The Importance of Handwriting Instruction

In an age dominated by digital devices the practice of handwriting might seem a quaint relic of times past, destined to fall out of use like quill pens and inkwells.  Indeed, in most schools nowadays time devoted to handwriting instruction has been reduced and in some cases virtually eliminated.

However, handwriting instruction doesn’t deserve this neglect.  On the contrary, there is ample evidence that fluent, legible handwriting is an important academic tool skill that enhances learning generally.  For one thing, there is still quite a bit of writing done by hand, both by students in school, in the home, and at work, even if it is much abbreviated from the lengthy hand-written documents more common in pre-computer times.  If students do not develop fluency and accuracy in forming letters without conscience thought, they will not be able to do their writing very efficiently.  Too much of their attention will be devoted to the act of forming the letters instead of on the content and stylistic form of what they are writing.  (This is precisely the point I was making in general about tool skills in recent posts.)

The exact same principle applies, by the way, with regard to fluent writing of the numerals.  Often when I work with students referred to me for tutoring because they are struggling in math, I find that they labor writing the numerals and can often not do so correctly and legibly.  The effort they require to form the numerals detracts from the attention they have available to focus on the higher level math concepts they are working on.  In addition, not surprisingly, they make frequent calculation errors because they cannot read their own writing!

Fluent and accurate handwriting is also a critical part of learning how to read and spell.  The motor engagement involved in writing words boosts the student’s ability to analyze and remember letter patterns more easily than if he examined the words solely by sight. If you have any doubts about this, try to learn to read Chinese characters.  Work on a set of characters solely by examining them visually, and then work on a similar set in which you also learn how to write the characters correctly and fluently. It's amazing how adding a motor component to the analysis of the visual form improves one's ability to remember it.

There is a related debate, even among proponents of explicit handwriting instruction, about whether or when to teach cursive handwriting.  Some educators maintain that cursive is easier for children to learn than manuscript handwriting, especially for students with various kinds of learning difficulties, and so this should be the first (and perhaps only) form of handwriting taught.  This view, however, as always remained a minority position, and it never made sense to me.  It seems to make much more sense and to be much more efficient to teach beginning readers a handwriting style that matches the form of the letters they see in text.

Learning cursive handwriting at around the age of 8 or so, that is, after one has acquired basic decoding skills, however, seems to me to be quite valuable. Most people (including especially people of my age, who had quite a bit of formal handwriting instruction in elementary school) associate the word “cursive” with a particular style of handwriting generally known as “looped cursive,” a category of styles that includes the well-known Palmer method.  As the name indicates, in "looped cursive," the joins between letters are often made with loops, creating a rather ornate script.  However, the term “cursive” is quite general, denoting merely a style of handwriting that “flows” because most of the letters are joined.  (The literal meaning of the root in “cursive,” cur-, is “flow.” The root also appears in the word “current.”)

The point is that “cursive” does not necessarily mean “looped cursive.”  Indeed, a number of educators prefer teaching students a modified italic script.  As with all cursive handwriting, using an italic script helps a person write with a consistent rhythm and greater speed than is possible with the block letters of typical manuscript handwriting.  Modified italic script has the additional benefit of representing letters with much the same stroke patterns as employed in standard manuscript, and so is easy to learn.

I happened upon one of these modified italic forms about 10 years ago and adopted it as my handwriting style.  I can now write much faster but with equivalent legibility as I could with the looped cursive I had been using since my elementary school days.  (Unfortunately, I have not yet had any luck convincing my 23-year-old son, who never uses the cursive he was taught in school, to give it a try.)

The benefits of good handwriting exist well beyond elementary school.  With the proliferation of laptops in universities, more students are taking class notes on their computers.  There is strong evidence, however, that students who do so are processing the class information at a shallower level than students who take manual notes.  The key element seems to be that those students who are typing their notes are simply transcribing what is said in class, which they can do with little attention to what the words mean, or how the concepts presented are related to one another.  In contrast, students who take notes by hand are much more likely to be engaged in thinking about these relationships as they think about how to record the information, especially if they are also using graphical elements in their note-taking. (This spring I plan to make some posts about note-taking.)

So students and teachers, don’t throw away your pencils or pens (or styluses) just yet!  You will be rewarded for learning how to use them well.

In my next post, I’ll go over the key elements of good handwriting instruction and list some good handwriting programs.

Until then,

Happy Teaching!