Farewell to Handwriting
Are we on the brink of saying goodbye to cursive writing? Today, children are more likely to send Santa Claus an e-mail than they are to hand write a letter. Cambridge University is considering allowing students to use laptops in exams because the general level of penmanship is so poor that examiners are having trouble reading answers. And, says the BBC, teaching cursive writing “… is no longer a requirement in U.S. schools, and some countries have dropped the skill from the curriculum or made it optional.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, students in America spent endless, boring hours mastering what was called Spencerian Script. Platt Rogers Spencer developed the style of handwriting in 1840 that features rounded letters that lean to the right. You can see examples of it in the logos of Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Company.
The style was taught in schools everywhere and became the standard for business communication until the typewriter arrived on the scene.
Spencer’s style was replaced by a system developed by Austin Palmer. As Anne Trubek notes in The New York Times, “It was also believed that mastering the Palmer Method would make students better Christians, immigrants more assimilated Americans (through its ‘powerful hygienic effect’), ‘bad’ children better (‘the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent’) and workers more industrious (because the script had fewer curlicues and strokes than Spencerian).”
But today, fewer and fewer children any being taught any form of cursive handwriting.
“When I am asked what kind of writing is the most lucrative, I have to say: ransom notes.”
Literary agent Harold Norling Swanson
Do We Need Handwriting?
You can expect the National Handwriting Association (NHA) to be keen on promoting handwriting. The British advocacy group notes that “Time devoted to the teaching and learning of letter formation in the early years will pay off. Legible writing that can be produced comfortably, at speed and with little conscious effort allows a child to attend to the higher-level aspects of writing composition and content.”
The NHA makes the claim that good handwriting skills are essential to success in time-limited examinations.
“Honoré de Balzac’s handwriting was so bad, staff at his printer’s would only work on his manuscripts for an hour at a time.”
BBC’s Quite Interesting
HealthyChildren.org offers research-based support for handwriting.
Developing the fine motor skills associated with handwriting “can predict not only writing success, but better performance in reading and math in elementary school.”
The National Center for Biotechnology Information has published an interesting study in young children showing distinct and different brain patterns when handwriting compared with keyboarding. “… The ones with better handwriting showed greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory.”
Moving up the grade levels, the Pew Research Center quizzed teachers in 2012 about the effects of technology on student performance. The teachers described “the unique challenges of teaching writing in the digital age, including the ‘creep’ of informal style into formal writing assignments and the need to better educate students about issues such as plagiarism and fair use.”
Dysgraphia is a motor control disorder that makes it difficult for people to form letters. A 2012 paper written by Professor Diane Montgomery (Middlesex University) suggests instruction in cursive writing can help reduce this difficulty.
An Unnecessary Skill?
As educators stress the importance of developing handwriting skills they do seem to be fighting a rearguard battle.
With modern technology who needs cursive writing? Perhaps, the time spent painstakingly learning joined-up writing could be better spent developing touch typing skills or even simple coding.
Here’s the BBC, “A 2012 survey of 2,000 adults by U.K. mailing firm Docmail found that on average, it had been 41 days since respondents wrote - and that two-thirds of us only write short notes like shopping lists.”
For people with poor fine-motor coordination there is voice recognition software. The British Dyslexia Association adds that technology can help people with other disabilities.
“Some pupils with dyslexia and related conditions such as dyspraxia find that the difficulties associated with handwriting can inhibit their ability to structure and write a piece of work. The handwriting itself can take up too much concentration and effort.
“Teaching touch typing skills and allowing pupils to use a computer for written work can allow more concentration to be focussed on the content of the piece.”
“Yea Verily” says Anne Trubek in The New York Times (August 2016): “People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization. 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.”
It seems that cursive handwriting is slipping out of fashion along with quill pens, carving messages on stone, illuminated manuscripts, and painting animals on cave walls.
- James Garfield was the 20th President of the United States. He only served in the highest office for six months before his assassination in 1881. He was ambidextrous and developed a unique party trick. He could hand write in Greek with one hand while handwriting in Latin with the other. Not sure how that skill on a resume would lead to a plum job in information technology.
- When Leonardo da Vinci wrote stuff he didn’t want other people to read he used mirror handwriting. This is described by The Lancet as a “variety of script which runs in an opposite direction to the normal, the individual letters also being reversed.” Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame had a similar facility. It’s very difficult to do. Try it. I know I haven’t.
- Easter Island people in the Pacific left us with a conundrum to puzzle over with their statues. They also left us a mystery with their writing. Here’s The Telegraph newspaper (January 2013), “Every other line of the script is upside down as, rather than jumping their hand back to the left hand side, they simply rotated the writing surface and carried on. First recorded in the 18th century, it is the only written script to have been developed by a Polynesian culture, but no one can decipher it anymore.”
- “Five Amazing Facts About Handwriting!” Uniball, undated.
- National Handwriting Association.
- “The Importance of Handwriting in the Digital Age.” Yolanda (Linda) Reid Chassiakos, HealthyChildren.org, September 27, 2017.
- “QI: Some Quite Interesting Facts About Writing.” The Telegraph, January 14, 2013.
- “Do We Need to Teach Children Joined-up Handwriting?” David Molloy, BBC News, November 11, 2017.
- “Dyslexic Children Sometimes Have Problems with Handwriting.” British Dyslexia Association, undated.
- “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter.” Anne Trubek, The New York Times, August 20, 2016
© 2018 Rupert Taylor