The Mighty Pen

As adults, our children will likely spend more time typing than handwriting. So does learning to write legibly by hand even matter anymore? Yes, say the experts.

excuse me, i have a computer
Wherever we turn, there is a keyboard for us to use: the computer, the phone, the Information Kiosk. At work, we have electronic task lists, we type our memos, and the boss would be horrified if we turned in a hand-written report.

With computer technology moving towards clicking, touch-screens and voice-recognition input, why do we still teach school children to write by hand? As long as they get their ideas across, should we worry about forming letters and writing in a straight line?

experts say we should
writing by hand > better comprehension

Mastering the skill of writing by hand is a building block to learning. “Study after study suggests that handwriting is important for brain development and cognition,” says Gwendolyn Bounds in The Wall Street Journal.

Research into brain development reveals that the sequential finger movements used to write by hand, unlike those used for typing, stimulate parts of the brain related to short-term memory, language and thought. This means that writing by hand lets your brain think, understand, remember and communicate better.

writing by hand > generating ideas

Virginia Berninger, a psychologist from the University of Wisconsin, agrees. Testing students in grades 2, 4, and 6, she observed that they wrote faster by hand than by keyboard, and they produced more ideas when composing essays in longhand.

writing by hand > learning the alphabet

That’s because writing by hand engages the body in a way that typing doesn’t. When we type, keystrokes feel much the same. In contrast, when writing by hand, we form each letter in a unique manner. Consequently, children who trace letters and write them by hand learn the alphabet quicker than children who look at a letter, sound it, then match it on a keyboard.

Failing to master letters if you don’t handwrite them is not uniquely a Western trend. Today’s Chinese and Japanese children also experience “character amnesia”. Because of computers and text messaging, they no longer write by hand and thus struggle to remember how to create signs in their native language.

good, better - cursive writing

  • Cursive writing, also known as the Palmer method, is particularly good at developing the small muscles in the hand.
  • It teaches spatial skills, because we tend to see each word as one uninterrupted thread of ink.
  • The up and down movements of cursive writing help build pathways in the brain and synchronise the left and right hemispheres.

Contrary to popular belief, however, cursive writing is not simply any writing that joins the letters into a word. The distinguishing characteristic of cursive lies in the process of finger movements necessary to form the letters: the goal is to write smoothly, with minimal effort, hardly ever lifting the pen off the page.

Surprisingly, cursive writing is actually easier to learn than printing by hand. It’s both more efficient and more natural. Six controlled movements are required to write legible lowercase print letters, while the lowercase cursive alphabet only needs three movements. It stands to reason that three movements would be easier to control than six.

If your child struggles with printing by hand, ask the teacher about the cursive writing alternative as a training vehicle for students who are still developing their fine motor skills. Cursive writing allows children to improve their eye-hand coordination gradually, unlike the straining formation of straight lines in print letters.

reluctant writers

In New Zealand, children usually go to school on their fifth birthday. While most of them are more than ready for the mental stimulation primary school education provides, many are not old enough to learn the arduous skill of writing by hand.

This is especially true of boys, whose gross motor skills develop first, at the cost of their fine and ultra fine motor skills. Without starting a gender-stereotype debate, it’s a scientific truth that a typical 5 year old male brain is better wired for catching a ball and climbing a tree than for drawing tiny circles with a pencil.

Education consultant Ralph J. Fletcher claims: “Boys develop the fine motor skills necessary to hold a pen or pencil as much as six years later than girls. And then, for boys to make correctly shaped symbols in specific horizontal alignment is even more difficult. It seems that boys develop the larger muscle mass for upper body strength before their brains can precisely control the movements of the smaller muscles in the wrists and fingers.”

By the time the neurology of the brain has caught up with the demands of the National Standards, boys already know that “writing is hard”, they are “no good at writing”, and their handwriting is “messy”. Worse still, because most schoolwork is done by writing, it’s difficult to convince the teacher you actually are hard-working and interested in your schoolwork when you hand in a story that’s only two lines long or when your maths worksheet looks untidy.

neat handwriting

It may be unfair, but good handwriting makes your child come across smarter. Handwriting affects other people’s perceptions of your aptitude and diligence. Several studies have indicated that the same middle-of-the-road essay will score much higher if written neatly in eye-pleasing handwriting.

typing is not the answer

So, if untidy handwriting can make you look less intelligent, shouldn’t all school children type their homework and exams?

Not helpful in the long run, researchers reply. The challenge offered by the motor learning activities of writing by hand, actually helps the brain figure out how to work together more competently in order to process symbolic language. A child who knows how to do that has a powerful advantage when learning anything from maths to social sciences and even typing.

training the fingers

Children as young as 3 years old can start preparing for handwriting by:
•    cutting with scissors
•    working with beads
•    tracing letters
•    playing join-the-dots

holding the pencil

While there is no right way to hold a pencil, some grips are more helpful to ensure optimal and ergonomic hand posture. These tools can help teach the tripod-grip:
•    rubber pencil grips
•    thick triangle-shaped pencils
•    ergonomic pens (ErgoSleek, Ergo-soft, PenAgain)

new attitude for reluctant writers

  • Give writing a purpose: messages, fun lists.
  • Don’t make it a chore.
  • Let your child see you enjoy writing a letter or a joke.
  • Talk first. Ask your child what story they are planning to write. This will organise their thoughts and refine their ideas.
  • Set achievable goals to ensure success.
  • Reward their effort with positive feedback.
  • Vibrating pens providing sensory feedback may stimulate children’s interest.
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