Handwriting with Tears; Don’t cry for cursive.

There’s a handwriting system that my son’s teachers use called “Handwriting without Tears.” They have an app (that I don’t really like) and all kinds of classroom curricula (which teachers seem to like). I always laugh a little at the name, because for me, handwriting caused tears.

As an adult, I’ve come to terms with my quirky brain and dyslexia and my general trouble with spatial relations. I have the fine motor control to play instruments, but something about trying to form shapes and letters on pages was and is very difficult for me. I can do basic clear printing with intense concentration.

Throughout elementary school, I was criticized for my handwriting. I remember my mother once going through weeks or months of papers, trying to figure out how to improve my handwriting (a very sharp pencil was one suggestion). It wasn’t just my dyslexia, I was also sloppy, though I’ve come to see certain kinds of sloppiness as a coping mechanism for my strange brain (i.e. if I intentionally screw up, then I don’t have to wonder why my brain doesn’t work right). At any rate, I hated writing and my handwriting is a disaster.

When I was in 8th grade, we got a personal computer with an early word processing program. It changed my life. It divorced the act of writing from the act of forming letters with my hands. A typewriter could have done the same, but using a typewriter was not normal for 7th graders, whereas the new age of computers changed things. As I am now steeped in the world of assistive technology for my son, I think back on the computer and the word processing program as my own form of assistive tech. Anyway, as Sara Hendren regularly argues, all technology is assistive technology, from motorized wheelchairs to shoes to hearing aids to glasses.

I’m writing this in the wake of many friends sharing a New York Times piece lamenting the end of handwriting teaching.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.

The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

Let’s assume that all of this is correct. The value here isn’t handwriting, but the neurological processes that accompany handwriting.

Handwriting is going away. Not scribbling quick notes on pads, but the era of formal cursive handwriting, the very form of handwriting that seems to most provide these neurological benefits, is coming to an end.

The solution is not to lament the loss of cursive and not to force kids to learn cursive anyway, despite its lack of utility, but rather to find other means to stimulate related neurological processes. Is it art? Is it rock climbing? Is it baking bread? I don’t know, but let’s not confuse means with outcome.

Update: On ableism and handwriting, please read this wonderful post from my friend Rick Godden.

12 Replies to “Handwriting with Tears; Don’t cry for cursive.”

  1. Nauplion says:

    I flunked Handwriting in 3rd grade, my handwriting is illegible to me, but when I am working out an idea, I work it out on paper. Handwriting is a very different thinking process from typing.

  2. Jodi says:

    I don't think tidiness is the issue here, David. It's the process of committing a concept to active, working memory and then entrenching it in long-term memory through the act of deliberately creating letters that map in your brain to ideas, rather than punching indistinguishable keys. Even spelling is moot in the big picture (unless the lesson being learned is the spelling of a word).

    So I agree that there are lots of ways to activate that process, but the point they are largely making is that handwriting is one of those ways, so we should not discount it and let it slide.

    Also, cursive serves some other minor purposes in contrast to block lettering — most notably, the fact that one can write much more quickly and smoothly in cursive than in block, and thus keep up with thoughts much more easily. I've witnessed a decline in my students' ability to write quickly that seems to correspond to the fact that precious few of them write in some form of cursive (doesn't need to be Copperplate), which results in a much jerkier, more disconnected process of handwriting.

    1. David Perry says:

      Sure, handwriting is one of those ways, which means that it was a major benefit in a world in which handwriting was the objective in and of itself. That is changing. It's going to be changing faster over the next few decades, I would guess. So I would favor focusing on the memory processes and not clinging to handwriting.

      I understand the utility of cursive. I just cannot do it. And I never really could. I am biased here.

      You should read Rick's link at the bottom. It's smarter than mine. 🙂

    2. Ms Rice says:

      But my point is that the handwriting is *not* the objective in and of itself. If it were, then the product (tidy script) would be more important than the process (the creation of a meaningful semantic system that ties action to cognition), and the point here seems to emphasize the importance of the process. It's a form of kinaesthetic learning. One of many, certainly, but the research would suggest that it has a unique place in the learning process that may be difficult to exactly duplicate.

