Handwriting: Should it stay or should it go?

As I wade through the ever-thickening tech sludge, I find myself feeling guilty for teaching handwriting and anchoring handwriting firmly in the writing workshop experience. Am I just old school? Am I just descending to my own preference menu?

After doing a little research, I think I might have some potent backup when it comes to sticking with the pencil versus the keyboard.  Findings compiled in the Wall Street Journal rough out a compelling argument for maintaining a balance between the pencil and the keyboard.  Currently most elementary students in the US only engage in an hour of handwriting a week. Here are some of the robust data points:

Writing by hand can get ideas out faster
 University of Wisconsin psychologist Virginia Berninger tested students in grades 2, 4, and 6, and found that they not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard — but also generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand. In other research, Berninger shows that the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory.

Writing increases neural activity 
A recent Indiana University study had one group of children practice printing letters by hand while a second group just looked at examples of A’s, B’s, and C’s. Then, both groups of kids entered a functional MRI (disguised as a “spaceship”) that scanned their brains as the researchers showed them letters. The neural activity in the first group was far more advanced and “adult-like,” researchers found.

Kanji form is evidently going down the tubes too if that makes you feel any better. The article wraps up with an interesting observation by Heather Horn of the Atlantic Wire who muses that all this research fascinating albeit “mostly shows that scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected.” She cites an article in the Paris Review in which the interviewer asks novelist Robert Stone if he predominantly types his manuscripts. His reply: “Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.”

For the moment, I feel a license to keep my electric pencil sharpener on alert and those number two carbon critters in supply!

Looking for Possibility


“The first draft of anything is shit.”

 Ernest Hemingway

Even Ernest Hemingway recognized that the first draft of anything is crap. He valued the latent potential of the draft, the power that is later released through copious revision; he did not expect or anticipate that his first draft would be terse and cogent. In fact, he spent hours carving out sentences, paring down his word count. It took time. As the school year unfolds into new beginnings, it is important to recognize that students are “drafts” of who they might possibly become. And for a number of students, the first draft is somewhat unrefined.

Teachers like to celebrate small innuendos of educational history such as the fact that Albert Einstein still didn’t know how to read in second grade; Dav Pilkey developed Captain Underpants in a desk in the hallway where his teacher plunked him for many hours; Richard Branson’s epic dyslexia; the fact that both Jobs and Gates were college drop outs.  I suspect we like to think that our teaching has morphed since the twentieth century and we now successfully differentiate for those students naturally inclined to be outside the box. Unfortunately, as the new school season ramps up and conversations percolate in hallways, I notice how quick we are to focus on students’ deficits and how challenging it is for us to put the lens on abundance, to see clearly what students can do. We still want to hammer everyone into the mold.

As information triples daily and teachers struggle to keep up, to innovate and evolve, it seems more important than ever to see clearly what our students are capable of.  When focused on ability, teachers can define and clarify next steps. When focused on deficit, the landscape seems land-mined. We become so distracted by the debits, that we lose the horizon. Next time you feel overwhelmed by all your students seem unable to do, take a deep breath and reframe your question: What can most of the students in this classroom do? They are just first drafts. But layered deep in the words of the first draft is the bud of what is possible. I believe it’s our job to look for potential, to celebrate possibility.

This conundrum is nowhere more apparent than in the initial days of the writing workshop. Some students struggle to even put words on the page. My conferences rely on conversation; I try to find the budding ideas in the squiggly drawings, the integral nugget in the unfinished sentences. This isn’t easy. On many a day I want to say: “This is a piece of shit!” But, I know from experience that these words or gestures that approximate this message will only encourage the writer to quit. Writing is art, sizzled with identity and forged with skill, no different from dance or sculpture. Young writers are just finding their footing. Nietzsche noted: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” I keep this quote tucked in a pocket, close to my heart at the year’s start. It’s so easy to forget that these small stumbles will lead to flying one day; a flight I might never witness. Next time you’re holding a piece of shit that someone just turned in, try to remember that buried in the dangling modifiers and the lack of tense agreement, is the budding soul of a writer. The words that shuffle off your tongue have the power to make or break a writer. What teacher do you want to be?