Six-year-old Patrick sees an occupational therapist every week. His challenge? To learn how to hold a pencil.
Mum Laura was wracked with digital guilt when her son’s teachers reported he was gripping his pencil in his fist like a caveman. “In retrospect,” she told The Guardian recently, “I see that I gave Patrick technology to play with, to the virtual exclusion of the more traditional toys.”
Patrick is in good company, according to experts. “Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” explains British pediatric OT Sally Payne.
Is handwriting worth saving?
With Bring-Your-Own-Device and 1:1 policies increasingly mandated by schools - and in a world where even kids’ letters to Santa are going by email - some commentators are wondering: Why do we still insist students learn to write by hand?
The data points to a raft of good reasons.
“Handwriting - forming letters - engages the mind,” insists Professor Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington. “And that can help children pay attention to written language.” Studies have shown that kids who are taught printing learn to read faster than those who don’t.
Literacy and learning
Angela Webb, a psychologist and chair of the National Handwriting Association, explains the ripple effect is even wider. When kids engage with the physical environment, specific areas of the brain and styles of cognitive development are stimulated. That means picking up a pen instead of keyboard will have a positive impact on many kinds of learning - not just literacy.
A recent study by French researchers looked at one group of learners that was instructed to hand-write notes while another group typed them. The hand-writers were later found to have a deeper level of learning. Those findings have been widely replicated.
The case for keyboarding
In the US, the future of cursive penmanship has been hotly debated since the 2010 Common Core curriculum mandated that students “demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills” by Year Four - but were only required to master “basic features of print.” Cursive was eliminated altogether.
Many were outraged by the decision, which has been walked back in numerous school districts today. But there are still plenty of educators who say “meh” to handwriting.
Yes, it teaches kids fine motor skills, they concede. But so do many other more useful subjects, like cooking, music and carpentry.
“People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization,” notes historian Anne Trubek in her recent book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.
“But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting. There are few instances in which handwriting is a necessity, and there will be even fewer by the time today’s second graders graduate.”
Naveed Idress, headteacher at UK’s Feversham Primary Academy, couldn’t disagree more. Idress, like many other educators, is convinced that learning to write by hand gives children resilience, creativity and the ability to interact socially. “We are not just talking about mechanical skills here,” he said. “We are talking about how children learn. We are making them ready for life.”
But it doesn’t have to be either/or. Creating a balance between digital and analog modes of communication - keyboards and pens, to put it more simply - is the best way forward, argues Nina Iles, head of EdTech at the British Educational Suppliers Association.
“Sometimes if a child is struggling with their handwriting, that can be a barrier to them being able to use it effectively to inform and express themselves,” she observes. “The key is learning to do it well.”
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