The uncertain future of handwriting

Ewen Hosie/Nov 8, 2017 Flip this into…101 likes7 comments

[This is an excerpt of Ewen Hosie’s article]

Computers and tablets are changing how we write – will the ability and need to wield a pen die out altogether?

We’re told that writing is dying. Typing on keyboards and screens dominates written communication today. Even scribbling a signature has become rarer due to the prevalence of chip-and-pin credit cards.

In an age where our children swipe, pinch and tap on smartphones and tablets from birth, is the “hand” in “handwriting” about to removed forever? And are there any benefits to good old-fashioned pen and paper: artistic posterity, cognitive benefits, or something else?

Learning cursive, joined-up handwriting was once compulsory in schools. But now, not so much.

Countries such as Finland have dropped handwriting lessons in schools in favor of typing courses. And in the US, the requirement to learn cursive has been left out of core standards since 2013. A few US states still place value on formative cursive education, such as Arizona, but they’re not the majority.

Some experts point out that there are benefits to continue teaching writing. Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, argues that such lessons can reinforce a skill called automaticity. That’s when you’ve perfected a task, and can do it almost without thinking, granting you extra mental bandwidth to think about or do other things while you’re doing the task. In this sense, Trubek likens handwriting to driving.

“Once you have driven for a while, you don’t consciously think ‘Step on gas now’ [or] ‘Turn the steering wheel a bit’,” she explains. “You just do it. That’s what we want children to acquire when learning to write. You and I don’t think ‘now make a loop going up for the ‘l’’ – or “now look for the letter ‘r’ on the keyboard’. Therefore, our brains are freed to think about higher order concerns – our destination in the car, the trees on the side of the road, or the ideas we are writing about.”

In a piece penned (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the New York Times last year, Trubek argued that due to the improved automaticity of keyboards, today’s children may well become better communicators in text as handwriting takes up less of their education. This is a view that has attracted both criticism and support.

She explains that two of the most common arguments she hears from detractors regarding the decline of handwriting is that not protecting it will result in a “loss of history” and a “loss of personal touch”

Minna Harmanen of Finland’s National Agency of Education cites the response to the changes as generally positive.

“There has been a misunderstanding in some news…saying we are ending handwriting, but the strongest comments and criticism have been stated abroad, not in Finland.” she explains. “There have been no complaints by teachers, children or parents to the Finnish National Agency of Education.”

Harmanen says that the most important reason for the change is that cursive handwriting is not used much anymore.

“Later, in working life you have to make almost all texts by computer and therefore fluent typing skills are important,” she says. “Old handwriting is always hard to read afterwards, and historic documents can be learned to be read if necessary.”

In a 2012 article published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education, authors Karin James and Laura Engelhardt found that handwriting could be crucial for helping children learn the alphabet.

In the study, a group of pre-school children practiced learning letters by various means, including writing them out by hand and by typing them on a keyboard. Afterwards, the children were shown various letters while lying in an MRI scanner. The scans revealed that when the kids viewed the letters that were practiced by hand, it activated parts of the brain that viewing letters practiced on a keyboard didn’t. It suggests that handwriting might aid in mastering reading and writing in children.

So, handwriting could have cognitive benefits, artistic merit, and a personal touch – and could help students learn faster.