Reading & Literacy

Summit to Make a Case for Teaching Handwriting

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 23, 2012 8 min read
Third grader Michael Capps listens to his teacher during a cursive-writing lesson at Charlotte Park Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn.
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Handwriting still has a place in the digital age, its proponents say, and they hoped that what they billed as a “summit” on the subject this week would spotlight their case for the enduring value of handwriting in the learning process.

The Washington conference was designed to draw together research from psychology, occupational therapy, education, and neuroscience to demonstrate handwriting’s role in students’ physical and cognitive development, states’ learning standards, and the classroom.

The occasion also marked National Handwriting Day, Jan. 23—the birthday of that most famous exemplar of penmanship, John Hancock.

Doubt about the continued worth of handwriting skill is “similar to what happened with math as calculators and computers came into vogue,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which co-sponsored the gathering with Zaner-Bloser, a Columbus, Ohio, company that produces a handwriting curriculum. “People wondered whether students needed to learn how to do math. The answer in both cases is absolutely yes. Writing is not obsolete.”

Proponents of teaching—in some cases, reintroducing—handwriting in the school curriculum say their concern over the fading importance of handwriting became more urgent with the advent of the Common Core State Standards. The standards, which were released in 2010 and have been adopted by all but four states, mention keyboarding but not handwriting.

“The conversation about handwriting instruction has been growing,” said Kathleen Wright, the coordinator of this week’s event and the national product coordinator at Zaner-Bloser.

The company advocates that states supplement the common core with handwriting standards, as Massachusetts and California have already done. Ms. Wright said the conference, called the “Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit,” was timed so policymakers could address any lack of attention to handwriting while their states are still rolling out their own versions of the common core.

A student’s writing paper is on display at Charlotte Park Elementary.

“As I talked to researchers, they were all saying the same thing in different ways,” Ms. Wright said. “Handwriting instruction needs to be done.”

Cognitive and Motor Skills

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and a scheduled presenter at the conference, said that learning handwriting has both cognitive and motor benefits, and that letter formation is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced.

“The artist needs a paintbrush in order to paint. Children need tools for producing letters to support their composing,” she said.

“Handwriting” refers to any cursive writing or printing by hand with pen, pencil, or other such implement, although cursive handwriting—in which the letters within each word are joined in a continuous flow—is the skill most likely to be lost.

Ms. Berninger noted that when students struggle with handwriting, “people usually think, well, just put them on the computer.” But her studies of normally developing and struggling students learning handwriting suggest that may not be the solution. “It turns out that many of the problems relating to why they have trouble learning handwriting might also affect how they use a keyboard.”

When handwriting is not taught, reader comprehension may suffer, according to Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., whose research was slated to be presented at the conference.

But more commonly, having legible but shaky handwriting “strongly impacts people’s perception of the quality of the message,” he said. In a meta-analysis of research on writing, his research team found that teachers and others scoring students’ tests are more likely to give lower marks to papers with less-legible handwriting.

Not practicing the motor skills associated with writing also makes it more difficult for people to communicate their ideas, Mr. Graham said. If handwriting skills aren’t automatic, he said, “it interferes with the whole writing process.”

Other research scheduled to be presented at the conference suggests handwriting may spur important brain activity in children.

Karin Harman-James of Indiana University in Bloomington based her findings on results from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, scans taken of children as they wrote and typed. The brain scans indicated that “handwriting, not keyboarding, leads to adult-like neural processing in the visual system,” which Ms. Harman-James says suggests that handwriting may have a particular role in setting children up for reading acquisition.

Most schoolwork is still produced by hand, said Mr. Graham. But he emphasized that handwriting should not be taught to the exclusion of typing.

Third grade students Shawna McNeal (left), Madyson Campbell, and Benny Tran practice cursive writing at Charlotte Park Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn. Educators and experts worry that such lessons are disappearing.

“We don’t live in a handwriting world, and we don’t live in a digital world. We live in a hybrid world,” Mr. Graham said.

