Handwriting or Keyboard Skills?

Educators around the world are debating the usefulness of teaching handwriting. Cursive handwriting’s days appear to be numbered with more and more schools abandoning it in favour of teaching the more relevant keyboard skills. What’s at stake in the shift from handwriting to keyboard skills? Will anyone miss the old fashioned emphasis on beautiful penmanship? More importantly: could the shift impact the way children acquire reading skills?

When was the last time you used the word penmanship in a sentence? Penmanship, like courtesy and privacy, seems to be lingo of a bygone age.

Our grandparents acquired their lovely penmanship by laboriously copying script in notebooks and on slates. No one questioned its usefulness in the paper-based world of the past. It was essential for correspondence, cheque writing, form filling and more. How things have changed in the past few years!

Penmanship has been superseded by keyboard skills, and this is reflected in the curricula of schools around the world. One survey found that 41% of American elementary school teachers no longer include cursive handwriting in the curriculum. Some school systems teach printing exclusively, focussing on it only in kindergarten and grade one. The standard students must achieve is “legible.” That’s a far cry from a generation ago when students strove for attractive handwriting.

The Australian Curriculum mandates the teaching of handwriting but not the style, and it specifies the standard for each year level, for example: “that students learn to write fluently and legibly with developing automaticity.”

Finland, whose education system is highly regarded worldwide, is dropping the instruction of cursive writing in favour of printing and keyboard skills.

As we become less dependent on pen and paper, keyboard skills are taking centre stage in the classroom. In our grandparents’ day, typing was a specialised skill–the domain of journalists and secretaries, but today just about everyone needs keyboard skills. Schools have met this new need by starting students on keypads young. The American Common Core stipulates that students should be proficient typists by the fourth grade.

Is the Baby in the Bath Water?

In the midst of this technology revolution, educational psychologists are querying the wisdom of scrapping cursive writing by trying to answer the basic questions: What is the point of handwriting (in a keypad world)? and Do we teach handwriting or keyboard skills?

It turns out, learning to write does a lot more than equip us to sign forms.

The Advantages of Handwriting

Breakthroughs in neuroscience have paved the way for researchers to understand the effects of handwriting on learning. Neuroscientists are now able to map the benefits of different types of writing, finding that printing, cursive, and typing use distinct parts of the brain.

Even without the aid of a brain scan, we know handwriting involves a whole range of skills:

  • Gripping the pencil or pen
  • Feeling and orienting the paper
  • Moving the pen in the right direction
  • Applying the correct pressure
  • Practising until the results are consistent,
  • Finessing one’s own style
  • and so on

Clearly, the body and the brain work hard when writing letters. Typing, on the other hand, invites us merely to find the right key and press–as quickly as we can. Neuroscientists worry that abandoning handwriting might have a negative impact on how future generations learn to read.

The effects are not limited to fledgling readers. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer conducted a study (The Pen is Mightier than the Keypad) using 300 students from Princeton and UCLA with interesting results. They found that taking lecture notes with a pen rather than a laptop assists memory retention. Wray Herbert reported for the APS (Association of Psychological Science) website:

“Apparently there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information—and instead to process and reframe information in their own words, with or without the aid of asterisks and checks and arrows.”

Other studies around the world have identified the following benefits of writing by hand.

  1. Learning to write by hand first quickens the process of learning to read. Forming the letter aids letter recognition.
  2. Writing develops important fine motor skills and important cognitive processes.
  3. Students generate more words and ideas with a pen or pencil than they do with a keyboard.
  4. French researchers noted that cursive writing aids spelling, because the letters are practised as a cluster. In fact, they see learning to write as a key step in a child’s cognitive development.
  5. Handwriting may help students think better by encouraging the processing and reframing of information.

Another advantage of handwriting comes from common sense and experience: a piece of paper is considerably less distracting than a device. A composition notebook doesn’t blink or beep with social media notifications, emails, or reminders.

All in Favour of Typing…

Not everyone agrees that handwriting is king. Classroom time would be better spent, they say, learning to use a keyboard efficiently. The advantages are numerous:

  1. Speed – There are times when speed is of the essence. (When a child’s cognitive development is at stake is probably not one of those times…)
  2. Accessibility – Typing can be helpful for students with special needs, learning difficulties, and physical impairments. For example, students with dyslexia can use apps to help them overcome some of the challenges associated with their difficulty.
  3. Efficiency – typed, digital notes are easy to catalogue using any one of the available applications. Noteworthy, Evernote, OneNote, and more all make it easy to create, organise, and save notes. This is a boon for organisationally-challenged students.
  4. Legibility – Typed notes and pages are neat and nearly always legible. This facilitates collaboration, revision, and a whole slew of other important activities.

While educational psychologists continue to argue for and against an emphasis on handwriting, it’s good to remember that the technology isn’t the enemy. A pen is, after all, old technology. Learning to wield it wisely is (once again) the key.

For example, typing notes verbatim has been identified as an unhelpful study strategy for older students. There are ways students can use laptops or tablets for note-taking that encourage engagement with new material. Mind-mapping apps, for example, facilitate thinking about relationships between ideas and thus aid understanding and retention.

Handwriting or Keyboard Skills? Not either/or

Discounting the value of handwriting and over-emphasizing keyboard skills are both mistakes.  Dr Eileen Honan, a senior lecturer in English and Literacy Education at the University of Queensland, agrees that both handwriting and keyboard skills are important. However, she considers the instruction of cursive handwriting irrelevant. She told ABC (Australia) News, “Being able to write in beautiful script has got nothing to do with the ability to read and write productively, creatively and intelligently.”

Dr Mindy Adonious, senior lecturer in Language Literacy at the University of Canberra, agrees, calling cursive “outdated.”

The word penmanship might become obsolete more quickly than we expect.

Want to know more?

Here are few useful articles:

New York Times: What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

Ed Tech: Handwriting vs Typing: Which Skill Do Students Need Most?

Business Insider: Here’s Why Writing by Hand Makes You Smarter

Over to You..

How much handwriting do you do these days? A shopping list, snail mail, or more? Do you have any thoughts on the continuation of cursive writing? Please leave a comment.