Just this morning I was listening to a CBC radio story (scroll down to “Feature Story from Wednesday’s Show”) about one public school in Edmonton where the students in the Grade 5/6 class “are using laptop computers at their desks all day” (oh my stars) and taking them home at night, too. In an audio snippet, one teacher is overheard telling the class to “write down everything you know about Canada”. Oh my double stars. At the end of the story, the reporter natters on about how the laptops help reluctant writers, especially the boys.
And then making the rounds through my homeschool groups later in the morning, I found the same article popping up everywhere: today’s Washington Post story “The Handwriting Is on the Wall: Researchers See a Downside as Keyboards Replace Pens in Schools” (all emphases mine):
The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it’s threatening to finish off longhand.
When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.
And those college hopefuls are just the first edge of a wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, frequently 10 minutes a day or less. As a result, more and more students struggle to read and write cursive.
Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it’s important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.
Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy. …
At Keene Mill Elementary in Springfield, Debbie Mattocks teaches cursive once a week to her gifted-and-talented group of third-graders — mainly so they can read it. All their poems and stories are typed. Children in Fairfax County schools are taught keyboarding beginning in kindergarten.
“I can’t think of any other place you need cursive as an adult other than to sign your name,” she said. “Cursive — that is so low on the priority list, we really could care less. We are much more concerned that these kids pass their SOLs [standardized tests], and that doesn’t require a bit of cursive.” …
The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better — a lifelong benefit. Children who don’t learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it. Schools that do teach handwriting often stop after third grade — right after kids learn cursive. By the time computers are more widely used in classrooms for writing, perhaps in fourth or fifth grade, many children already have decided they don’t like to write.
In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George’s County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.
But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don’t deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said.
When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, “they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible,” he said.
Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.
It doesn’t take much to teach better handwriting skills. At some schools in Prince George’s County, elementary school students use a program called Handwriting Without Tears for 15 minutes a day. They learn the correct formation of manuscript letters through second grade, and cursive letters in third grade.
This article is a variation on one in The Calgary Herald a few years ago about the decline in penmanship education, coincidentally published on last day of the first homeschooling convention and trade show Tom and I attended, where we watched hordes of home educating parents head out the door under mounds and mountains of books and other curricula, including Handwriting Without Tears material. That article mentioned that while some Canadian public schools were solving the fairly simple problem of poor handwriting by throwing laptops at children — a rather expensive and not particularly permanent solution — more than a few parents, concerned that Johnny might not be making enough at MacDonald’s after graduation to afford his own laptop and share his written thoughts clearly and effectively, are hiring independent physical therapy consultants to teach Johnny to write, from how to hold a pencil to how to form each letter. After all, those hands and fingers will be dangling from those wrists for a lifetime.
While most of the teachers interviewed for that article made dismissive comments about “drill and kill” and rote practice and spoke glowingly of the 21st century and embracing new technologies, all of the consultants echoed the last paragraph quoted from the WP article, that “it doesn’t take much” to teach proper penmanship, just a program like Zaner-Bloser or Handwriting Without Tears and 15 to 30 minutes of practice a day. Magic. But not as sexy as laptops.