Learning how to write letters, words, and sentences on paper has been an important part of American schooling for hundreds of years. However, with increased use of personal computers, laptops, and tablets, many educators and policymakers question the usefulness of spending valuable class time teaching handwriting to students who have been born into a digital world. At the same time, reading and brain research points to the educational value of handwriting in ways that extend beyond being able to read cursive or take notes without benefit of a laptop or tablet.
In her recent article for the International Dyslexia Association, Write Makes Right, Type is Hype, Orton-Gillingham Fellow Diana Hanbury King argues that “the motor memory, the brain/hand connection, is the most powerful of our memories.” (1) Research supports that the physical act of writing aids in memory and retrieval. According to experts, handwriting instruction benefits students’ cognitive development as well as motor functioning. Hanbury King reports that “forming letters by hand engages more networks within the brain than keyboarding.” (1) She supports direct handwriting instruction, starting with lowercase letters in kindergarten, using gross and fine motor practice and mnemonics to aid formation and to limit reversals of similar looking letters. She and numerous other learning specialists support later cursive writing instruction as the sequential hand movements used in handwriting activate the regions of the brain associated with thinking, short-term memory, and language. The fluidity of cursive helps with speed and automaticity, while the formation of cursive letters prevents reversals since students don’t raise their pencil to form each letter. Experts recommend 15 minutes of direct handwriting practice each day. (2)
Supporters of teaching keyboarding over handwriting argue that in order for students to be college and career ready, they need to know how to keyboard accurately and quickly. They argue that word processing (and even voice-to-text technology) frees students from worrying about letter formation, allowing them to focus on content and higher-level thinking rather than on aesthetics. (3) They further contend that computer-generated documents and contracts are easier to read and share and even have electronic signature options. With limited classroom time and so many subjects to teach, why focus on letter formation? Handwriting dissenters view cursive as a historical art form, not as a practical skill for today’s digital learners.
Many classroom teachers have students brainstorm and write pieces by hand, then type and edit them on the computer. This certainly varies from instructor to instructor and depends on each district’s availability of technology for entire classes of students.
After the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Common Core State Standards arrived without standards for cursive writing, the debate came to state boards of education to decide whether to include handwriting standards in the extra 15 percent allowed them under the Common Core agreement or to leave the issue to the discretion of local districts. Soon after adopting the Common Core, Massachusetts added the standard that 4th graders should be able to “write legibly by hand, using either printing or cursive handwriting.” Seven states, including Massachusetts, have retained cursive instruction in their curricula. So for now, Massachusetts students will be learning handwriting.