Help! They can’t write anymore
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN IMRAN KHAN looked into his notebook earlier this year, he found something that reminded him of his childhood, but only uglier—his handwriting. A 40-year-old resident of Mazgaon in Mumbai who works as a performer, playing the violin, riding his unicycle, and emceeing events, Khan never owned the most attractive handwriting. He had, in fact, been ridiculed all his life for it, including by his mother who would liken his letters to the shape of a crow’s feet, he says. But the pandemic, and the near absence of any writing required in those two years, had made it irredeemably worse. “It was just so ugly,” Khan says. “And I really had to do something about it.”
Khan isn’t the only one. With the advent of the personal computer and smartphones, a lot of writing, whether it is a formal note sent to your boss, an assignment submitted for classwork, or an emoji sent on an instant messaging app, has been moving online. But with schools and most offices shut for nearly two years through the course of the pandemic, and with it the need to write by hand, an already declining skill, has further hit the skids.
Anugraha, a corporate communications professional in her 40s, whose writing by hand had over the years become restricted to the occasional note-taking she did at meetings, found two weeks ago that she could barely write. “When my son recovered from an illness, I had to send a note explaining his absence from school. And just a line in, my hand had begun to cramp and I noticed that my letters had become unrecognisable,” she says. “It was shocking because before Covid, I still did some writing by hand. But during Covid, while working from home, there was no need to write at all. And now it’s like I haven’t [hand] written for years.”
Some have had it worse. An IT professional in Bengaluru, visiting a bank to fill a new document, was made to practise his signature because the cashier found it no longer matched his original sample. “I had to sit for like half-an-hour practising it. And the funny thing is that the cashier was saying there are many who are going through the same thing that I was,” he says.
Teachers are looking into the worksheets of their students for the first time in two years to find indecipherable squiggles. In response, schools are responding by organising handwriting remedial workshops. Anxious parents are accompanying their wards—and in some cases, adults themselves are turning to—handwriting coaches. “All this while parents and schools were worried about the impact of the closure on children’s academics and their psychology and emotions. Nobody thought about handwriting,” says Kunjal Gala, a popular handwriting coach in Mumbai’s Kandivali locality. The pandemic, handwriting coaches like her say, has turned out to be as much a pandemic of lost handwriting.
The decline of the skill over the years has led to a proliferation of handwriting centres and coaches across cities. So immense has been this demand for such coaches that Gala, a calligraphist who began conducting a popular handwriting improvement course, has instead begun to train only aspiring handwriting tutors. “I get parents offering four times the usual fees requesting me to teach their children, but I turn them to the teachers I have trained,” she says.
Gala estimates the teachers she has trained have collectively taught over 5,000 individuals in the last two years of the pandemic. “The requests are spiking now as schools have reopened. Every day, I get around 40 to 50 requests for new classes. This will get larger once summer break begins,” she says.
A vast majority of these are school students. Among them, a large section includes students in senior classes whose writing skills have so declined that their parents worry they will not be able to complete their board exam papers in time. Many are also children entering schools for the first time. “Those in Class 1 and 2 now, many of them have not been to a physical school before. They do not know even how to hold a pencil or have forgotten to hold one,” says Gala.
A lot of the debate on the decline of handwriting is really about the decline of the cursive script, the style of writing where each character is joined in a flowing manner and which was taught in a majority of schools in India until a few decades ago. Without the need to frequently lift our pens, it is generally believed that cursive allows individuals to write faster than other forms
Another section who sign up in these handwriting centres comprises adults. Some of them hope good handwriting will be their gateway into a new career, or some are just plain embarrassed. Among Jinkel Shah’s handwriting classes in Mumbai are two school teachers. “They were feeling embarrassed of their own handwriting in school. During the pandemic, it had become worse,” Shah says.
In these classes, students are taught how to grip their pens and pencils, how notebooks are to be kept at a specific angle, how their backs have to be straight, and the surface on which they write stable. Writing by hand has so deteriorated that these courses do not focus only on the writing of sentences across languages. They also comprise maths handwriting classes. And where a full course took about 15 to 20 days, these are now stretching to around 35 days. “It’s like people have forgotten how to write,” Shah says.
“When children were asked to copy down something from the screen during the pandemic, they would take screenshots instead,” says Imran Baig, who runs a popular handwriting centre called Global Penmanship Academy.
According to Gala, writing skills have deteriorated because there is very little stress on handwriting nowadays. Schools do not stress on handwriting improvement anymore, and a lot of assignments are now done online. “The school management will say improve your handwriting. But nobody will say how to improve it,” Gala says.
A lot of the debate on the decline of handwriting is really about the decline of the cursive script, the style of writing where each character is joined in a flowing manner and which was taught in a majority of schools in India until a few decades ago. Without the need to frequently lift our pens, it is generally believed that cursive allows individuals to write faster than other forms.
Although many Indian schools still insist on its use, others have moved away from it. “It was sometime around 2013 when we saw a phasing out of the cursive script from many schools,” says Anita Madan, the curriculum development head of EuroKids preschool. “Cursive requires advanced fine motor skills, and many children were finding it very difficult.” This was also around the time when the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks for American public schools, do not make it necessary for cursive to be taught anymore. “The idea was to have legible writing instead of cursive writing,” Madan says.
