Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Schools Should Keep Teaching Handwriting, Even If Typing Is More Useful

Screenshot / Zaner-Bloser Publishing

A sample from handwriting materials Columbus, Ohio, publishing company Zaner-Bloser makes for kindergarteners.

Even if computers will dot students’ I’s and cross their T’s for much of their life, Indiana University research suggests teaching them handwriting skills is still important in helping them learn to read.

That notion runs counter to current national standards. Indiana joined 43 other states last year in adopting a set of national curriculum guidelines that emphasize teaching students keyboarding skills. They hardly mention teaching handwriting, much less cursive writing, as Hoosiers have learned.

IU psychology professor Karin James says that might be unwise. She conducted the research that found teaching young children to write letters activated parts of their young brains that become critical for reading.

“It might be fine [to give the option not to teach handwriting anymore], but we don’t know that,” James says. “And the research is pointing to that it might not be fine, you might be setting up a child’s brain to interpret letters and words in a very different way.”

James’ experiment involved a group of a dozen four- and five-year olds. She scanned their brains, then split them into two groups — one was shown letters and instructed to recognize them visually, the other was taught to write letters. This training went on over four weeks.

“It sounds old-fashioned when you put forth the argument that you lose connection with the past. But then there’s also that scientific aspect of it. We don’t know what’s going to happen later on if you don’t teach children how to write on paper or how to write cursive.”
—Kathleen Wright, textbook publisher

When she put the kids back into the brain scanner, the two groups showed very different results: The scans for the group that was simply shown letters didn’t look that different. But in the scans for the group that learned to write the letters, James saw a huge spike in activity in their brains’ reading network.

“It’s not just that you’re using your hands to create the letters, because typing seems to be different than handwriting,” James says. “It’s that you’re actually creating those forms with your hands. That seems to be making a difference.”

Literacy expert and Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham says the implications for James’ work in an educational setting aren’t clear. Handwriting is clearly important in education, Graham says, but typing should also be taught in the classrom.

“I’m not sure what it means that more parts of the brain light up when you do handwriting versus when you find with any other activity,” Graham said. “It’s not necessarily surprising that particular parts of the brain light up when you do certain kinds of activities.  With something like typing, that’s a simpler motor skill, so I’d expect less of the brain to light up.”

Read our full Q&A with Graham here.

Last April, the Indiana Department of Education gave school districts the option to stop teaching cursive in schools beyond third grade because of the state’s adoption of those national curriculum standards, known as the Common Core State Standards. The story made headlines across the country and even in some international newspapers.

But even though the Common Core emphasizes keyboarding, most agree it’s not likely that districts will stop teaching handwriting altogether.

Kathleen Wright, national product manager for Ohio-based Zaner-Bloser Publishing, says overall sales for her company’s handwriting texts haven’t seen a dip. But schools are buying fewer texts for older grades.

“[Schools] aren’t teaching it as far into the elementary years as they would before,” Wright says. “Whereas people might buy their program K-5 before, now they buy it K-3.

“It sounds old-fashioned when you put forth the argument that you lose connection with the past,” Wright says. “But then there’s also that scientific aspect of it. We don’t know what’s going to happen later on if you don’t teach children how to write on paper or how to write cursive.”

Comments

  • Doug

    Unless I missed something, the study didn’t have any implications for cursive. It just talked about writing — so, as I understand the Indiana curriculum change; they’ll still teach writing just not in the form of cursive.

    • Anonymous

      You’re right Doug. The point of the post is that the Common Core curriculum standards hardly mention handwriting at all. Dr. James’ comments about it “might be fine, but it might not be fine” were specifically in response to a question about the Common Core, not about the dropping of the cursive requirement.

      The cursive requirement was dropped in Indiana specifically because the Common Core doesn’t emphasize handwriting or cursive.

      But we’ve actually got another post coming out on this momentarily that addresses your criticism a little more specifically. I’ll link you to it here and update the post with a link too.

