What Do We Lose When Kids Don't Learn to Write By Hand?

New research makes a strong defense of a dying art.

Posted Jun 08, 2018

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

In 1873, the debut of the Remington typewriter radically altered how people could communicate thoughts. Today, kids tap keyboards and phones but rarely, if ever, write by hand-- even a thank-you card.

That's too bad. There are still good reasons for kids to learn to write legibly.

Writing by hand is easier than using a keyboard—and more fruitful. In one study, second-graders wrote more words, faster, by pen than by keyboard; fourth- and sixth-graders were more likely to write complete sentences with a pen. Other research found that kids produce more ideas when writing by hand and that hand-written essays are more coherent and thoughtful—as well as grammatical.

Writing by hand requires several finger movements, compared to hitting a key. According to co-author Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, those finger movements activate parts of the brain that help us think. In another experiment, five-year-olds who couldn’t read or write printed, typed, or traced letters and shapes. When they saw the letters and shapes during a brain scan, a part of the brain known as the “reading circuit” lit up only after printing, not after typing or tracing.

Literate people recognize letters despite changes in font, size, or case. Children probably learn to do that by writing, the authors suggest. 

By the time children are taught cursive, they have already learned to recognize letters. So why is cursive important? Schools have apparently decided it isn't, especially.  According to a report from the Miami-Dade public school system, most schools currently teach cursive handwriting for 10-to-15 minutes a day in the spring of second or third grade. Until the 1970s, penmanship was typically a distinct daily lesson from first through sixth grade—and a separate grade entry on report cards. When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT in 2006, only 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students who took the test wrote their answers in cursive, the Miami-Dade report notes; the others printed. (The Common Core curriculum doesn’t require cursive at all, and some states have abandoned teaching it altogether.)

Even many adults who grew up learning to write by hand hate it and have long since abandoned trying to write legible cursive.

Their ineptitude should not prevent them from articulating their thoughts; Victor Hugo, James Joyce, and Lord Byron were all scrawlers.

But there is at least one reason to master cursive: once you do, writing will be easier.  The fastest hand-writers use a mix of cursive and print, according to literacy and handwriting expert Steve Graham. Some argue that learning cursive is helpful for people with dyslexia. It is also a form of self-expression, since writers develop idiosyncrasies (although there is no good evidence that these quirks predictably reveal personality traits.)

I believe we will have lost something important if the next generation of Americans never send hand-written thank-you notes or post a shopping list on a refrigerator. 

Could you recognize your own child’s handwriting? In a completely non-scientific poll, I asked several parents and none could definitively say yes. 

A version of this piece appeared on Your Care Everywhere.


Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children with and without Learning Disabilities