As a middle school learning-resource teacher, I cannot help but notice the increasing number of students who cannot print or write in cursive legibly.
At our independent K-12 school of about 1,000 students, the number of individualized education programs with the diagnosis of dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing, has increased significantly in recent years. While statistics on the overall prevalence of dysgraphia—also sometimes referred to as written output disorder or graphomotor weakness—are hard to find, more and more middle school students cannot legibly write by hand. In addition to the students with officially recognized writing disabilities, many students who can print cannot write in cursive, a previously mandatory skill. These are smart kids in an enriched environment, many of whom are now called “learning disabled” based on written output, and many of whom have just simply never learned the art of handwriting.
Being a proponent of 21st-century skills and an early adopter of technology, my response to these graphomotor weaknesses has up until recently been bypass strategies, such as directing students to word processing or voice-recognition software. These technologies enable children with writing challenges to get their ideas in print. I rationalized the use of these strategies with the belief that being able to write legibly was not a necessary skill for success in the 21st century.
A recent six-month sabbatical in France and a further exploration of the research into the value of good handwriting have shaken my beliefs. In fact, these experiences have made me seriously reconsider my previously blasé attitude toward the importance of well-developed handwriting skills.
While in France, my two children, ages 3 and 6, attended school in our small village, and I happily volunteered weekly in both their classrooms. One day, during routine photocopying of the 5th grade student notebooks, I had an awakening that shook the foundations of my “bypass those weak writing skills” philosophy. The more than 100 notebooks were identical in their beautiful penmanship. You could barely tell one notebook from the next or differentiate the girls’ work from the boys’. One hundred notebooks of graceful, fluid handwriting, or attaché, as the French call it.
There is a growing field of research that supports the French belief that handwriting is an important skill—not just for its own sake."
My photocopying revelation inspired me to dig a little further into the French handwriting phenomenon. I did not have to look much further than my 3-year-old son’s classroom. School in France starts at 3, and the national curriculum is followed very closely across the country. While my son’s days were largely play-based, at least half an hour of every school day was set aside for graphomotor or fine-motor-skill work.
The teachers made this work fun.Students would complete tasks such as using a pencil to trace valleys on a piece of corrugated cardboard, practicing pincer grip by transferring seeds or grains of rice, or painting giant spirals with small brushes. Though the activities were based in play, the approach was part of a three-year plan to develop fine-motor and graphomotor skills that culminates with the first exposure to actual writing in 1st grade.
Students in France are never formally taught to print, but instead at age 6 they learn to write by hand. By the end of the 1st grade year, all students are producing the beautiful writing that so amazed me that day at the photocopier.
During my time in France, I volunteered at different schools and spoke with dozens of teachers. When I asked them if they had ever encountered a student who was unable to learn to write, most looked at me in puzzlement; one or two vaguely remembered a student with coordination issues that required some intervention, but none knew of children with a dysgraphia diagnosis.
The French primary curriculum, though certainly lacking in some areas, recognizes handwriting as an important skill. Therefore, using a well-thought-out four-year approach, teachers spend three years prepping students to hold a pencil for handwriting and then one year developing the skill.
As an educator, despite being wowed by the French student notebooks, I was still not convinced that the French focus on handwriting skills was worth the time teachers were putting toward it. Yet I was intrigued. Spurred on by the pile of writing disabilities that were being diagnosed at my middle school back home, I began examining the research about the value of handwriting.
It turns out the French may be on to something. There is a growing field of research that supports the French belief that handwriting is an important skill—not just for its own sake, but because it is correlates with other important skills and brain functions, such as language learning, reading development, and working memory.
And so my thinking has evolved. The take-home message for me has been that the very thinking needed for the 21st-century skills of literacy, creativity, and critical thinking may actually be directly correlated to the acquisition of the very 20th-century (or earlier) skill of handwriting.
I am not alone in my thinking. Many North American educators are now realizing we have thrown the baby out with the bath water in our neglect of the development of fine-motor and later graphomotor skills in our students.
A 2012 conference in Washington, “Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit,” acted as a symposium for handwriting advocates from the fields of neuroscience, research, and education. Several states have begun to re-examine their relative abandonment of handwriting as a skill. So while our North American notebooks may never rival those of the French, I believe we can—and should—take a metaphorical page out of the French book and resurrect handwriting as a relevant skill for the 21st century.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as There’s More to Cursive Than Meets the Eye