Does Handwriting Really Matter?

A reduced focus on penmanship threatens the learning and creativity of our students.

Shutterstock.com

Shutterstock.com

As a product of Catholic school education, it’s hard for me to imagine a world where good penmanship doesn’t matter. In fact, I still remember a day in sixth grade when I was instructed to re-write a cursive letter “D”’again and again because I opted to put my own personal flare on the old-fashioned stencil. Aside from the personal trauma that comes with overzealous instruction from ladies dressed in habits, there’s a different kind of psychology associated with handwriting, according to a piece in the Times.

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information,”the story goes. “In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.”


The point holds for grown ups, too. In a mobile world of synced calendars and iClouds that hold all the things we hold most dear, writing things down often makes life’s details easier to remember — even if technology makes it all quicker to recall.

And if technology enables us to spend less time thinking, so we’ll have more time for doing, it’s no wonder we spend less time strengthening the creative muscles in our brain. Double-click culture has shifted the way we consume words, shortening our attention span, which undoubtedly stymies creativity. We don’t even have time to read. After all, it is the Internet that is responsible for the primacy of the “listicle,” and for the fact that articles online (even the think pieces!) rarely top 800 words.

For writers, technology enables us to do things — including thinking — quickly, but perhaps we are not as thoughtful as we might be if we were forced to think at the speed that we write.

“With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important,”psychologist  Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California,Los Angeles, said in the Times piece.“Maybe it helps you think better.”

It sounds strange, but when I think about my students at Mighty Writers, this tends to ring true. The few who do write in cursive tend to be better writers, or at least more imaginative ones. Those who print clearly (especially if their handwriting appears a bit smaller and more methodical) also tend to churn out interesting and fresh ideas when given assignments.

The problem with technology is that sets up the potential that everything is important because everything is right now. Alerts crash into our phones at all hours of the day, reminding us that someone, somewhere is awake and curating more content to get our attention. More things for us to buy. More dates to save. More meetings to schedule. More. More. More. If writing was first intended to document the occurrence of things for the preservation of memory, what does this mean in a culture that is fixated on living in the perpetual now. Will technology, like photography, render words obsolete in time?

But it’s so much less, too, especially for those who don’t remember a world without it. In classrooms, college (and even some high school!) students have replaced spiral bound notebooks for Mac notebooks. Surely, this impacts the quality of learning and discussion that students participate in (especially if one is Google chatting while note taking). The text message is replacing the older technology once known as a phone call. Less remembrances. Less connectivity. More touch and go. More autopilot.

And what is to become of the next generation of novelists? Will the stories they tell become less engaging because they didn't focus on handwriting? According to research done by Pew, some educators feel that digital tools have blurred the lines between formal and informal writing and have made it harder for students to understand voice and audience. Plus, the “cultural emphasis on truncated forms of expression … [hinders students’] willingness and ability to write longer texts and to think critically about complicated topics.”

So, will the things we read all start to sound the same? Are all slowly becoming part of the same collective audience, eager to be a part of something but without enough space, time or interest to think about what that really means? There are still an abundance of purists among us - people who won’t go anywhere near an e-reader; those who write measuredly in notebooks and jot notes on loose pieces of paper. Perhaps they’re the ones to with enough discipline to record us as we really were, in hindsight, not just in the moment.

Follow @MF_Greatest on Twitter.

Previously: Sandy Hingston's "The Death of Handwriting"

Previously:  Joel Mathis: "Let’s Just Let Cursive Writing Die Already"

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • KateGladstone

    The closest that the NEW YORK TIMES article approached to giving a reason for cursive was in noting that some stroke survivors retain the ability to read cursive but lose the ability to read typefonts. Never mentioned: just as often, the ability to read cursive is lost, but the reading of type and/or print-writing is preserved.
    Other studies that the NEW YORK TIMES piece cited as supporting cursive, well, read quite differently if you actually unearth the citations and look up the research for yourself. The studies do show advantages for handwriting over keyboarding — they do not show advantages for cursive over any of the other forms of handwriting.
    The writer, Maria Konnikova, also ignored research that might annoy the devotees of cursive. It turns out (sources below) that:

    • legible cursive writing averages no faster than print-writing of equal or greater legibility, [1]

    • cursive does NOT objectively improve the reading, spelling, or other language use of students who have dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, [2]

    and:

    • the fastest, clearest handwriters are neither the “print”-writers nor the cursive writers. Highest speed and legibility are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them—making the simplest joins, omitting the rest, using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree. [3, 4]

    Why — here, as elsewhere throughout the media’s and legislatures’ discussions of handwriting — do studies which are headlined as supporting cursive actually say something different when one finds and reads the originals?

