Should We Teach Handwriting in the Digital Age?

Earlier this month, the Indiana Department of Education joined the ranks of school systems that will no longer require the teaching of cursive writing.
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Earlier this month, the Indiana Department of Education joined the ranks of school systems that will no longer require the teaching of cursive writing. In a memo sent to school leaders, the Department stated that, in accordance with the Common Core standards, students will be "expected to become proficient in keyboarding skills," rather than handwriting. If there are local curriculum standards calling for instruction in cursive writing, schools can continue to teach it.

Should schools continue to teach handwriting in the digital age? I asked just this question in a segment for Body, Mind and Child, my show on BAM Radio Network, and was surprised to discover that none of the three panelists felt as strongly as I did about maintaining the tradition.

Steve Graham, professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, whose research interests include writing instruction and development, said that we're using a 20th-century tool in a 21st-century world and that we really need to step up to the 21st century. Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, pointed out that children want to keyboard, to write more fluently and get ideas out of their heads as fast as possible. And Anne Trubek, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, was outspoken in her view that we do away with handwriting instruction. She stated:

We have these larger cultural connections to handwriting as a sense of identify and self-expression. It has to be put into the context of nostalgia and history and separated from educational goals.

Full disclosure: I've been accused in the recent past of being old-fashioned (even a "dinosaur"), particularly when it comes to the use of technology in education. Specifically, early education. But having spent 31 years as an early childhood physical activity specialist, I want children to have as many fine- and gross-motor experiences as possible! A pediatric occupational therapist confirmed for me that handwriting promotes manipulation and finger isolation skills that are useful for other fine-motor activities, including self-care and use of technology. And I know from my own work that learning to write by hand has a positive impact on emergent literacy, as it gives children an important opportunity to physically experience the spatial orientation and directionality of letters in a way that keyboarding simply can't. Moreover, research indicates a correlation between handwriting and brain development. Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford has told me that the research:

around the area of the brain dedicated to the hand (both sensory and motor) shows that the hand is essential to both verbalization and increased creative thought... Also, we know that cursive writing activates both hemispheres of the brain -- and that carpal bone development in the hand is very slow. Printing and typing take much more carpal bone development than does cursive writing.

After the segment went live on the BAM website, I started an online forum discussion on the topic and was stunned not only by the number of comments but also by the passion with which educators approached the topic -- on both sides. (I was gratified to find some support here.)

On the "con" side, it was argued that handwriting will soon be as obsolete as hunting for food with a bow and arrow, and that those concerned with a small child's inability to reach all of the keys on a keyboard should think about "moving forward" -- by making "baby keyboards." But do we really want children spending even more time in front of screens?

One respondent countered:

Make all the esoteric arguments you like. This is something that affects students NOW. I tutor many children who still have to get by in a pencil and paper world -- and many of them are functionally crippled by the act of handwriting. They must hand write responses in their testing booklets and without proper handwriting skills, they write incomplete thoughts -- sketchy frameworks and wisps of ideas -- rather than fight the muscle fatigue. Unless it's possible (or even desirable) for students to use only keyboards or touch screens at all times, proper handwriting must remain a valued skill.

Many respondents commented that penmanship was the only course in which they received less than stellar grades (I was one of them), and that too often poor handwriting is associated with lack of intelligence. Do I believe handwriting should be graded? No. But I do believe that in the early years we must keep it in the curriculum.

The other day, as I crafted a handwritten thank-you note to someone who'd invited me to give a speech, I considered how sad it would be if, in the future, no one ever received a note written by hand. Does that make me old-fashioned? Probably. I do realize we are indeed living in a new age, but are there not some things that nature intended that technology can't replace? I mean, if we all had access to Segways, would we simply stop walking?

Yes, keyboarding is quicker -- and we are a nation in a hurry. But faster isn't always better. It is so easy to succumb to the lure of the newest gadgets. However, I worry that often we are too quick to embrace the latest technologies without considering the long-term consequences, and it is my hope that schools will not look at cursive and keyboarding as an either/or proposition.

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