      I'll read the link when I have time. I have a stake in understanding the many implications of handwriting and learning style. But I'm supposed to be working through this stack of papers. 😛

    3. David Perry says:

      I take your point. But might there not be something more worth learning in our new age, unlike handwriting, that could achieve the same goals? What was good about handwriting practice is that 1) you learned a useful skill 2) you got these cognitive goals. Now you 1) learn an increasingly less useful skill and 2) still get the benefits.

      I wonder what we might replace 1 with that might become more useful over the next decades, rather than less.

  3. Judi Morgan-Fuller says:

    I am ambidextrous and what is strange beside being able to use either hand or foot, is that I can only use cursive with my left hand and can only print with my right. When it comes to rapidly put down ideas I have to say that one of best things I learned in school was the keyboard. I can type as fast as most people talk and as fast as I think, so it works for me.

    My husband was a lefty and could only print and our 4 children are all righties and can only print. And we all print in upper case. Two of our children inherited my skill in math and the other 2 need a calculator to add 2 and 2. One is dyslexic and dyscalculate, but went on to become an English professor. You are right strange things happen in the brain. The greatest skill that can be learn in the early grades of school is not cursive but the development of memory. Memory is an incredible tool and is often neglected in school. This is something that has served me and mine extremely well.

  4. Katherine Collmer says:

    David makes a good point in his original article here. Handwriting does not need to be the only way that we expand and enhance our memory skills. Handwriting practice, as many of his referenced articles and many more have stated, enhances those that are requred for reading and literacy. As a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of children's handwriting skills, I have seen a dramatic decline in spelling skills with students who were not afforded the opportunity to master their handwriting skills early on. The debate for me around cursive is no longer an issue, as I've seen it work for some students who transition into it and I've seen many students transform their manuscript skills into a fluid, legible handwriting style. But, handwriting is simply not going away. Computers and technology are going to coexist with it in the future, just as we are still reading real books (bound as well as electronic are real) versus listening to them on audio just because that technology is there and could be perceived to be easier than learning to read. Handwriting practice and mastery provide many of the underlying skills (visual, motor, and cognitive) that are required for learning and should not be discounted as an antiquated way to teach those skills. I am always happy to work with a student whose learning styles necessitate a different form of communication (keyboarding, for example); but those time are reserved for those who need it to be successful, not to turn my back on a valuable form of communication. This is a great discussion! I agree with Judi that that every one of our brains is querky and that we all do learn differently. Learning is personal. So is the way that we use our handwriting to communicate…sometimes not pretty…but personal.

  5. Katherine Collmer says:

    David, Thanks for sharing Rick Godden's article. Just a note about it: I am a proficient shorthand taker – yes! I can still take shorthand after all these years that it's been a dead form of communication – 227 words per minute! Yikes! But, just like the mindless notetaking mentioned in the article that comes from the electronic notes (i.e., iPad), I do not remember what I am "writing" as I'm skipping along the page with the nonsense sqiggles; I am simply getting the information down on paper to transcribe later. If I don't get it right the first time, I may never get it right during transcription…no memory skills being built here about the information that I am writing. Handwriting, the physical act of it, brings memory into the picture; not simply a faster way to get information recorded. There's room for both in our lives. Great article! Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    To me, for kinesthetic learners, handwriting to some extent is essential. In the most traditional of classrooms (some of which still exist), handwriting (whether notes or answering questions or writing essays) remains the one way for kinesthetic learners to use their learning style. During my college years, 99% of the "kinesthetic" learning that occurred was the taking of notes in class from a professor's lecture. I am not anti-lecture-based courses; I happened to have very fascinating professors that made history and other subjects come alive, but, in many cases, hand writing notes is the only outlet for a kinesthetic learner. As for the writing speed of students, I think the downfall of writing is what I have come to call "text speak." In the ten years that I've taught, I have seen students move from capitalizing mostly correctly (the word I, the first word of a sentence, and names) to being confused when I mention that they should capitalize the word "I" and that "and" is not spelled "an" or "in." If the handwriting process is to be removed from learning (particularly cursive), then something HAS to be put in place to replace it…effectively…for kinesthetic learners. By the way, this is a fascinating conversation. 🙂

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