Some argue that it isn’t digital technology but when the ballpoint pen supplanted fountain pens, it rang the death knell for good handwriting, and more specifically, the cursive script. That even before computer keyboards turned so many people into carpal tunnel sufferers, the modern ballpoint pen—which some insist needs to be placed at a greater, more upright angle to the paper, a position that’s generally uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold—was already straining hands and wrists.
Janardhan began embarking on workshops to improve handwriting some decades ago. Instead of conducting workshops to improve writing for children, he has now veered towards conducting what he calls ‘masterclasses’ that stretch for three years, where he tutors adults
According to KC Janardhan, the reason handwriting skills are in decline boils down to the incorrect manner in which they are taught in schools, right from the time an HP pencil is thrust into the hands of a two or three-year-old with the instruction to press their pencils hard on the page to create a dark impression. The insistence on exams as the years roll by, and the push to write as much as possible during an exam, he says, has made handwriting suffer more. “And the cursive script has become a curse,” he says.
Janardhan is a handwriting romantic. A well-known member of a small but passionate group of pen collectors, he has a collection of over 600 century-old rare pens, quills and nibs, along with rare books, manuals and journals on the art of handwriting, many of which are open for display in a studio-cum-museum he has established in Bengaluru. “An adult can write no more than 18 to 22 words per minute in cursive legibly. In an exam of three hours, given the time it takes to read the question paper and the time taken to think, most students will write for about two-and-a-half hours. So, if an individual takes about 20 words per minute to write legibly and he does so for two-and-a-half hours, he can write only 3,000 words. We all know students are expected to write a lot more than that leading to all those misshaped letters that stick for life,” he says.
Janardhan began embarking on workshops to improve handwriting some decades ago when, while he was teaching at a business school, he would come across answer scripts filled with poor writing and abbreviations. Instead of conducting workshops to improve writing for children, he has now veered towards conducting what he calls “masterclasses” that stretch for three years, where he tutors adults, most of them teachers and some of the parents, in the hope that through them, he can reach out to more individuals.
There is perhaps no group of individuals as notorious for their illegible handwriting as doctors. There may be jokes about how medical school exams teach poor handwriting to medical students, but illegible scrawls on prescriptions are known to have hurt, and sometimes even killed patients. There are estimates that in the US, around 7,000 people die annually after being given the wrong medicine or dosage because of sloppy handwriting on prescriptions.
Chilukuri Paramathma, a pharmacist from Nalagonda in Telangana, has been running over a decade-long campaign against poorly written prescriptions. In a twist on the joke that only pharmacists can read a doctor’s handwriting, Paramathma grew tired of being handed illegible prescriptions and from reading about instances of wrong medicines being given. He started writing to various government departments and officials, and even filed a PIL in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, eventually leading to the Medical Council of India issuing guidelines in 2014 that doctors must write their prescriptions only in capital letters.
While many doctors do write in capital letters—in Telangana, for instance, many prescription letters come printed with the instruction that doctors should write in capital letters—most continue writing in cursive. The absence of any penalties has ensured that the guidelines are mostly toothless, says Paramathma. He has been trying to lobby for the inclusion of some form of penalty. Recently, he’s begun distributing white coats that pharmacists wear with the phrase “Ask your doctor for prescription in capital letters” embroidered upon them to pharmacists in Nalagonda. “People take it as a joke. But bad handwriting in the medical field kills people,” he says.
According to Gala, writing skills have deteriorated because there is very little stress on handwriting nowadays. Schools do not stress on handwriting improvement anymore, and a lot of assignments are now done online
Reading an individual’s handwriting—especially one belonging to a doctor—may be difficult. But in future, it might be possible for a computer to do it. Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is the electronic conversion of images with typed, handwritten or printed text into digital text, might have been the butt of jokes until some years ago (The Guardian once found the word “arms” being read as “anus” by an OCR scanner, leading to lines such as: “Mrs Tipton went over to him and put her anus around his neck. ‘My dear,’ she said, rapturously. ‘I have been hoping for years that you would talk that way to me.’”), but the technology is now moving by leaps and bounds, and many smartphones can now recognise the text in photographs.
A recent study published in Scientific Reports, a journal in the Nature portfolio, proposes a machine learning approach to recognise doctors’ handwriting in developing countries where a majority of prescriptions are still handwritten. A group of researchers from Japan and Bangladesh developed a “Handwritten Medical Term Corpus” dataset containing 17,431 samples of 480 medical terms. In order to improve the recognition efficiency, this paper introduces a data augmentation technique to widen the variety and increase the sample size leading to 93 per cent average accuracy. “The proposed handwritten [sic] recognition technology can be installed in a smart pen for busy doctors, that will recognise the writings and digitize [sic] them in real-time,” the researchers write. Such a smart pen where a handwriting recognition tool can be installed is, according to the researchers, part of ongoing work at their research institution.
In Mumbai’s Charkop region, such a proposed future where a pen can detect a doctor’s handwriting is a long way off from Pinky Vaghela’s mind. The mother of a 10-year-old son Jeniil Vaghela, who is currently in Class 5, had worried for many years that he wrote far too quickly. “He’s a good student. But his problem is he is always in a rush to complete his papers,” she says. The pandemic made this habit and his handwriting worse. After she put him through a handwriting course, for the first time, his handwriting is beginning to earn praise from his teachers.
“Now, I sit down with him and get him to write five lines in English and Hindi every day,” she says. “I don’t want him to lose this skill.”