      • Doug

        Thanks. That’s some interesting reading. I always feel like I have to offer the disclosure that I hate cursive because I’ve always been bad at it. I switched back to manuscript as soon as teachers let me. My 5th grade teacher simply declined to give me a handwriting grade because she didn’t want to “mess up a perfectly good report card.” Fortunately, computers became ubiquitous between elementary school and my graduation from college.

        • Anonymous

          Ha, no kidding. Good teacher ;)
          I enjoy your blog, by the way — you’re in my Google Reader!

    • Anonymous
  • Theller09

    I suspect this is a *very* important finding — one that should temper the rush to get a tablet into every school child’s hands. Indeed, there was a story about three weeks ago (where I can’t remember and since I posted it on Facebook, I can no longer find it) about introducing ‘desirable difficulties’ that force a student to more deeply engage/interact with study materials and help in retention of study materials & lessons. Such difficulties included a teacher deliberately blurring the copy of a test (yep!!).

    I am similarly concerned with dropping any form of handwriting from the curriculum in favor of keyboarding. I still take notes with paper and pen, although I’m decades from last setting foot in a classroom. Cursive writing enables me to quickly capture thoughts – or other people’s words. And there’s still no substitute for sketching out ideas manually with a pen/pencil and paper.

    I think the headlong rush into ‘a laptop/tablet for every child’ is mostly driven by commercial/industry interests, abetted by parental fears. But parents and communities should be more concerned with a student’s actual learning, not the equipment they bring to the task. Plus -and more importantly- addressing the unevenness of learning among our diverse population should be the *principal* objective of the educational profession, not teaching them to interact with electronic devices.

    Who thinks keyboarding is essential for math & science education? Or to enhance critical thinking skills? Yet now we’re seeing keyboarding displace handwriting, the doorway to reading and early learning!!

    Sure, there may have been worry about the future of handwriting a century ago when typewriters came into use. But I don’t recall that Smith Corona, other typewriter manufacturers, politicians or school boards ever attempted to launch an effort to equip every schoolchild with their own typewriter……they’d have been laughed out of the schoolyard.

    So why should today be any different? Learning should be the focus and handwriting & learning go hand-in-hand (no pun intended).

    • http://twitter.com/StateImpactIN StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Theller09.

      Did you catch the literacy expert with whom we spoke making the exact same point you made about typewriters? http://stateimpact.npr.org/indiana/2011/09/29/why-schools-should-keep-teaching-handwriting-even-if-typing-is-more-useful/

      This same expert, though, does say we need keyboarding instruction blended with handwriting instruction. Check out his points, I’m curious to see what you think… His name’s Steve Graham, he’s at Vanderbilt University. He says cursive is so easy these days (it’s been greatly dumbed-down from decades ago), teaching cursive and manuscript might not be worth curricular time. Do you agree?

    • http://www.facebook.com/pmoseman Philip Moseman

      Who thinks keyboarding is essential for math & science education?
      I do. Math and science need the computer.

      Or to enhance critical thinking skills?
      You develop your own techniques over the top of several basic principles.
      It is going to develop critical thinking where it is most often used.
      Students are going to become those stubborn adults who use nothing but
      calculators and computers to do their work. Schools should train them,
      to reduce errors done in that work.

      So why should today be any different?
      A typewriter did not do anything like what a computer does. Computers can increase the one-on-one interaction between student and teacher (listen to Salman Khan talk at Ted 2011).
      Schools must provide new, useful, and unambiguous information. By avoiding the alienating practice of forcing students to learn unnecessary skills, teachers can retain attention and effectively teach proper grammar, punctuation, and so forth; which are the real detractors of electronic communication.
      Students will associate proper communication with keyboarding, not with a pen and paper, they will have better typing ability and won’t use shortcuts, and they will see the legitimate need for proper communication through various classroom experiences.

      Handwriting, along with music and sports, still should be part of any reasonably diverse education program. You could learn handwriting on a computer tablet, run on stationary treadmills, and record separate musical tracks in a studio, but it would be detrimental to never expose students to the scrawling pen, the sun and snow, or an instrumental gathering. These obviously strengthen important junctions in the mind.

