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Writing math right

Little things get in your way when doing math. Handwriting, for instance.

I was looking at a student’s homework not long ago and saw this line:

130611 Handwriting Figure 1

And, further down the page, this one:

130611 Handwriting Figure 2

Eh, what? Neither of these made much sense; in what universe does 22 equal 4?

Looking at the problems more closely, it became clear that the second “2” in the first equation was supposed to be a “z” and that what I took to be a  “1” was actually an “l” (that is, an “el”). What the student meant was

130611 Handwriting Figure 3

Your handwriting probably is getting in the way of your math more than you know, especially during tests. How many times has your eye seen “22,” then had to backtrack and reassemble it into “2z?” The time you spent translating your handwriting could have been spent doing the math problem.


If you do math a lot (and, well, who doesn’t?), you should make your handwriting as clear and unambiguous as possible. If your t’s consistently look like a plus signs, it’s probably time to figure out a new way to write t’s.

Here are the characters that I changed in my own handwriting back in high school.

130611 Handwriting Figure 4

It’s not a long list and the new character shapes easily became habitual.

And it pays off. Now, when sweating over the last problem on your math exam, with the end of the period breathing down your nape, you will at least always know, at a glance, just what you’re looking at.

Try it! And let me know how it works for you.


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