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Related but different: What is a good handwriting font for mathematics?

A (former) student of mine (no longer! Thankfully passed his Trigonometry regents last week:) had a problem with his handwriting -- I am not exaggerating when I say that at times, he would not be able to read what he wrote 30 seconds before.
The student is in 11th grade, around 16-17 years old.

Needless to say, this was a problem for a number of reasons:

  • Occasionally, as I watched him solve a problem, he would misinterpret work he had done on a problem earlier, thereby finding a wrong answer, when he really understood the material and did all the right work (what a waste!)
  • While not verified, this probably also caused problems with teachers grading tests -- I would imagine that sometimes they might not understand what he wrote, and taking off points either for wrong answer (as in above example) or for lack of work.

Question: What should a Mathematics Educator (either teacher or tutor) tell a student with this problem to do to fix this?

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I had terrible handwriting in middle school and our teachers would meet each week to assess each student's handwriting and hand out additional exercises to students who needed it. I had to do the additional exercises every week. I hated them with a passion because they felt useless to me. (I could discern no personal gain from having to do them.) As a result, I intentionally did them poorly. (There was no grade, so why bother?) It was childish, but I was a child. I wanted to type everything, but computers were not widespread then. My point being that additional exercises may not help. –  user1118321 Jun 22 at 16:01
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And yet, the common core only teaches penmanship in kindergarten and first grade.... –  ssdecontrol Jun 22 at 16:14
    
What is the approximate age of the student? –  200_success Jun 22 at 17:43
    
@200_success Good point; see edited question –  Tutor Jun 22 at 17:55
    
Is the poor handwriting a matter of carelessness or inability? Would the student be able to write neatly if required? –  200_success Jun 22 at 17:59

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

There are many reasons for handwriting problems, and many of these reasons may not be remedied with mathematics education methods and approaches. For example, Asperger's Syndrome has been associated with difficulty in handwriting, and it is possible that you would not be aware of this student being on the spectrum. While not a disability, Asperger's demonstrates that there is a possibility we will see students with unbalanced levels of ability. It's especially surprising to see a student exhibit mathematical understanding, and then struggle working a problem because of writing.

Practice

If the problem is simply that the student just has not had enough practice with handwriting and has not had a chance to become good at it, the answer will clearly be: practice. Or help from someone who specializes in writing (not a mathematics educator in either case). However, the older the student, the less likely it would seem that lack of practice would be the issue.

Speed

If the problem is something along the lines of what I suggested above (or many similar issues outside of a lack of practice), it is possible that time pressure is a contributing factor. As noted in studies on Asperger's-related handwriting issues, speed is a factor in student writing, and speed demands increase as students progress in age. So, one possible remedy is to recognize that writing is going to be slower than what you would expect, and accommodate that by changing expectations and allowing more time. Stress clarity, not speed.

Accomodations

To address the school problem, if it actually has been a problem for this student, students can often get accommodations to allow for mismatched skill levels that would interfere with assessment. That may only occur with a diagnosis; the school administration can guide you here. Local ways of doing things differ (all over the world, of course).

We might also more generally talk about the problems that ELL (English Language Learners) have with mathematics education. It's another case in which a skill outside of the mathematics education realm may interfere with either learning or assessment. And there are many people concerned with this problem. If we look at some of what researchers consider there, what can we take away? One thing is that, as math educators, our job is not necessarily to make all students do things the same way. Developing mathematical skills and knowledge may mean working with a student's strengths (like the ability to discuss mathematics) rather than a focus on deficits (which you may not be able to address in math tutoring or classrooms).

A short answer here: workarounds. Possibly more structure in the writing and less actual writing.

Structure

What form would that structure take? You specifically mention a difficulty going back and interpreting handwriting that was done 30 seconds ago. Assuming the student is doing fine while writing, what may help here is the ability to recognize the higher-value portion of the writing and pay special attention to that so that the student can come back later if needed. For example, an important result, or a simplified expression that will be of use later? Re-write that patiently and put a box around it. This may be more effective than just having the student slow down everywhere -- just learn to recognize what part of the writing is important, slow down there, and put a box around it.

Aside from the research I referenced in the links, I personally have struggled with handwriting issues (not diagnosed with anything in particular) and organizational problems; this is how I deal with them. Focusing on what's important, taking more time and care with the most important things, and adopting some kind of structure that supports my efforts.

In summary:

While we may not be able to remedy handwriting problems in math education, we can address the problem somewhat by understanding how handwriting, and the particular abilities of a student, interact with their mathematics activity. We can accommodate, or we can provide supports that help them to use their ability most effectively. And we can teach them skills and habits so that they can support themselves in the future.

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From some one who was held back in cursive for 6 months due to poor printing, this alone is worth it's weight in gold: just learn to recognize what part of the writing is important, slow down there, and put a box around it. –  Pieter Geerkens Jun 22 at 18:03
    
Very thorough and helpful answer -- thanks!! –  Tutor Jun 26 at 3:17

It might be some kind of disability, in which case training better handwriting might be of no (or little) use.

Perhaps an option is to use a computer to type text/math? I'm at the point where writing LaTeX is almost as fast as handwriting (but that is after decades of daily use). Or use some tablet with handwriting-recognizing software. Some of my students use that successfully to take notes in class.

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Thanks for the answer....I don't think it's a disability (but what do I know?), so I'm looking more for handwriting solutions....about how much do these computers cost? –  Tutor Jun 22 at 12:10
    
@Tutor no idea, sorry. –  vonbrand Jun 22 at 13:23
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The potential of a disability does not mean training is useless, merely different. For example those with dyspraxia can struggle with handwriting but specific techniques and equipment can be used to help overcome these difficulties. –  Richard Tingle Jun 22 at 17:42
    
Those with disability in the US typically have alternate methods discussed with you during the beginning of the semester, but note you cannot ask presumptively of disability. They must approach you, so I will ask them to work on heir handwriting as it is critical for others to understand your writing unless I am told of disability. –  Chris C Jun 22 at 20:03
    
I don't think there's a problem with asking presumptively of disability at the high school level. But you'd be asking the parent rather than the student. –  James S. Jun 23 at 17:31

I had a lot of difficulty with illegible handwriting as a child (the lowest grade I've ever gotten in a class in my life was a D- in penmanship). One thing that was helpful to me was trying different types of pencils - I mean, there's a lot more out there than just your basic #2 pencil. I think I tried a #4, and that worked pretty well for me, but eventually I settled on mechnical pencils. Now, strangely enough, I use pens, since they contact the paper differently than pencils and I like to be able to see a record of my mistakes.

I'm a special education teacher now as my day job, and at least for our special education students we can refer them to occupational therapy to get help with handwriting. In the United States, any teacher or parent can initiate a special education evaluation, which would involve a comprehensive look to figure out whether there's some sort of underlying disability. If assistive technology was needed, too, the special education process would be a great way to document the school's responsibility to pay for it and to be able to get a specialist to do a formal assistive technology assessment. See here for some guidelines about what assistive technology assessment looks like: http://www.ocali.org/project/guidelines_for_assistive_technology_assessment

If the student has health insurance, perhaps the insurance company would pay for occupational therapy with a referral from their doctor. Actually, having them see a doctor to rule out any kind of medical condition might be a good idea - perhaps they have something causing unsteady hands, for example? Or perhaps they have an eyesight problem that is causing them to not be able to clearly see what they are writing?

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+1, good answer....my student and I both use pens (as required by the NYS Board of Regents [see instructions]) –  Tutor Jun 23 at 4:54

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