Poor writing and figures

April 29, 2010

I empathise with Tim Birkhead's concern about poor penmanship ("Different type of problem", 15 April). In disciplines that focus on the production of narrative writing, it may well be that the word processor allows "a torrent of error-free text". In mathematics, however, it is still essential that students know how to write clearly and unambiguously - from lining up numbers according to place value for simple computation, through to absolute clarity in the use of superscripts, subscripts, parentheses, fraction lines etc in more advanced algebra.

Computer-based equation editors are still not speedy enough to produce this in everyday working or examination conditions. So it was refreshing to see the London Mathematical Society support the central place of handwritten work in teaching and learning maths ("Back to the drawing board", 22 April).

But I was dismayed when our local primary school, in its otherwise excellent handwriting policy, failed to include guidance on the correct production of numerals as well as letters. I fear it may not be alone in this oversight, unwittingly reinforcing the acceptability of "rough" work in maths, which in my experience is a major contributor to error.

I offer you the Bowers Hypothesis: there is a positive correlation between quality of handwriting and mastery of algebra technique in A-level and first-year undergraduate mathematics. Research project, anyone?

David Bowers, Head of learning development, University Campus Suffolk.

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