“I’ve always dismissed that fact because my teachers could read my handwriting and because, in my opinion, it was the teachers’ job to decipher what I wrote,” Needler said.
However, during a recent test in Chris Millsback’s math class, Needler’s mother’s prediction came true.
“One of my answers simplified to an expression with a fraction and the variable ‘x’ at the end,” Needler said. “I just wrote an ‘x’ next to the fraction, because I knew in my head where the fraction bar ended and the variable began.”
However, Millsback graded the question as if the “x’’ was part of the fraction, not next to it, and he took off points.
And this happened four other times on the test.
“I understand why he took off points,” Needler said. “If this were to happen in a real science or math field, my carelessness could have led a reader to believe my fraction was something very different.”
Most Country Day teachers agree that bad handwriting can influence grades, but they have differing opinions on how to handle this problem.
Latin teacher Jane Batarseh is one of them.
“There is a student in my AP Latin class whose handwriting I just can’t read,” Batarseh said.
“I underline words I can’t understand and ask the student about them later.”
She also lets students write essays on the computer.
Batarseh said that because this student is part of a very small class, it doesn’t affect her curriculum very much, but in a larger class, bad handwriting can impact the curriculum.
“Many Latin words need to have diacritical markings,” Batarseh said. “Adding these on the computer is a slow process if your computer isn’t installed for Latin writing.”
Of course, students with bad handwriting could type out their homework without the markings, and add them later by hand, but this process is very time-consuming, Batarseh said.
Biology teacher Kellie Whited said bad handwriting impacts her class because much of the way science teachers test students’ knowledge is written, not math-based.
“I make short answer questions, fill-in-the-blank questions and essays to show that a student understands (the material) and isn’t regurgitating information,” Whited said.
“If I cannot read their handwriting, it can be very difficult to grade the assignment, because in (classes like) biology we use very specific terms with very specific spellings.”
In Whited’s classes, there are typically two or three students whose handwriting is so bad that she can’t read it, she said.
“Once I tell (the student) that I cannot read their handwriting – that it’s impacting their grade and that it takes a lot of time to grade their assignments – they try their best to write as clearly as they can,” Whited said.
If Whited can’t read what letter a student wrote on a multiple-choice question, she consults the other science teachers and, without showing them the question, asks them what letter they think the student wrote.
“If they both say the same letter, I grade the answer as being that letter. If they say a different letter, I ask the students themselves.”
“However, if the student wrote a paragraph or essay that I can’t read, grading becomes more complicated, and (their handwriting) can unfortunately impact their grade if I interpret something wrong.”
Whited allows students with bad handwriting to type homework assignments and sometimes tests.
She also can give the students “extra time on tests so they can take their time to write clearly instead of writing fast and sloppy.”
“I think the problem can be handled on a student-by-student basis and not a schoolwide basis, especially because teachers have different teaching methods,” Whited said.
English teacher Jane Bauman might have an easier solution. “I believe this is a developmental issue,” Bauman said.
“Students’ cursive handwriting won’t get better unless they practice, because good cursive is a skill you develop through practice, like playing the piano.
“My daughter (Claire, ‘09), for example, decided that her goal during her time at college would be to improve her cursive. She took notes by hand in every class, and her cursive improved a lot.”
Bauman said that students should pursue activities during which they try to improve their cursive, such as journals, letters, thank-you notes, notes they take in class or the first draft of an essay.
“Typing is great for publishing and coming up with a final product that is readable,” Bauman said. “But your cursive won’t get better unless you practice.
“I have seen kids who put effort into improving their writing be very pleased with their results.”
An example is the SAT essay, which is still handwritten.
“The essay is certainly important and needs to be legible,” Bauman said.
“You can’t expect to sit down the day before the SAT and have perfect cursive. You have to practice.”
A former grader of SAT essays said the College Board assesses its hired graders on both accuracy and speed.
“If I got an essay that had terrible handwriting, I was already a little miffed because I worried it might affect my speed rating,” she said. “It took me a long time to read and decipher some tests.
“It’s never a good thing to have the grader feeling irritated after reading just one word.”
But some students say no amount of practice can fix their handwriting.
Junior Carlos Nuñez has been diagnosed with dysgraphia, which means not only that his handwriting is messy and he writes slower but also that he has a harder time expressing himself when writing by hand.
Nuñez learned to write in school, but because he has had dysgraphia his entire life, his handwriting has been bad ever since lower school.
“I used to practice writing with my mom, tutors and teachers after school,” Nuñez said.
“To make it legible, I have to write at a slower pace, and occasionally I have to go back and rewrite letters,” Nuñez said. “I have to press very hard on pencils and pens to write neatly, so if I have to write longer pieces, I must rest my hand a lot.”
Teachers have commented on Nuñez’s handwriting since lower school, but he said the comments have decreased.
“When there is something that has to be written by hand, it’s rarely an in-class assignment, so I don’t have to worry about trying to write quickly,” Nuñez said.
But what about students whose handwriting is legible? How should they do their work? Many teachers are torn between the positive effect writing by hand has on students’ memory and the easiness of grading typed work.
English teacher Ron Bell believes major assignments should be typed.
However, he still grades quizzes and small assignments by hand. And he prefers students take notes that way.
“Research has shown that if you write something by hand, you remember it better,” Bell said. “There is also a completely different thought process that goes with computers as opposed to writing by hand.”
Bauman believes that students should write the notes they take in class by hand and type them out later.
“When you write notes by hand, you remember the information better, but students shouldn’t feel the pressure to organize their notes as they write them,” she said.
And Bauman also values the speed of cursive writing.
“You can keep up with your train of thought,” she said.
Ironically, Bell’s students often struggle to read his handwriting.
“I’ve always had bad handwriting,” Bell said. “I refused to learn how to write in cursive when I was a child.
“I felt that it was a violation of my individuality to be taught to write exactly like everyone else.”
Bell now suffers from arthritis in his hands, causing his letters to be very angular, he said. Therefore, he lets students turn in major assignments online so he can type comments.
—By Héloïse Schep