 in a Noida school. “Her handwriting used to be pretty good before the pandemic, so I got worried and decided to seek professional help,” says Batra. Currently, his daughter is being privately coached by a handwriting expert.
Nidhi Gupta, a calligraphist and handwriting expert who runs Likhavat Academy, a handwriting coaching institute in Delhi, says children’s writing has gotten worse not just because of lack of practice, but also because of their mental state during the pandemic. Most schools in Delhi, she says, follow the print or cursive handwriting style, which requires getting the zone, the slant, the pen pressure, and the baseline of letters right. “ But all of this has gone haywire. While 5- to 7-year-olds are having problems with their zones and slants, older children have problems with pen pressure, which reflects their restlessness. Poor handwriting is also a sign of how children’s physical and mental health has suffered during the pandemic. ”
Enrolments at her academy, which provides both offline and online writing classes, has gone up three times--over 600 students have been coached--in the past year.
Sudhir Kumar, founder, Writing Guru, a handwriting institute, too says the demand for handwriting classes has increased threefold in the past year. Most of it is coming from parents of children in classes 1 to 7, but schools are also approaching us for workshops. “We have developed our own unique methodology, including engraved wood slates and customised notebooks, to improve handwriting,” says Kumar.
Schools say while there has been a decline in the handwriting skills of students in all classes, the case of students in nursery classes is particularly worrisome since they have been unable to attend school in the past two years. “You learn how to hold a pencil, form and join letters, and make words at ages 5 and 6. The physical presence of teachers is very crucial during this stage of schooling,” says Jyoti Arora.
Occupational therapists agree. They say they are being approached by worried parents of nursery students about their children’s difficulties with writing. “ Writing is a whole-body process, involving visual-motor and cognitive-perceptual skills, among others. These need to be honed at an early stage,” says Dr Arpan Kumar, an occupational therapist and a certified HWT (Handwriting Without Tears) coach, who runs OT4Kids, a multi-therapy centre for Children in Delhi. HWT is a multisensory approach to teaching and remediating handwriting.
The number of children at his centres, he says, has doubled in the past year. “Some of them complain of hand cramps and stressed muscles while they write. This is because of the incorrect tripod grip (a grip formed using three fingers) , which also hampers concentration and cognitive flow. This is a result of the lack of pencil-to-paper tasks at home during the pandemic,” he says.
Mohan Ray, who runs Institute of Healthy Handwriting, concurs, saying that during the pandemic many children developed “writer’s cramp” --focal hand dystonia--characterised by excessive, involuntary muscle contractions in the fingers, hand, forearm, and sometimes shoulders, that can make writing painful and written work less legible. “It is the result of the excessive use of touch screens, and lack of use of pens for long periods,” says Ray.
Dr Arpan Kumar says that teachers of nursery classes have an onerous job on their hands as schools get ready to open for primary classes. “They will have to assess each child individually on their handwriting abilities and deploy a range of customised remedial measures. There is a direct relation between penmanship, cognitive development and learning. Poor handwriting cannot be ignored,” he says.
“Teachers and parents need to work together to remedy the situation,” says Jyoti Arora.