Sunday, June 19

The Loss of Handwriting: A Loss of Civility? A Loss of Learning?

In August 2006, Louise Spear-Swerling wrote an article titled "The Importance of Teaching Handwriting."  Perhaps it is important to note the article was published in an online journal on learning disabilities.  Dr. Spear-Swerling, a special education professor at Southern Connecticut State University, asserts the importance of teaching handwriting.

Let's set aside the fact that many of us process information through writing it down because that processing can take place as easily through typing as it can through writing by hand.  In fact, typing may be faster for some and we tend to think faster than we can write--or type.  And, having to slow down our thinking does have merit.

However, a fundamental of reading is writing.  Children learn to practice all of the elements of a letter as they write it: the sound of it as well as the look of it.  If they learn the sound and the look of a letter through writing, then perhaps their spelling skills might be better.

Once upon a time, cursive was taught in elementary school.  Many of us who are boomers remember the white cursive letters on a green background around the room.  We may not remember it was called the Palmer Method (and I find it both refreshing and amusing that the Palmer Method has its own web site), but we do probably remember that funky looking capital "Q"...that some of us never could master.  I speak for myself anyway.  Until I started thinking about this and doing a small bit of research, I wasn't so sure it's important for children to learn how to write cursive, though there is something of elegance in a nice cursive hand.  Still, as a former writing teacher, I would have settled for legible printing.

What did my students lose as a result of not being able to write legibly?  If they did any work by hand and I couldn't read it, then I wouldn't grade it.  I told them I wouldn't guess.  Then I read an article by a college professor who had some of her students tell her they couldn't read her notes because she wrote in cursive, though she believed she had clear handwriting.  That made her wonder how many of her students hadn't been able to read the marginal notes, comments, and encouragements to which she dedicated so much time.

Does teaching writing to children in elementary school help with their gross motor skills?  Does it help with hand-eye coordination?  Is teaching cursive writing important?  The answer to each of those questions is "yes."  Educational psychologists and brain scientists have done research which indicates handwriting does make a difference in students' learning.  In fact, there are several advantages to good handwriting that seem to be ignored or underestimated by too many educators.

We know there has long been a movement towards not teaching something if it's not on the standardized tests and we can only imagine the short- and long-term impacts, the translation that if it's not in the Common Core, if it's not on the test, that somehow it's not important.

Teaching handwriting does takes time and too many seem to think it detracts from the time needed to teach "more important" things.  In fact, a memo from the Indiana Department of Education states as much: "Since these curriculum map resources do not include cursive writing for 2011-12, schools may decide to continue to teach cursive as a local standard, or they may decide to stop teaching cursive next year to focus the curriculum on more important areas."

In January a blog post addressed students learning cursive writing from a parent's point of view.  The blogger, Honey Berk, notes that cursive handwriting is not part of the Common Core.  There seems to be a bit of a backlash among parents who seem to think that learning cursive is still important.  Is that because we had to learn it or because cursive represents the need to take some time, because it represents a kind of civility?  But there's also that fact that there seems to be some cognitive development connection between writing in cursive and learning.

So maybe kids won't have a lot of opportunity to write in cursive once they're out of school.  It seems sadly evident we are losing the ability to write, or the interest in writing, thank you notes or other such apparently archaic symbols of civility.  Which suggests we are losing bits of civility as well.

Aside from manners or a simple thoughtful gesture that indicates one has been willing to take some time to do and say something personal for someone, it seems that not teaching our children cursive may be shortchanging them in other ways from which they may not be able to recover, even if they have the fastest texting thumbs in the neighborhood.

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