Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Handwriting - a dying art or a waste of time?

As schools move more and more into the use of digital tools in education, the question often comes up,  "Why are we even bothering to teach handwriting?"

I think it's a good question, but also one that is also answered a little too hastily at times. Those who argue for less of an emphasis on handwriting skills do have a case. After all, why spend so much of precious class time on a mechanical task that doesn't involve much creativity or generation of meaning? Isn't the content of what the children write more important than the legibility of their script? After all, how often are the children really going to need to write at length in tidy legible handwriting? Won't most of it be done on computers anyway?

These are good questions. How often do you write with a pen or pencil? Is it for more than quickly scrawled notes and shopping lists? I'm sure more people write emails rather than letters these days. There's also an argument that typing levels the playing field - everyone can be as tidy as the next person, and can have the reader focus on their meaning, rather than make assumptions about their intelligence based on how tidy their hand is.

In spite of all this, I still believe that handwriting skills, cursive handwriting, is still a skill worth teaching. In fact, I would argue it's an artform, a cultural treasure handed down to us over centuries, that we are surprisingly so keen to throw away.

In many cultures, the artful formation of letters is highly valued. The Japanese and Chinese approach to calligraphy, with its meditative attention to the beauty of the brush strokes is one such example. The incredible use of Arabic calligraphy to decorate mosques in the Middle East is another.

The fact is, our Roman alphabet has become a little taken for granted. It's everywhere, used by so many different languages and so we have ceased to think of it as something special. We are beginning to lose sight of the fact that cursive script is a cultural artform to be treasured, and instead see it as a functional and defunct stumbling block on the road to a good education.

However, there are also good educational arguments for teaching handwriting skills, including the effect it has on brain development. Far from being a waste of classroom time, research has shown that children who spent more time practising the shape of letters showed higher neural activity than those who didn't, as this article points out. 

      "(The) research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information."

I love technology. I love the potential it has as a tool to expand our educational horizons. That said, I do believe it can be an invasive species in our cultural ecosystem, killing off a thing of beauty handed down from the ages, one learner at a time.

What do you think? Is this something we should fight to save, or should we start typing our eulogies for cursive script?


  1. Thanks for this post Craig, in particular with the reference to the research on the impact of learning handwriting on wider learning. I have added a link to your post to the blog post I collated on tech tools to support the teaching of handwriting: http://glo.li/wTpCMh

  2. Thanks Malcolm, that's a great collection of resources, thanks for sharing it, and thanks also for adding a link back here.

  3. We provide tutoring for students in Auckland and Wellington, and I've found that laying out text or numbers or ideas on paper can be really important. Some students don't have this skill, and I actually think it makes it harder for them to think through some ideas and problems.

    Computers can provide a lot of benefits, but sometimes when collaborating with others around a table, or thinking for yourself, handwriting, and laying out ideas on paper is still a fantastic tool!

    There's a bit more info about what we do at www.pencilcase.co.nz