Common-Core Concerns

For some experts, the common-core standards in English/language arts heighten the fear that students won’t pick up handwriting skills. “If it’s not in the standards, then the schools will think they don’t have to monitor and make sure children are learning handwriting and spelling,” Ms. Berninger said.

Kathy Simmons-O’Neal, a kindergarten teacher in West Carroll Parish, La., and past president of the Louisiana Reading Association who includes handwriting in her daily instruction, said excluding handwriting from the common core would have detrimental effects. “We’re not doing it as a practice daily, we’re not starting early enough, and it’s causing severe motor problems with children,” she said.

Several researchers said beginning teachers also are less likely to have been taught how to teach handwriting themselves in their teacher-preparation programs. Ms. Berninger described a teacher in Dallas: “She said, ‘We didn’t learn how to teach letters in teacher education programs.’ ”

Mr. Domenech of the Alexandria, Va.-based AASA, meanwhile, said the common core’s lack of handwriting standards didn’t necessarily mean that handwriting wouldn’t be taught. “I think they assume and take it for granted,” he said of the standards writers, “that that’s such a basic and necessary skill that it must be taught.”

Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the Washington-based groups that helped spearhead the development of the common standards, said in an email that “the Common Core State Standards allow communities and teachers to make decisions at the local level about how to teach reading and writing (and mathematics),” and that doesn’t preclude them from incorporating handwriting instruction.

Outside the research community, there is some debate about which letter forms students should be learning: print or cursive. Indiana state Sen. Jean Leising, a Republican from Oldenburg, is the author of a bill that would mandate that cursive letters be taught in the state’s schools. She said that when newspapers reported that Indiana would no longer mandate cursive after it adopted the common core, “I immediately got contacts from constituents about it.”

Ms. Leising said the bill, which she hopes will get a hearing this month, has bipartisan support.

But Ross McMullin, a spokesman for the Indiana education department, said lessons in cursive handwriting were not being prohibited by the state. Schools can “still include cursive in their curriculum offerings if they want to,” he noted.

Blending Styles

Proponents of cursive cite mutual legibility, tradition, and speed as benefits of that writing style. But according to the University of Washington’s Ms. Berninger, though cursive is usually faster, there’s no inherent benefit to cursive or print. She recommended teaching both forms. Mr. Graham said that “about two-thirds of kids actually mixed two scripts together,” and those who mix forms wrote more quickly.

Judith Gustafson, a document examiner for the Internal Revenue Service, said that a trend toward people mixing both styles has complicated the task of identifying handwriting, signatures, and forgeries on tax forms.

Finland’s National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, an inspiration for the common-core standards in the United States, includes “drawing the form of letters, learning capital and lower-case printed and cursive letters, and combining letters” in its standards for grades 1 and 2.

Meanwhile, in England, handwriting was not taught in the 1970s and 1980s because of fears that focusing on rote skills stifled creativity, according to Angela Webb, who chairs the United Kingdom’s National Handwriting Association.

But the skill re-entered the curriculum in the late 1990s, Ms. Webb added, and there is no talk of removing it. She said that students are scored on handwriting on national exams. Unlike most European countries, she said, England does not have a national handwriting style, but students do learn cursive.

Ms. Webb said her group was advocating extending handwriting instruction to later grades and increasing the emphasis on speed.

Some of the same cultural concerns resonate on both sides of the Atlantic. “Journalists are writing about whether handwriting is a dying art,” Ms. Webb said of the British press. But, she said, “if we view it only as an art, we’ve missed the point entirely"—that “handwriting is a tool.”

As handwriting receives its moment in the spotlight at the national summit, Mr. Graham of Vanderbilt said, it’s important to remember that the skill should be taught in service of something greater.

“As far as I’m concerned, kids need to have a legible and fluent style of handwriting, and they need to have fluent typing skills,” he said. “But that’s because I don’t want kids to have to think about those things. I want them thinking about what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Experts Fear Handwriting Will Become a Lost Art


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