Handwriting matters

The New York times had an article recently about the demise of cursive handwriting among the younger generation.  The article focused on the practical implications for students unable to use cursive–like having a hard time reading materials in cursive (a grandmother’s journal, primary sources for history class) or not being able to write an essay in cursive for the SAT.  The article ends with a concern of one man for the loss of the artistic skill and pure aesthetics of cursive handwriting.

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic felt the NYT article didn’t make a strong enough argument for retaining and reviving cursive education in schools.  He goes even further, citing research that suggests that developing your handwriting (making a brain/hand connection) can have positive effects on language acquisition, reading fluency, and other areas of development. Tenner quotes Linda Spencer’s research summary here.  Spencer makes a point that, to me, is one of the biggest implications for snail mail and other handwritten arts:

Since cursive writing isn’t emphasized after third grade, few students are getting enough practice or reinforcement to make cursive automatic. In other words, when the student no longer needs to think about how to write but can focus on what they want to say in their writing, the skill becomes automatic.  How long this process takes may vary from child to child but it is certainly longer than the third grade.  When kids aren’t taught how to learn penmanship properly, they make it up, develop bad habits and handwriting never becomes fluid or routine.

If students, when they are hand writing materials, are focusing more on the mechanics of it, they lose the ability to get “lost” in the writing and just enjoy the creation of something new. I know letter writing isn’t popular among the vast majority of society these days, and is especially foreign to young people who have only lived in a world with email, but it saddens me that these young people may never fully experience the pleasures of journaling or writing ten-page letters to a friend. 

I know kids may be able to text at lightening speed, but somehow I doubt that texting skills translate into fine motor skills that can be used in drawing or painting or other creative forms of expression.  One press of a button makes an “h” another press of an exactly same type of button forms a “q.” 

I’ll be interested in seeing what the research ends up confirming, but it seems no coincidence to me that creativity has dramatically decreased among children in the last two decades as schools have focused less on hands-on activities like handwriting or arts or music and focused more on filling in bubbles and drilling math facts AND as children spend more time inside, passively absorbing information beamed at them from a screen (or interacting only through their thumbs).

The loss of handwriting, and arts and crafts, and outside play will have real effects on our children.  I blog, I use email, I love watching movies and playing guitar hero.  I’m not against any of these technologies per se.  But I grew up in the country, I camped, gardened, invented imaginary scenarios with my sister and acted them out, rode horses, stared at shapes in the clouds, wrote letters, painted, and picked wildflower bouquets.  These things shaped my brain in ways that allow me to be both analytical and creative.  So I can make the best use of all parts of my brain and spirit. 

I know that there’s still a place in this world for the handmade arts–and others have begun to revive traditional arts, crafts, and skills–from knitting to canning food to letter press to calligraphy.  I hope to be a part of a movement that preserves these skills, introduces young people to their joys and helps build a more creative generation as a result. 

Is that too melodramatic for a Thursday?

6 Replies to “Handwriting matters”

  1. It’s incredibly pleasing to know that there’s other folks out there who are just like me. I’ve been working hard to develop the digital life, to be sure, but there’s something which says that I should write a letter to a friend… that I should have to work for the information about how someone is doing or how someone is feeling.

    In an odd way, I think about the prison system. They’re confined to writing letters by hand because that’s all that they have available. I dearly hope that that’s not the only contingency of the population who still hand writes on a regular basis.

    Thank you for the article. 🙂

    1. Hi EJ, glad to have you reading here! I get what you mean about feeling liks you should have to work for the information about how your friends are doing. Facebook makes it easy to wish folks a quick “happy birthday” electronically (and it even reminds people of upcoming birthdays), but it’s not the same to get a “Happy Birthday!” note on your FB wall as it is to open a card from someone and finding a handwritten note inside. Snail mail feels more special because you know the time and effort that went into it!

