Does handwriting still matter?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

Hardly a day goes by that I’m not asked by teachers—especially middle and high school teachers—about handwriting. Why do so few students write in cursive? Aren’t students taught cursive any longer? Should I expect students to write in cursive? Is it relevant in a digital age?

I am never certain what to say—or exactly how I feel about the topic. I usually commiserate with the questioner and add my observation that most middle and high school students are more skilled with printing than with cursive, so they print because it’s faster. I also acknowledge that in the elementary grades the curriculum doesn’t emphasize penmanship as much, not that elementary teachers are cavalier about penmanship. There is only so much time available for instruction, and one casualty in the curriculum is less time on handwriting. After making those comments, I usually change the subject.

So when I saw Anne Trubek’s new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, I bought it immediately. I hoped Trubeck could help me with the answer.

Trubek traces the long history of the written word from cave paintings through Gutenberg’s printing press to the digital devices we use today. From the beginning of written words, each technological advance has been a source of handwringing, and, Trubek points out, we’ve always resisted change. For example, Socrates worried that writing would undermine complex thought. Greek and Roman scribes copied texts over and over (“human Xerox machines”) and believed their “scriptures on parchment” would last thousands of years while printed books would quickly decay.

Technological changes over the centuries have consistently expanded and democratized literacy.

  • Gutenberg’s first Bible was printed around 1455, and by 1490, over 40,000 printed books were in circulation.
  • By 1600 that number exceeded a half million.
  • Scribes, who had labored to complete a few books each year, began teaching penmanship to others.

That type of adaptation to ever-accelerating technology continues today, Trubek argues. Thanks to our ubiquitous digital devices, more people write more than ever before.

What does all this mean for the future of handwriting in the digital age? Trubek addresses a number of questions often posed by writing traditionalists and advocates.

Isn’t cursive writing becoming a “lost art” of self-expression?

Trubek reminds readers that over the centuries, handwriting movements have always stressed standardization. Even the earliest forms of writing—cuneiforms—were developed as improved, and standard, ways for ancient Sumerians to keep administrative information about their sheep and cattle. From the beginning, handwriting development has always relied on repetitive (and not particularly engaging) practice to develop automaticity, not creativity.

The evolution of handwriting has also favored better and faster over more elaborate and expressive. This has been especially true in the United States where, for example, the ornate Spencerian alphabet of swooping letters and curlicues (think of the cursive Coca-Cola logo) of the late 1800s was replaced by the simpler Palmer method during the early 1900s. One of the goals of these cursive methods was to allow letters to be connected without having to lift the writing utensil. Again, better and faster. Today, D’Nealian, Zaner-Bloser, and other approaches continue our attempt at standardizing handwriting and making it more efficient, not unique.

Today’s writer also develops automaticity with keyboards at a relatively young age. Whether handwriting or keyboarding, the benefit of automaticity is the same: it allows writers to concentrate on what they want to say rather than how to form the letters and words.

What if our children can’t sign their own names?

Trubek points out that the history of using personal signatures as legal proof of identity is not a long one. For centuries, a mark such as an X or one’s thumbprint sufficed for official documents. Today, as often as not we use electronic signatures or click “I agree” buttons for a wide range of bureaucratic purposes—and they are more secure than a signature. Yet, the personal signature still resonates in our culture.

Isn’t there research that handwriting enhances learning?

There is an emerging “science of handwriting,” Trubek admits, but the findings are “pretty fuzzy” so far. One study found that forming letters by hand helped students learn to read. But the study involved only 15 students. A 2014 study found that college students who took handwritten notes performed better on tests than students who took notes on their laptops. That is most likely because the slower handwriting method required students to be more selective in what they wrote down. It might be that better training for students on how to be more selective in taking notes may be the answer—not opting for handwriting over keyboarding.

What about state standards?

Most state standards today are based on or influenced by the Common Core State Standards, which pay little attention to handwriting. Legible handwriting is mentioned only in the kindergarten and first grade standards. But “command of keyboarding skills to typing a minimum of one page in a single sitting” is expected by the end of fourth grade. We are not the only country wrestling with this dilemma, either. Finland has officially made cursive writing optional in its schools, replacing it with lessons in keyboarding.

It is true that some states have made a point of inserting cursive writing into their standards— some for patriotic reasons. But Trubek points out that there is nothing inherently patriotic about cursive writing. While most people alive today were taught penmanship at school, that has been true only for a few generations of our country’s history. Penmanship instruction is more of a recent tradition than it is a sign of patriotism.

We also see increasingly that high-stakes writing assessments are being keyboarded rather than handwritten. For many students, that is a promising trend. Trubeck cites research that shows “teachers grade neatly written essays higher than less legible papers.” Steven Graham, who headed the research, refers to this as the “handwriting effect,” pointing out that “Teachers form judgments, positive or negative, about the literary merit of text based on its overall legibility.” So, typing may level the playing field for many of our students.

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I now have a perspective about my handwriting answer that I didn’t have before reading Trubek’s book. Like everyone else, I can see that one technology (keyboarding) is overtaking another (handwriting), but Trubek’s book allowed me to see this as a natural evolution. Just as our language changes and evolves over time, so does the way we go about writing it. Will cursive handwriting go away entirely? Not likely, for a long while. But there is a shift taking place, and I don’t think we should see it as an alarming development.