Bye-Bye Handwriting

Cursive is going the way of long division. Arizona schools aren’t teaching handwriting anymore. Kids will still learn to print, but not handwrite.

Most schools already cut art and music, but handwriting was part of the basics, so I thought it would be spared. When I asked my friends about this, most of

Handwriting isn't an art, it's a necessity for brain function. Image credit below.

them just shrugged it off. “We really don’t need it anymore. We’re all keyboarding anyway.” Yes, I know. Keyboarding. Didn’t that used to be typing? Aren’t we really laptopping and texting? I digress.

When the school systems abandoned doing “math in your head” and took up calculators, I winced, too. One of the joys of doing math in your head is that you could estimate.

Last year at this time, when rain was pouring down, I could estimate that my pool would overflow, and I calculated that my bailing with a bucket would not prevent the overflow. I had about a half hour to decide what to do. No paper required.

Without a calculator, you could make change handily by “counting it back” to the client. Now, when I occasionally hand a scanner-operator a $20 bill , a dime and a nickle for $10.14 of groceries, the checker is confused. They give me back the change, saying “You gave me a 20.” When I smilingly say, “Yes, I did, but this way you can give me back a 10 and a penny,” they have to look at the screen to check my math.

Handwriting is useful in its own right. It helps develop small muscle control, exactly at the time when small muscle control is necessary. It helps develop the concept that practice is an important part of expertise, a inconvenient, but vital, fact of life that helps us build to the concept that the end doesn’t justify the means.

Handwriting is slightly faster than printing for most people who know how to write well, and it separates words to make reading easier. Printing often lacks good letterspacing, making reading harder.

Learning handwriting encourages a practice in patience and persistence, both important skills necessary in life. With so many kinds and teens afflicted with attention deficit disorder of some kind, who are all becoming adults and entering the work force, it might be useful to know that doing something more than once improves the end result and that learning takes times and effort.

Handwriting creates a different effect in the brain than keyboarding. Handwriting, according to Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

Handwriting helps in graphic learning–in recognizing shapes, meaning, and the sequencing of learning. As someone who keeps a journal, I know the difference in handwriting and keyboarding. Handwriting lights up the left side of the brain, helping make strong connections to right and left brain in art journaling. Writing is slower than keyboarding, making writing a mindful activity, a chance to pause and think. Are we really ready to lose those advantages to a keyboard?

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and raw art journaler. She teaches writing as a communication tool, and as an cultural artifact. Her book, Raw Art Journaling will be published in July by North Light Books.


40 thoughts on “Bye-Bye Handwriting

  1. This what is happening. I learned in 3rd grade too….but (and I did say “at least”) there should be the option for those who care to take advantage of it. And just because it is not taught doesn’t mean that people will not find a way to do each of those things you mentioned. I doubt that they will become obsolete….we’ll just have to reframe our ideas on what to expect on the “notes” and receipts. Already people take notes on their laptops in classes. I’ve noticed my niece and nephew take notes – but not in cursive. I’m just glad they’re taking notes. Things they are a changin’.

    • Nothing against change at all. I love change. I’m questioning the reason behind the decision to get rid of handwriting. Typing creates different brain paths than writing, and I think the neurological advantage of handwriting shouldn’t be discounted in schools, where enough has been discounted already. For example, once we introduced calculators into schools, doing math in your head became obsolete. We didn’t need it anymore, and now, no one can do an estimate or know if an answer is wildly off because we depend on calculators to do the work–and believe them, even when they are obviously wrong.

  2. I started remembering….the Palmer Method. Ouch, wasn’t that just too many years ago! Actually 41 states have suscribed to the Common Core State Standards regarding English and no longer require cursive. But couldn’t it be an “elective” in high school at least? It is a prcursor to so many interests that involve art, literative, even geography if you think about it. It instills patience into students because it is not easy building up the rhythm and flow of cursive handwriting. And I too an concerned about signatures – what are we reduced to then – thumbprints? On the other side, I still exchange real Christmas cards each year and we all use cursive (and it is not all an age thing) and those are so much fun to read – and write.
    I admit I’m a slave to the keyboard now and the only opportunity I get is to sign my name to bills (for those that I don’t pay online) but the great feeling of freedom that cursive writing brings is still a treasure.

    • So it’s 41 states that have signed on to abandon cursive? How odd is that. Small store owners writing up sales, taking notes in class, leaving a note at a friend’s desk at work–all obsolete? Personally, I think high school is too late to learn cursive. We learned it in 3rd grade for a good reason–we were ready and so was our brain. High school is too late.

  3. Sadly, whether or not to teach handwriting is becoming an issue in Switzerland too. I’m wondering if you can really ‘keyboard’ a Christmas or sympathy card, a shopping list, or a post-it memo or note to someone who must be able to read it. Also, I really enjoy writing, although my handwriting is kinda print-like, i.e. broken up. A fountain pen adds creativity since you can’t rotate it arbitrarily, as you can a ballpoint, pencil or felt-tip pen.

    Oh, in the Swiss dialect, cursive is called Schnuerlischrift, which means string writing.

    • I love string writing. Yep, I print a lot, too, but it’s still handwriting, because I don’t connect some cursive letters and connect others. I’m too old to change. I want to keep my brain connected to my pen, although I type a lot, it’s just different.

  4. I’m stunned to read this. I can’t imagine not being taught handwriting, it’s an entirely different skill from typing on a keyboard. As others have mentioned there’s a whole world of hand /eye /heart / brain connections going on.

  5. I’ve been meaning to comment on this since reading it early this morning. This has been a topic of conversation among myself and others mothers of kids my age. My daughters, 15 and 11, have learned cursive, but alas, the schools even then (when they were each in early elementary) did not spend nearly as much time on the skill as I did as a child. I’m also alarmed and more than anything disheartened. I suppose their heart-to-hand connection in writing will be rewired so that it includes the keyboard, but for me, my best writing comes out of a fast-writing pen and my non-thinking, non-editing scrawl across the page.

    • You are right–a fast writing pen and a non-critical mind are developed through handwriting. It’s a different part of the brain than keyboarding, and it’s unlikely that the new connections will be formed easily or soon. I think parents are going to have to go back to the role of teacher, and enrich their children’s lives with music and art and writing.

  6. I see a strong connection between handwriting, calligraphy, and literacy. I learned handwriting in school, and later taught myself calligraphy as an adult. This enabled me to read Medieval texts, because I understood what those archaic letterforms were. Learning handwriting is like learning a whole new way to write, like a secret code. Without it, I fear kids won’t be able to read the US Constitution. What folly.

  7. Ah, but you’re assuming the goal of the schools is to educate and turn out properly developed and educated adults. Instead, the goal nowadays is to ‘teach the test’ which is usually answered with the colored-in little circle. So no handwriting, spelling, grammar, or understanding is required. Only memorize the answers and fill in the circles.
    Thank God for my one-room-schoolhouse teacher who taught everything from grammar to how to play jump rope games!

    • That’s a good point — what, in the larger sense, is education “for”? You could argue, and some people do, that its goal is to create productive members of society. People who can perform a job adequately. From that point of view, whatever is “efficient” (in a sense) is the right thing to teach because it’s the outcome of your effort that’s important.

      You could also argue, and some people do, that the goal of schools is to create well-rounded individuals. Those individuals might choose to perform this job or that, but they might place more personal, inherent value on the process of handwriting, or on being able to exercise their mental capacities. Like someone who memorizes hundreds of digits of pi, there may be no economic or socially measurable outcome, but it enhances the individual herself.

      Hmm, I was thinking of the juxtaposition of society versus the individual, but it suddenly occurs to me that this is also a juxtaposition of the process versus the outcome. Or the journey vs. the destination.

      There is something about handwriting, isn’t there…

  8. Pingback: 126: The Marmot « Life in the Bogs

  9. A recruiter advised me that while a handwritten note was nice, I should send a e-mail thank you so it could be received more immediately and be received with the same timing as other applicants. Blegh! So, e-mail it is, followed by a lovely handwritten note – to stand out from the rest. And besides, I want to continue to use my collection of fountain pens!

  10. Pete’s answer is certainly well thought out, I can see some of this points. Sure, things change, old skills are no longer necessary. Maybe not necessary, but some of them are still very useful. Archaic? Maybe. But when one reaches a certain age, one wonders if at least a FEW of the old ways — the slower way — might be the better way.

    I for one do not want to live in a bare bones world where no one can write a love letter or an impassioned statement in their own handwriting. And while I think the issue of a signature is what most people question, since it is a part of one’s identity, I think of the loss in the actual practice, of the feel of accomplishment when unsteady penmanship becomes decipherable, the feel when the FLOW of ideas seems to leap from mind to hand to paper.

    I think it sad, too, that we are taking away yet another kinesethetic way of learning. Another hands on, no electronics involved, activity. Didn’t anyone else learn their spelling words, their geography capitols, the Preamble of the Constitution, by writing them down to strengthen the connection between the words and the mind? Handwriting goes the way of music in the classroom, nature sketching in the field next door to the school, art in the classroom, drama readings on Friday afternoons. Heck, when I was in school–back in the Jurassic age it must have been–I learned calligraphy for an hour each week using a pen nib and India ink. Funny, it’s one of the skills I learned in high school I still use.

    OK, I’ll get off my soapbox, but I’ll admit, I’m pretty peeved about the whole thing.

  11. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I’m not sure I agree that things like ability to estimate (arithmetic) and motor control (handwriting) are necessarily byproducts of old methods of doing those things. I know plenty of people who learned arithmetic without calculators who can’t estimate well or make change. And cursive writing in the form we’re familiar with isn’t all that old or ubiquitous.

    In this vein, there are plenty of skills that at one time were known by almost everybody, but today are rare. Defending yourself with a knife or sword. Skinning an animal. Using a sythe. Shaving with (and sharpening) a straight razor. Adjusting the vertical hold on a TV. Constructing your own radio. Riding a horse. Driving a chariot. Keeping a quill pen sharp. There’s a list here:

    Still, most things you learn have side effects. Some things do become lost. Hardly anyone makes photographs today by composing the scene upside-down in an 8×10 pane of ground glass (in a view camera), and develops the negatives with chemicals — which they might have even mixed themselves. The pace and associated experiences of that process are, for the most part, gone. And it’s kind of sad to think about things being “gone”.