  2. I think they have moved to the point of rote learning where it is just to pass tests and nothing is absorbed for long term use. If the pass numbers are high enough they have done their job. Sure higher level math and chemistry are needed for engineers for work but trig, geometry, chemistry, physics and biology can be used everyday. I use them in blacksmithing, woodworking, leatherworking, gardening and working on our equipment. I use it walking in the woods and fields and the changing of the seasons. I can’t imagine going through life and watching the leaves change in the fall to all of their beautiful colors and green again in the spring and not knowing how it all happens. I love reading books of all types about art, history and mystery. I learned all of that in school and what I didn’t learn in school I learned on my own because school gave me the ability to read and comprehend these things and write about them if I so desired. I have lost a lot of my cursive skills after I became a programmer and spent time on a key board. Funny it didn’t help my typing skills though. I am starting to write more after you started this blog so that is helping me. I watched a group of young people the other day and five of the seven were texting while the other two were looking like they wish they would get a text so they would have something to do. They missed out on a wonderful conversation. I wonder if they can even write laugh out loud. If I am around someone and they keep texting while I am trying to have a conversation I am leaving. I think it all started with call waiting (which I don’t and never will have!!) that gave someone else the ability to interrupt someone else’s conversation. If it is important enough and they get a busy signal they will call back. And don’t get me started on twitter or facebook. Like I care that little Susie just scraped her knee from someone I hardly know. If it is someone important to me they will call and tell me about it. By the way I don’t twitter or facebook either. Anyway let me get off the soap box and remember that it was important that we built that tree house and got the horses for you and Jess to have those memories and write about them. Dang that call waiting it has messed up my whole life…..

    1. Thanks, Dad, for all of your thoughts on this! I agree that the whole definition of a good education is that if they didn’t cover it in school, they gave you the skills to figure it out for yourself! Education experts and journalists keep saying we need to teach our kids “21st century skills” like “teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving.” I always think to myself, “aren’t those 10th century skills or 15th century skills or any point in human existence when people had to figure things out for themselves?”

      If our education system could produce more folks like you–with a genuine curiosity about how things work and the ability to access and use resources to figure it out, we’d be better off. I think, instead, the education system is designed to move students efficiently along the assembly line and that process often fails to nurture curiosity or critical thinking. I recommend you read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford. He talks a lot about our move from being able to do things (like work on our own cars or fix washing machines on our own) to a world where we have to rely on others and fancy equipment to fix things as we move more into our heads and away from a physical interaction with our environments. I think we’re doing this with our cars, with our communication, and with our jobs and I am saddened by the results! Maybe I am a luddite!

      To close, I’d like to say thanks to you and mom because we did have a great childhood filled with lots of learning–inside and outside the classroom (mostly outside!) and that serves us well to this day. Wishing more kids had that opportunity!

  3. There’s so much focus on “training” (and I do mean that as opposed to teaching) the kids to do well on the standardized testing because of No Child Left Behind. Who can argue with the concept implied by that particular title? Yet the reality of the actual program is arguably the worst thing that has ever happened to American education.

    1. As an education consultant, I’m very familiar with NCLB. I’m torn on the subject, because the focus on student performance results (an “outcome”) rather than whether or not teachers just covered the materials (an “input”) was a drastic shift in thinking and an important one. Teachers could no longer say “Well, I covered the material and if they didn’t get it, then that’s too bad.” But, when schools and districts narrow the focus of education on the outcomes on two tested subjects in only some tested grades to the exclusion of other important components of a well-rounded education, then we lose a lot as a society. Of course, I’d like to think that we as a nation could teach students to read and write at grade level without having to throw everything else out the window, but there are many, many schools that fail miserably in this regard. I’m not sure what the full answer is, but I KNOW that school should nurture creativity, the arts, sports, good eating habits, civic knowledge, student volunteering in the community, and other things that we can actually use EVERY DAY for the rest of our lives. Not all of us will need to know what obsidian is or how to calculate the surface area of an irregular shape, but we will need to know how to live full, healthy lives, read newspapers critically with some historical knoweldge on which to base our understanding, and recognize the value of civic engagement and giving back. Bubble tests don’t encourage the development of these skills nor do they measure their effects. I’m hoping we don’t lose all of these in our efforts to make sure students develop basic literacy and numeracy skills.

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