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!

2 thoughts on “Handwriting: Should it stay or should it go?

  1. Go. Sooner rather than later. A good example of our curriculum being greatest hits rather than science fiction. I was raised under the old handwriting paradigm I hardly ever write anymore. Sad? Possibly. But real. Handwriting will go the way of the printed book.

    I wonder whether the next decade’s researchers will come to the same conclusions about the value of handwriting vs. typing. I wonder whether the main competition for handwriting will come from speech recognition rather than keyboarding.

    How about replacing handwriting lessons with more hands on art to develop those fine motor skills. Hey, it might even be fun 🙂

  2. If you just put the lens on curriculum, I might agree with you. We waste a lot of instructional time trying to imbue perfect penmanship and certainly this is valued by western societies. It’s been proven on instructional essay tests that students with neat handwriting score higher than those without this skill. That said, the playing field isn’t even. Not every kid has the potential for neat script. As an adult my script is as corrupt as it gets. But is it a tool I use every day? Absolutely. I rely on the connection between my brain and my hand to help me make sense of my world and communicate; I have a hunch that as human beings we are wired this way deep below the surface. Our innate biology hasn’t morphed much in our human existence despite the fact that our tools have become more sophisticated. The flick in the field which blinked food or fear to the primitive brain that immediately zapped the neurons to tell the hand to fire the spear speaks to the connection between the hand and the mind. If kids don’t learn to write in a physical sense using their hand to form words, will it impact their brain? Their language facility and capabilities? I have a hunch that the answer is yes. Perhaps our language will all become a digital code that automatically fires from a chip planted beneath our skin. I really have no idea where the trail will lead but I do believe in a balanced approach to change. Call it my version of poetic license. I think children need to learn how to used script as a means of expression before they collapse into digital medium.

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