  • D Rains

    “teaching them handwriting skills are still important” ?

    I hope we don’t stop teaching grammer and subject-verb agreement! Teaching correct usage are (sic) still important, especially to journalists, whether handwritten, typed on a keyboard, or spoken.

    Alas poor gerund- I knew him!

    • Theller09

      Did you even read past the first paragraph?

      Perhaps keyboarding (intermediated by a computer) would have caught & corrected this common error by Mr. Stokes. Maybe we *should* abandon handwriting and leave everything to machines — even teaching and, yes, submitting comments, too!?

      p.s. it’s spelled ‘grammar’

      • http://twitter.com/StateImpactIN StateImpact Indiana

        #ashamed —kystokes (I just changed it)

  • http://www.facebook.com/faceless.man.child Clinton Williams

    that’s all well and good, but learning languages helps the developing brain as well. The difference is that if a parent chooses they can teach their own children as many languages as they would like, personally or through tutoring, class, etc. All of these options are outside the public education system, maybe it’s time for parents to take some of the responsibility, especially for cursive. You can also teach your child calligraphy to expand his/her mind, but again this would be something that is outside the public education system.I do think that it would be a huge mistake to replace block letter (printed) handwriting, What happens when your away from your “computer”, your “phone” dies, but you need to document something? Hope that your parents upgraded your memory with a chip?

  • http://www.facebook.com/christy.wessel.powell Christy Wessel Powell

    There is a difference between 4-5 year olds forming letters and making reading/writing connections (i.e. learning to decode as they code), and more fluent 3rd grade readers (8 year olds) learning cursive. I’m wondering what distinctions James’ work makes there. Interesting!

  • dancingvictoria

    If we demolish the handwriting curriculum in general, then our generation will not know how to think for themselves, much less have their own thoughts. Handwriting isn’t something that can be put into a computer as typing– it is individual and unique. I find that when writing longhand my thoughts can process. Knowing how to write in both print and cursive can also improve your IQ. If we simply stop teaching our children how to write in cursive and printing, then why even bother to teach them at all? Computers and technology may be a large part of our society now, but we cannot let them rule everybody’s lives. School is about learning and education, and handwriting is definitely education that takes people very far! Personally, I don’t agree with what Indiana or what the other states are doing. It’s truly sad and I fear for the next generation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pmoseman Philip Moseman

    Cursive is an illegible waste of time.

  • B.V. Platt

    As a member of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting and as a teacher in elementary school, obviously, I am biased on this topic. Children should learn to write before they print. This is the way it used to be done and the way it should still be done. Script/cursive is more organic, flowing, and helpful to ready expression.

    The issue today is that classroom teachers (in large part), themselves, don’t use proper writing technique and therefore don’t know how to teach it. In the decades since the preeminence of Messrs. Palmer, Zaner, Bloser, et al, there has been a steady decline in handwriting. There is a fool-proof scope and sequence to it of which most teachers today are unaware.

    Manuscript/Printing was put before cursive, I suppose, because it was thought to be a faster track to literacy, i.e., reading printed material. But, in methodological terms, printing is more labor intensive and not as conducive to putting letters together into words and sentences–whole language, if you will.

    Furthermore, writing in cursive is a rite of passage. I remember in second grade being so excited that we would start learning cursive, that feeling of being able to write like a grown-up. Isn’t it a shame that many adults and parents today don’t have a good handwriting, and so their children don’t have a model to follow?!

  • Computer Teacher

    I was just recently told by our district IT guru that teaching touch typing is considered archaic and unnecessary. She said that children have their own methods of typing that work just fine. As a computer teacher who teaches touch typing I was speechless. The hunt and peck methods invented by children are inefficient and distract from focusing on the writing on the screen. Mastering a hunt and peck method that works can take years. The learning curve for touch typing is vastly superior. Apparently for our district we will no longer be teaching handwriting or typing. Smart.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »

Economy
Education