The debate over the value of handwriting instruction has popped up repeatedly since the debut of the Remington typewriter in 1873. Today, kids are continually tapping their keyboards and phones but rarely, if ever, writing by hand. However, there’s still a good case for teaching them how.
Writing by hand is actually easier than using a keyboard and more fruitful. In one study, second-graders wrote more words, faster, by pen than by keyboard and fourth- and sixth-graders were more likely to write complete sentences with a pen. Other research has found that kids produce more ideas writing by hand and that hand-written essays are more coherent and thoughtful as well as grammatical.
The reason may lie in the fact that writing by hand requires several finger movements compared to hitting a key. According to study co-author Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, those finger movements activate parts of the brain that help us think.
In another experiment, 5-year olds who couldn’t read or write printed, typed, or traced letters and shapes. When they saw the letters and shapes while in a brain scan, a part of the brain known as the “reading circuit” lit up only after printing, not after typing or tracing. Literate adults recognize letters despite changes in font, size, or case. We know which information is key to why an “a” is an “a.” Children may learn to do that by writing, the authors suggest. Interestingly, the same brain areas come into play when Chinese and French people look at handwritten examples of their own language — supporting the idea of a specific reading circuit.
The case for teaching children cursive is less clear, since by then they’ve already learned to recognize letters. The Common Core curriculum doesn’t require cursive, and some states have abandoned teaching it. According to a report from the Miami-Dade public school system, most schools teach cursive handwriting for 10 to 15 minutes a day in the spring of second grade or in third grade. This is much less than in the past; until the 1970s, penmanship was a separate daily lesson from first through sixth grade and a separate grade on report cards. When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT in 2006, only 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students who took the test wrote their answers in cursive, the Miami-Dade report notes. The others printed.
Many adults hate their handwriting and have given up trying to write legible cursive. This doesn’t mean they can’t compose their thoughts: Victor Hugo, James Joyce, and Lord Byron were all scrawlers. But mastering cursive again makes it easier to write: the fastest hand-writers use a mix of cursive and print letters, according to Steve Graham, a literacy and handwriting expert at Vanderbilt University. Some argue that learning cursive is helpful for people with dyslexia. It is also a form of self-expression, since writers develop idiosyncrasies, although there is no good evidence that we can reliably assess personality by examining handwriting samples.
Will we have lost something important if the next generation of Americans never send hand-written thank-you notes or post a shopping list on the refrigerator? Could you recognize your own child’s handwriting? In a completely non-scientific poll, I asked several parents and none of them could say, “Yes.”
April 23, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN