Common Core's Orphaned Subjects: Penmanship

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Dismissed as irrelevant, handwriting improves learning, motor skills, self-confidence, and SAT scores.

Much has been written (on keyboards, of course) about STEM, Common Core, standardized testing, and the resulting tug-of-war over curriculum. Because math, science, and English are the tested subjects in these national assessments, everything else slides to second-tier status – unless it's eliminated entirely. School districts scrambling for time and money are under intense pressure to improve performance in core subjects. They jettison everything else, not necessarily because they want to but because they can't justify for themselves and their constituents spending scarce resources in ways that don't immediately improve the metrics everybody is watching. Out go history, music, and other “nonessential” subjects.

One of the first to go, often disappearing without a second thought, is handwriting. To many students and educators it doesn't even register as a subject. Parents often cheer its demise, considering it irrelevant now that their children learn to type at the same time they learn to read. The assumption is that typing is more efficient and more practical and that handwriting is a quaint relic of the pre-computer era, a historical curiosity not far ahead of clay tablets and papyrus. Who needs it?

As it turns out, everybody who wants to improve their learning efficiency, motor skills, self-confidence, and SAT scores needs it. Far from being merely a throwback means of communication, writing by hand delivers an impressive list of benefits. Teachers, psychologists, neuroscientists, special education experts and others have discovered a host of reasons why children should learn handwriting and then keep it up when possible even though most of their communication is typed.

Too Good to Abandon

Kansas State University, Indiana University, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, UCLA, the University of Washington, and the Collége de France in Paris have done studies of various lengths on the benefits of handwriting. All agree that handwriting is a valuable learning tool that's simply too good to abandon.

Research at Indiana showed that MRIs of children's brains indicated neural activity that was more enhanced and adult-like (parents take note!) after writing letters by hand. Handwriting also helped improve their ability to learn letters and shapes, develop and express ideas, and refine their motor skills. A University of Washington study concluded that brain areas involving thinking, language, and working memory were all activated by handwriting. Children also use more words, write faster, and express more ideas when writing by hand instead of typing.

University of Washington psychologist Virginia Beringer found that when older children were asked to write a composition, the ones with better handwriting showed greater brain stimulation. Adults see some of these same benefits when they write by hand to learn unfamiliar symbols such as Chinese characters or musical notation. As The New York Times explained, “For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process information.”

More important to students and educators, the Times adds that psychologists at UCLA “have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecturer's contents and reframe it – a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” Research notwithstanding, imagine the level of concentration available to young minds when they aren't lured away from the topic at hand by Facebook, Twitter, IM, texting, email, Instagram, Snapchat, cat videos, etc., etc.

The Cursive Advantage

Just as writing by hand has advantages over typing, cursive writing has advantages over printing. The College Board reports that students who write their SAT essays in cursive score slightly higher than those who print. Susanne Baruch Asherson, an occupational therapist for public schools in Beverly Hills, California, believes this result is because “the speed and efficiency of writing in cursive allowed the students to focus on the content of their essays” rather than the physical process of writing down their thoughts.

Asherson continues, “Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets.…. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing…..The physical act of writing cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation….Fast, legible handwriting is the technology universally available to students to facilitate content development.”

For parents and educators who themselves labored as children over those cursive alphabet charts running above the blackboard, vindication is sweet.

Experts Agree

In the face of overwhelming evidence that handwriting improves learning and test performance, some parts of the educational establishment are looking for ways to bring it back. Laurie Curtis, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State, believes penmanship is still essential and that good cursive writing “allows the ability to record ideas quickly and effortlessly.” By contrast, “simply poking letters to form words on a screen doesn't allow children to utilize their motor memory to enhance spelling and word comprehension…. Good penmanship can directly affect scores on essays, math problems, and spelling tests.”

Montessori educators encourage handwriting instruction, citing research showing that elementary students need “at least 15 minutes of handwriting daily for cognitive, writing and motor skills and reading comprehension improvement” resulting in improved hand/brain coordination and neural pathway development.

Memory expert Dr. William R. Klemm warns, “Don't let your schools stop teaching cursive.” He affirms that cursive skills improve sensory motor coordination, hand/eye coordination, and reading ability especially in dyslexic children. Learning to write also bolsters a child's all-important sense of self-confidence. “Learning cursive is an easy way for a child to discover important tactics for learning as well as the emotional benefit of being able to master a task,” he says. The process teaches “key principles of learning and memory.”

Dr. Klemm adds, “Without realizing it, children learning cursive are also learning self-discipline. I can't think of any school task more important than that.”

The education website Edutopia advises that as we lose the art of handwriting “we are losing a robust way of learning,” and that students who take notes longhand perform better on conceptual questions than those with laptops because “they had the information on their computers, but did not have an understanding of that information in their brains….

“Teaching is not a job of cramming as much as we can into a brain. It is about learning. And getting students to learn means that we must use every pathway to connect them with the information. Using laptops reinforces the Industrial Revolution ideal that every kid should get the information in the same way, and that it should come out the same way. But by occasionally replacing the laptop with a pen, learning happens, which is why we got into this business in the first place.”

Capturing the Essence

Handwriting is as individual as a fingerprint. It's a way to stand out and be distinctive in a world where individuality is getting harder to express and students are always looking for new ways to make a personal statement. Why get sent to the principal's office for saggy pants or green hair when you can celebrate your individuality just as powerfully with a few strokes of the pen?!

As renowned professional writers have shown, penmanship is not only creative expression in its own right, it also enhances the creative process. Historian Shelby Foote spent twenty years researching and writing The Civil War: A Narrative, which Ken Burns adapted into the most popular TV series in the history of American public television. In order to capture the essence of the time he was writing about, Foote wrote all three thousand pages of his three-volume masterpiece by hand with a nineteenth century style steel-tipped pen that had to be dipped into an inkwell every few strokes.

Alexandra Ripley was commissioned by the estate of Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind. One of her first steps was to copy hundreds of pages of Mitchell's book by hand to get the rhythm and flow of her writing style. Though almost universally criticized, her book Scarlett went on to sell eight million copies. J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter series has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, began all of her novels with elaborate handwritten timelines, charts, and drawings.

Claim the Power of the Pen

However beneficial writing by hand is, very few of us have the option or the patience to adapt Shelby Foote's steel pen and inkwell. We're bound to the computer and its keyboard for the sake of convenience and interconnection with the rest of the world. (Foote's wife typed up his handwritten pages to submit them to his publisher.) But there are things we can do – and encourage students to do – that will still give us the power of the pen.

Writing with a pencil or pen is also remarkably reflective and relaxing compared to tapping out an email or text message. It forces you to slow down and think. Not that your penmanship has to look like the Declaration of Independence. It doesn't. All those curlicues and flourishes are an art form in themselves, but what's important is the process itself, the crafting of a one-of-a-kind expression. Your individuality shines forth on every page.

Savor Your Success

There are endless programs, study guides, curriculums, teaching aids, tutoring services, and other tools to enhance the learning experience and improve test results. Many of them can be expensive and time consuming. This one's easy. Step 1: Get a pencil; you can buy a whole box for a couple of bucks. Step 2: Write. Step 3: Savor your success. And be glad you don't have to carry those messy clay tablets around any more.

Full disclosure: This article was hand written with a Waterman pen and edited with a Blackwing 602 pencil.

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