The Dying Art of Handwriting

Handwriting isn't just for style -- it's important to learning, memory and success.

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Corrections Appended: July 11, 2013

The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.

Twenty years ago, a $300 Montblanc pen was one of the most coveted and costly graduation gifts. But today, few clamor over pens anymore, much less expensive ones. It turns out they want MacBooks and iPads — new writing tools of the digital age.

But handwriting isn’t just a matter of style — it’s a complex skill that affects your cognitive development and exercises your visual, motor and memory circuits. When you write, you build hand-eye coordination and practice fine motor skills.

In fact, a field of research, called “haptics,” focuses on the connection of touch, hand movement and brain function. Studies show that handwriting engages different circuits of the brain than typing simply doesn’t. And those strokes and pressures of the pen actually send messages to the brain, training it in vision and sensation.

In fact, the study of handwriting, called graphology, claims to infer character traits — like laziness, creativity or organization — just by looking at your written words.

That repetitive process of writing builds motor pathways into the brain, Katya Feder, a professor at the University of Ottawa School of Rehabilitation, told the Los Angeles Times. And the more children write, the more connections they build. But if poor handwriting also builds faulty pathways, she added.

According to brain imaging studies, cursive, in particular, activates parts of the nervous system that stay quiet during typing. “It helps you connect things,” Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, told The Daily News. “There really can be some advantages to cursive. We found individual differences whether children had skills for each kind of writing.”

Good handwriting can lead to better grades, too. Studies show pre-kindergarten kids with fine motor skills scored much higher years later in reading and math than those with poor handwriting. In short, there’s a direct link between writing skill and academic success.

“People should take a second look at how important handwriting might actually be,” Laura Dinehart, assistant professor at Florida International University, told FIU Magazine. “And public schools should rethink how much they focus on handwriting in the classroom and how those skills can really improve reading and math.”

But what is it about writing that predicts achievement? Nobody knows, at least not yet. “That’s kind of the next phase of our research,” she added. “We’re trying to understand what it is about writing that predicts later achievement.”

Regardless, if you’re a parent, there are exercises you can do to help your kids develop their grasping technique. At home, they can play with Play-Doh, draw with chalk or use scissors, all of it to hopefully improve handwriting and more. And if you want to add to their creativity, give them an imaginary friend.

When it comes to ideas and memory, the hand has a special relationship with the brain. Remember that adage, write it down so you won’t forget it? It turns out it’s true. If you jot down a note — and then lose it — you’ll be more likely to remember what you wrote than if you’d just tried to memorize it. Feder added that’s because handwriting requires you to execute a series of strokes to form a letter. With typing, however, you just touch a button.

Handwriting also has tangible effects on communication. According to a University of Washington study, grade-school kids expressed more ideas when writing instead of typing. Writing affects not just the development of how you think, but how deeply and how expressively.

But beyond the practical, critics say the decline of handwriting is the death of a more romantic era. Consider my friend, whose husband sent her hundreds of e-mails while deployed in Iraq.

He also wrote a few letters, which she kept and re-reads from time-to-time. “It feels more personal to think of him collecting, composing and writing his thoughts from a dusty bunker,” she said. “He’s sending the letter from halfway around the world.” For the children, too, those letters and their crinkly postmarked envelopes are an enduring treasure that e-mails simply can’t replace.

Time to Move On

Handwriting has existed for about 6,000 years, according to Anne Trubek, who is writing a book on handwriting, to be published by Bloomsbury next year. But it’s one of our most important inventions. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to record knowledge or pass ideas from one generation to the next.

“Most of us know, but often forget, that handwriting is not natural,” she wrote in a piece for the Pacific Standard. “It’s not like seeing or talking, which are innate.”

In early America, as Trubek has written, “only wealthy men and businessmen learned to write…a ‘good hand’ became a sign of class and intelligence as well as moral righteousness.” Most, meanwhile, signed legal documents with a mere ‘X’ and the presence of a witness. Writing only spread to the masses in the 19th century, after schools began teaching print and cursive.

“Penmanship exercises were done to a metronome and compared to drill training,” Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History,” told the New Republic.

Writing has always been serious business — left-handed students often had their arm strapped tightly to their bodies, so they’d learn to write with the “correct” hand. In more modern times, you may remember spending hours learning the correct stroke, formation and spacing of upper- and lower-case letters.

But today, schools are shifting the focus to coursework in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With limited hours and an increased pressure to meet higher standards, teachers are emphasizing technology and tablets and less of the written word.

Most states began adopting a “Common Core” standards, which no longer mentions “readable printing or cursive handwriting” as a requirement. As a result, educators protested the change, and last year, 150 of them gathered in Washington, D.C. for a summit. What did they want? To keep teaching handwriting — because it helps the development of children.

Technology has threatened writing in its various arts — calligraphy, penmanship and cursive — long before every man, woman and child carried a phone. It came with the invention of the typewriter, which standardized written communication, and that same argument will reappear as technology advances.

I don’t know if handwriting will ever die. But today, the growing emphasis on typing is having far-reaching effects. To get a glimpse of the future, just look at the youth. Instead of curly Qs or loopy Ls, kids are sprinkling emoticons to give a personal touch.

Typing is more democratic, too — it isn’t a complicated skill to master. Keyboards are changing the physical connection between writers and text, and people who can’t write by hand, like the blind or paralyzed, can now use tools to communicate solely by touch.

I suppose it’s easy to mourn the passing of one era into another. “When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one,” Trubek wrote. “The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official.”

Sure, I’ll miss the intimacy of letters, the nostalgia of cursive lessons in schools and the beautiful scrawl of a well-practiced signature written with a pen. And while some pathways in our brains will atrophy with the decline of handwriting, as Trubek noted, we’ll develop new ones as we swipe, double-click and abbreviate our way into the future.

This article was written by Margaret Rock and originally appeared on Mobiledia.

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4 comments
amyholmanturner
amyholmanturner

I taught my son to write in cursive when he was 8. I encourage him to send hand written letters and thank you notes and have expressed to him that those are as valuable as any gift. His school has adopted the STEM system of teaching. He is in the 6th grade. By the end of the year they expect them to be able to type everything but their math work. He already knows how to type and can text very fast. However, I will continue encouraging him to hand write.

LauraWilliams1
LauraWilliams1

I don't completely agree.  Handwriting is a natural thing; an instinct that we're born with.  I know I take jabs at technology, and it probably deserves it, but pen and paper and actually putting thought into the words that come forth is a given, but it's surprising what comes out from the heart without the thought process. Too many people try, too many new concepts try, to take over, but with pen and notebook handwriting will never die.  Just look at the store shelves when you buy school supplies; take a look at the crowded tables in Barnes and Noble when you walk in on Saturday morning and have to wait for one; doctors offices where little kids are looking for Waldo, coloring, or writing.  Some things should just be left alone.  Let the younger generations learn the way we did; we're not so dumb.  And guess what?  We may actually know something.