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I am an American teaching in a US university, and I've noticed that many foreign students come with their own handwriting customs for writing English. In particular I've noticed that Indian students often write the letter 'x' so that it (to me, anyway, and probably to many Americans) resembles an 'n', and makes their work (very slightly) harder to read. (Another example: a Croatian friend of mine wrote his 'q' so that it looked like 'g' to me.)

Should I encourage them to write in an American way? I am especially interested in hearing from foreigners and whether they would have appreciated this. On the one hand I don't want to presume that my culture is superior to others; on the other, they have chosen to study in the US and I would like to help them communicate their ideas with as few obstacles as possible.

Does the answer depend on circumstances (e.g. whether the student is an undergraduate or graduate, whether the student has teaching responsibilities, and where the student aims to work after graduation)?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Nov 5 '15 at 1:24
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In ordinary text, this might help a little but probably doesn't matter much, since there's plenty of redundancy to aid in understanding. However, it can make a big difference for equations.

If the students are in a math-intensive field, I would definitely point this out, but in a broader context. When I teach beginning American undergraduates in mathematics, I offer them handwriting advice for equations: make sure t doesn't look like +, z doesn't look like 2, the letter l doesn't look like the number 1, etc. Furthermore, mathematics students have to learn how to write all sorts of potentially unfamiliar symbols as they progress in their studies (aleph, Weierstrass P, fraktur letters for Lie theory, etc.). If you are working on a calculation on a whiteboard with someone, it's a real issue if they can't easily and reliably parse your equations, so just about every mathematician has put at least a little thought into this.

From this perspective, I wouldn't tell people "You're in America now and have to write like the Americans", but rather "Writing equations clearly is something everyone has to deal with. Here are some issues you may need to adapt to, some of which are generic and others of which are specific to your background."

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    This. I started barring my Z's and 7's after struggling to understand the board handwriting of a couple of professors. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Nov 3 '15 at 23:28
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    An alternative to barring zees is to make sure the top line curves in a way clearly opposite to that of 2. There's also the matter of u, v, U, V, set union, alternative, and lowercase Greek nu. – tomasz Nov 3 '15 at 23:44
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    @dmckee I started barring my Z's and 7s (and curling my t's) after struggling to understand my own handwriting. – JeffE Nov 4 '15 at 2:01
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It is very hard for someone to change its handwriting. If a student is forced to write in an uncommon way he need to use a lot of cognitive energy to it and he will be much slower. In general there is no correct way of handwriting and different styles, e.g., cursive, sütterlin, kurrent.

I would talk to the class and declare that I can only grade answers readable to me. So every student should try to write as clear and unambiguously as possible.

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    I have to disagree with this answer. In my experience, it is actually fairly easy for someone to change their handwriting. Most people just seem to assume that it's difficult because they've never tried it. – Jim Belk Nov 4 '15 at 14:08
  • Strongly disagree with the first paragraph. While learning a new alphabet I found that it was surprisingly easy to control my handwriting, and with only a small conscious effort I was able to greatly improve my writing of all characters, even those I was already used to. – Jacob Raihle Nov 4 '15 at 17:42
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    I also respectfully disagree with this answer. First, we're only talking about changing a couple letters--that's not comparable to an entire alphabet (if we were talking switching to kurrent or sütterlin, that would be an entirely different story!). Second, I've lived in a foreign country and had to adapt my handwriting (only a couple letters/numbers), and then moved back, and had to readapt: it was quite simple (and satisfying to know that I was doing "right" for the culture). – Numeri says Reinstate Monica Nov 4 '15 at 21:45
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    I seem to have domain-specific handwriting, where I write 1, 7, 0, l, t, z, and other characters differently in equations, mostly to avoid ambiguity. My normal writing is just as bad as ever. – Nick T Nov 5 '15 at 0:17
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    I (mildly) disagree with the comments disagreeing with this answer. Personally and anecdotally, in high school, I decided to switch from print to cursive in order to write more quickly on essay-style tests. I was able to write well enough to read my own handwriting within a few weeks, but it took me over a year before I was really comfortable with my new handwriting style. – Kevin Nov 5 '15 at 3:56
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As a freshman in college I was told to use period as a decimal separator instead of coma.

I can understand how that can be confusing - the professor teaching the class wrote 7s that looked like 1s, and .123 instead of 0.123. (This was another complaint of his - he said my 1s look like 7s).

Unless it's a trivial problem (some people simply have terrible handwriting) I would bring it up, chances are your students are confused too, especially if they are new to the US.

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