    Looking back, it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly where you acquired some of the things you know. And looking around, it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what the value is of some of the things younger people know.

    It’s an ancient puzzle.

    • Loved the list, of obsolete skills, Pete. A lot of the items are items we have replaced with other, more efficient skills. Shaving with a safety razor instead of a straight razor–still takes the hair of a man’s cheeks. Guns kill more efficiently than knives, and at a longer distance. I think we lost something when we allowed calculators to replace doing math in your head. I think we lost a brain function. Same with handwriting. It’s different to replace something with something more efficient, but to stop teaching it before we are done with it, may not be the right idea. I think handwriting has value beyond communicating a thought fast. It is an ancient puzzle, though.

      • I agree that doing arithmetic in your head is something different than using a calculator. And we lose something every time we externalize a brain function. Before reading and writing were ubiquitous, I’ve read (heh) that memorization was common and taught. We don’t typically “memorize” much nowadays.

        My own weird story in this area is that in second grade I was put into an experimental math program when the rest of my class was learning their multiplication tables. MAYBE one result of that is that I’m reasonably good at abstract math, but I still have to actually mentally perform the calculations to multiply or divide anything by 7. Of course, I might have turned out this way anyway…and who’s to say it’s not better this way? I can mentally divide six-digit numbers by seven pretty quickly, but if I had just memorized things I’d only know the first 9 pairs!

        By the way, only a few people remember all the “tricks” that used to be widely used to do mental arithmetic. They work, but many of them are a bit odd because they’re based not on the most “efficient” approach but on the “easiest to remember” approach. Like the trick for multiplying numbers near 50…well never mind; you can probably google it. It works but at first glance you think it’s a lot harder.

  12. I agree with the importance of cursive but alas, my school disrict does not. None of my 3 boys can write in cursive…it was introduced in grades 3 & 4 and then abandoned. I tried to make them practice at home but it was fruitless as it was never required at school. I don’t know how my HS & college boys can possibly take notes quickly w/o cursive. You really hit a nerve with your post…it really is one of my biggest pet peeves with today’s school curriculum. Thanks for bringing it to folks’ attention.

  13. So, I’m thinking we need to write (in cursive) letters to the Superintendent of Schools or whoever approves this stuff. Haha…. how about we make a big banner in cursive and have people “sign” it!!!

  14. I heard about this the other day. It’s appalling. The points you made are valid. What about signatures? If you can’t write in cursive, you can’t have a signature. What are they going to do? Make an X? This really needs to be stopped.

  15. Funny that this is what you’re seeing. Here in suburban Philadelphia, our kids are learning proper cursive handwriting. My 3rd grader just came home yesterday, so excited to show me all of the letters she is working so hard to perfect! They spend most of 3rd grade working on cursive. And I am SO appreciative, because yes yes yes, we need handwriting skills!

    Just wanted to make you feel a little better about the state of affairs.


    • I’m glad handwriting is still being taught in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I know for certain it is no longer taught in Arizona and Georgia, and have heard (but not verified) that it is true in many other states as well.

  16. When I think back to my own writing classes, it wasn’t just about learning how to sign my name. It was about opening up a whole new world to me – a world of language and words and literacy and spelling and …

    I truly believe in that old saying of “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

    When we put that ball-point in our childrens’ hands, we are encouraging them to think. We are expanding their imaginations. We are teaching them how to express themselves – not with closed fists, but with open minds.

    Somehow, I’m having a hard time believing a laptop keyboard can have the same effect.

  17. Horrors! I didn’t know they weren’t teaching handwriting. How does one then learn to sign your name—-print it? To me this is just unthinkable.

  18. I was totally bummed when I heard this! I love writing, loved learning to write. I think handwriting is beautiful, even from those who go on and on about how “ugly” their handwriting is.

    If children aren’t going to learn handwriting, how are they going to learn to sign their name? Will all the documents and forms that require signatures now start to accept printed or “texted” names? I think this is a big mistake. Big. Huge!

    • I’m not thrilled with the idea, either. I think it’s chipping away at the edges of learning and culture until we are all just bare-bones learning. Public schools can’t really afford to turn out kids that aren’t smart or skilled.

  19. how many millions of dollars are lost to bad handwriting? some statistic somewhere… as a young rebel, I wrote thousands of lines at school (glass is made of sand and potash was one) so my writing is fairly Ok. my boss’ writing is awful. unreadable. hard to keyboard a sympathy card, though. Quinn, so right about mindfulness!

  20. They’re cutting HANDWRITING?
    This is so upsetting to me I can’t even formulate a proper outraged response.

    This is the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time. Who even dreams these things up? What can we do about this?

    From germany,

      • I’m starting to think about parent’s roles in this–parents are going to have to teach their kids some things at home. Or, knowing how you feel about journaling, you and I are just going to have to become crusaders in tunics and armor with “ABC” in script across our chest, championing handwriting!

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.