    Why does a NEW YORK TIMES science writer one-sidedly ignore whatever research on handwriting is not so easily obscured?

    And why does a PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE columnist trustingly follow her in that?

    SOURCES:

    [1] Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at http://www.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED056015

    [2] “Does cursive handwriting have an impact on the reading and spelling performance of children with dyslexic dysgraphia: A quasi-experimental study.” Authors: Lorene Ann Nalpon & Noel Kok Hwee Chia — URL: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/234451547_Does_cursive_handwriting_have_an_impact_on_the_reading_and_spelling_performance_of_children_with_dyslexic_dysgraphia_A_quasi-experimental_study

    [3] Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542168.pdf

    [4] Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/27542188.pdf

    Yours for better letters, Kate Gladstone

    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    and the World Handwriting Contest
    http://www.HandwritingThatWorks.com
    handwritingrepair@gmail.com

  • phillysportsfan

    Marty: Yeah, well…if it was so great then they never would have changed.

    Father-in-law:
    So you’re telling me the world isn’t getting worse? I’ve seen kids
    today. All in black, wearing make-up, sh_t on their faces. Everything’s
    “sex.” “Clinton!”

    Marty: You know, throughout history I bet
    every old man probably said the same thing. But old men die, and the
    world keeps spinning.

    • LeslieFish

      Actually, modern “Cursive” was invented in 1852 by a dealer of educational materials, named Palmer, who wanted to get a monopoly on the developing public-school market. He created his loopty-loop all-letters-connected script because he thought it would somehow teach children that all people, too, are connected. He also wanted to push his script-form into all the schools in America not only so that he’d have an endless market, but because — as he said publicly — he thought that people who write alike *think* alike. In support of his advertising campaign, he lied glibly about other — and better — forms of script. Well, he got his wish (and his monopoly), at the expense of generations of American schoolchildren.

      • phillysportsfan

        fascinating. thanks for posting that.

  • LeslieFish

    Oh, come on! Handwriting is not going to disappear from the schools; only “Cursive” will, with good reason. What we call “Cursive” today (actually Palmer-Method) is *only one form* of script writing, and very far from the best of them. Other forms — like Italic and Copperplate — are much clearer, easier to learn, quicker to teach, and retain their legibility long after the student leaves school. “Cursive”, on the other hand, has a nasty tendency to degenerate into that illegible scribble for which doctors are so notorious (but unfortunately not alone), which has *caused thousands of deaths* from “medical error”. Just ask any nurse or pharmacist. So yes, by all means, teach penmanship in the schools — but for heaven’s sake, choose a better form than this! If only for all the lives it has cost us, Cursive deserves to die.

    • nwilder

      Really , Leslie Fish ? I am a Calligrapher and a product of a Catholic School education. You so blithely state that Italic and Copperplate are easier to learn-HA , I say !! Have you ever put pen to paper and tried to learn either of these hands ?? They make learning Cursive seem like falling off a log in a high wind. Both of these styles take many, many hours of practice to learn. Cursive takes practice also. I think it is a matter of the “I just don’t care” attitude that seems so pervasive in our culture. Cursive does not deserve to die, rather the attitude that something that is “hard” is not worth doing needs to die.

      • LeslieFish

        Yes, as a matter of fact, I have tried Italic. I too have played with Calligraphy, and while it’s a nice art, I don’t use it in daily work any more than newspapers use hand-drawings for news illustrations. And I believe you’re contradicting yourself when you say that Italic and Copperplate are harder to learn than P-M Cursive (not), and then complain about “the attitude that something that is ‘hard’ is not worth doing”. I have no objection to learning something difficult if it’s worthwhile, but “Cursive” isn’t; it’s dangerously illegible, as any pharmacist can tell you. If you want to keep it for an art-form, all well and good — but don’t insist that schoolchildren learn it as their main script-hand.